In an article published back in 1991, Mary Ann Glendon warned, “A tendency to frame nearly every social controversy in terms of a clash of rights (a woman’s right to her own body vs. a fetus’ right to life) impedes compromise, mutual understanding, and the discovery of common ground.”

Glendon wasn’t undermining the importance of rights; in fact, she sought to underscore it. But Glendon was concerned about something that seems to have become even a bigger issue since the ‘90s. We have a problem when our understanding of rights becomes divorced from responsibility and disconnected from consideration of the common good.

Human rights and responsibilities compose one of the seven pillars of Catholic social teaching, the foundational principles that inform our worldview as Catholics living and working in societies. How does the Church weigh in on this vital topic of human rights?

#1. Whence Rights?

The first thing we must consider is where rights come from. Consider your right to bear arms, for example. What does that right mean and who gave you that right? In one sense, the right came from the Constitution. Our Constitution and the rights it conveys are interpreted to craft laws. But is there a source of rights that goes further back than the Constitution? What guarantees the Constitution?

As Catholics, we believe there are two sources deeper than the Constitution: Nature and Nature’s God. In other words, man’s nature and the revelations of the Catholic Church are the ultimate sources of our human rights and responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean we have to base all our human laws on the Bible. Doing so would not be a traditional Catholic approach; Catholicism shies away from a theocracy. Still, our faith tells us that we can realize, through reason, that nature gives us a source of law bigger than the Constitution. Nature informs law and corrects law; at least, that’s what should happen.

#2. What do Fundamental Human Rights Look Like?

Once we’ve realized that a person’s nature— his intellect and free will— is a source of his particular rights and duties, we can consider what these fundamental rights are. Each human person has a fundamental right to life and a right to what he needs for human decency, for example. He has a right to a good name, to freedom in investigating the truth, and to accurate information about public events as well. He also has a right to share in the benefits of culture and to choose the religious life if he so desires. He also has a right to a fair wage, as emphasized by Pope John XXIII.

At heart, human rights such as these are intellectual recognitions of the conditions necessary for something—in this case someone— to arrive at the proper end. Fundamental human rights recognize the basic needs that man must be able to fill to draw near his innate purpose or end, his telos as the Greeks would say. Because they are vital for man to be able to attain his goal and lead a happy life, these rights of the person must be taken seriously. They are universal, inviolable, and inalienable.

As a sidenote, man’s uniqueness in relation to other animals makes him alone the subject of rights and responsibilities. Man has important responsibilities in relation to animals, such as a responsibility not to wantonly kill or waste animals. But when animal rights activist Peter Singer asks about pigs, “Are we turning persons into bacon?” the comment reveals a deep-set confusion as to the sacredness of human life and the responsibility of man to steward creation. In a strict sense, only beings capable of moral action have rights.

#3. Catholic Social Teaching: There are Responsibilities Too

A third thing we must realize about human rights is their relation to responsibilities. Only beings capable of moral action have rights because rights always come with a “price tag.” In other words, rights always come with a corresponding responsibility or moral duty.

Ready for an important phrase? “Our shoulds come from life’s whats.” What I should do depends on what things are. May I throw a baseball through the window? Well, what is a window for? It is made to be whole, not broken, so no, I may not throw a baseball through the window! Each human right has a corresponding responsibility or duty to ourselves and society at large. These responsibilities are inseparable from rights.

Grace Builds on Nature

We can know such human rights and duties through reason alone, but consideration of Divine Revelation increases our estimation of them. We can’t litter in the park, for instance, because that’s not what parks are made for; it would violate their proper end of beauty and recreation. Yet, we shouldn’t litter in the park because it is God’s creation, and He has entrusted us with the stewardship of natural resources as a special gift to take care of. Suddenly, through the lens of faith, the responsibility to not litter takes on a much deeper sense!

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI hit the nail on the head:

A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centers. The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties.

#4. Know the Threats to Rights and Responsibilities

Understanding Catholic social teaching on human rights requires understanding the threats to human rights as well. As Glendon noted, dialogue about human rights has become increasingly convoluted. To a great extent, this is because rights have been separated from their source. Many modern thinkers place a divide between our Constitution and the sources behind it— Nature and Nature’s God. That separation is caused by positivism, an ideology that says that only data that can be measured is true.

Such a philosophy refuses to see nature as a corrective to interpretation of the Constitution; it sees nature’s God as a matter of mere arbitrary, private opinion. Because these more profound guarantors of rights are discarded, the Constitution and courts become increasingly politicized rather than oriented to truth. “If the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens,” Pope Benedict XVI warned, “those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness.”

#5. Consider Rights in the Business Sphere

Finally, all Catholics should consider how human rights affect business. What particular human rights issues are we likely to face in the world of business, in our everyday life? Have you ever faced one of the following questions, in one guise or another?

  • Do we have a right to private property? Is there any limit on this right? Am I living responsibly by that limit?
  • Do I have a responsibility to pay employees a living wage if the usual rate for such work is much lower?
  • If my company’s policy is forcing me to do something that is intrinsically evil, do I have a responsibility to quit? What if this job is my main source of providing income for my family?

Catholic social teaching on human rights and responsibilities allows us to deeply reflect on and properly answer these and other such questions. If you’re looking for a source to turn to, A Catechism for Business: Tough Ethical Questions & Insights from Catholic Teaching is a useful compendium of Church statements on issues where rights and responsibilities may be hard to decipher.

What human rights am I called to better defend in my life? What responsibilities am I neglecting?