Editor’s Note: We do not typically respond to current events, except when we think that we have a position that differs from the wide spectrum of available Catholic publications. We typically take our time to make sure that each sentence and word is carefully thought out and an accurate representation of what we believe. Therefore, we apologize for the delay between the events giving rise to this article and the article itself.
Much has been asked recently about the relationship between “rights” understood by secular culture and the Catholic Faith. Where, for example does the “Right to Free Speech” or the “Right to Religious Freedom” find a home in traditional Catholic thought? Should Catholics support the notion that a secular government should never impose restrictions on the words or writings of citizens?
The reason such questions appear difficult to answer, or even unanswerable, is because the notion of rights has arisen quite apart from traditional Catholic theology. Several Enlightenment scholars pioneered the concept of natural rights, although the different schools of thought each conceived of rights in a slightly different manner. In the American system, our idea of rights has traditionally come from the English philosopher John Locke, whose ideas were heavily borrowed by Thomas Jefferson in the writing of the Declaration of Independence. In short, it would be fair to say that Locke believed that natural rights were inalienable — that is to say — they were absolute regardless of cultural custom and could not be transferred or given to the government.
Other Enlightenment thinkers, perhaps even Jefferson himself, might have argued that citizens could also have rights in the sense that there are aspects of society in which “the people” have never — through the social contract — given the government authority to regulate . It seems fair to say, therefore, that rights limit the power of the government because they fall into one of two categories. First, some rights are unalienable and therefore the people cannot give the government authority over these aspects of society. Second, some rights are reserved in that the people could, but did not, give the government authority over these aspects of society.
As to the first category, it seems impossible to conclude that inalienable rights are congruent with Catholic teachings. Traditional Catholic teaching supposes that whether an action is just is equivalent to whether an action is sinful. If it is not sinful to take an action, the same action cannot be said to violate one’s God-given, inalienable rights. Here it seems helpful to apply the analysis to an example, the right to free speech. The right to free speech is far from absolute. Both the American legal system and Catholic teaching would agree that one does not have the right to wrongfully yell “fire” in a crowded theater — the former because such speech is not protected by the Constitution, and the later because it would be sinful to start a stampede that could result in serious injury or death.
It is easy to see that in Catholic thought the action (or “right”) must be tied to the situation in which the action takes place, and that no unilateral judgment may be made about the actor’s right to perform the action without that critical link. Therefore a blanket “right” to perform an action cannot be formulated in Catholic thought because there will always be some context in which the right is unjust or sinful. One often cannot determine whether an action is sinful without the context in which the action takes place. Therefore, when commentators question whether or not one has a right to do something, it appears that for the Catholic, the analysis should begin with the situation in which the action takes place, because it is with that context that one can determine whether or not the action is sinful.
The analysis appears similar in the second, or social contract, category — that of the rights reserved by the people. Even though “the people” may not have given a larger body the legal power to regulate in a specific area of society, it would seem incongruent with Catholic teaching to say that a body of people may not stop an unjust action through a just one simply because the actor has not given them permission to do so in the social contract. For example, even though the Second Amendment to the Constitution reserves the right of citizens to bear arms — and assuming for the sake of argument here that the Second Amendment is absolute — Catholic teaching would almost certainly support a government action to keep a firearm from a man who used one in the past to commit murder and who vowed to commit murder in the same manner again. Again, reserved rights do not truly impact the Catholic’s analysis. What matters is whether or not the action — keeping the firearm away from the man contemplating murder — is just.
In sum, Catholic teaching does not require the concept of rights because its guiding light is achieving our end in God. Justice and building virtue help us achieve that end. One cannot have a God-given right to sin just as one cannot have a God-given right to be free from justice. To us, the Catholic analysis seems much more straight-foward and easier to apply given the realities in which we live.