Summary: Rights presuppose duties, if they are not mere license; without this understanding, human development is over.

February 1, 2010

Caritas in Veritate

The people of Gerasa had no desire for Jesus to hang in their territory one moment longer. He seriously disturbed the status quo ante by exorcising the evil spirits who had kept the emotionally disturbed man–Matthew says there were two of them–in spiritual bondage. Our spiritually Semitic ears would see the rightness and humor behind the pig story. (Incidentally, no herd of pigs is this big. There is a serious mistranslation by the Greek redactor of the Hebrew original, and it has crept into the English versions.) Pigs were unclean animals, and Jews were not–and are not–supposed to have anything to do with the animal or the meat. This almost certainly had to do with their use as primo sacrificial victims in pagan festivals. Whatever the historical facts, Jesus obviously did some serious economic damage here, all to release captives from bondage, which was the Messiah’s prime mission.

Our Holy Father helps us to see in chapter 4 of his encyclical that there is a special kind of bondage hurting humans today. It is the bondage of perceived personal right. “Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people's integral development. Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.”

Catholics correctly agree with the notion of natural rights and responsibilities summarized in the term “natural law.” Even Thomas Jefferson understood this when he wrote about rights in the Declaration. But with cardboard philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, the word “rights” underwent a revolutionary alteration. For him, and for many today, everyone has a “right” to whatever he wants, and these so-called rights must then be controlled by the government. The Pope says, “Nowadays we are witnessing a grave inconsistency. On the one hand, appeals are made to alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature, accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and promoted by public structures, while, on the other hand, elementary and basic rights remain unacknowledged and are violated in much of the world[107].” (Par 43)

This has led to a practical belief that affluent people and societies have a “right to excess,” and even a right to do evil, which is then fueled by stealing true human rights to food, drinkable water, basic instruction and even rudimentary health care from the underdeveloped world. The Pope presciently reminds us: “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. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licence. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defence and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good.”

The definition of rights cannot be left to the political process. If it is, “those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness. Governments. . .can then lose sight of the objectivity and inviolability of rights.” This endangers true development, charity and truth.

Last week the New York Times reported on a startup company that will swab your mouth and, for less than $500, tell you what genetic diseases you might be a carrier of. The whole idea of genetic screening is either to keep couples contraceptive and abortive, or to make them conceive all children by IVF, which is itself a gravely immoral procedure that results in the murder of many children in their early days of life. Less than 50 years after Roe v Wade, where the right to life of the preborn was cast off, the duty to respect and pursue the right to life is already fading from the common consciousness. I can see in the dirty air of not-so-distant years the day in which genetic screening will be required, and any but the clearly genetically perfect will be destroyed by legislative fiat. We must keep fighting for basic human rights for all, from conception to natural death, or human development itself is dead.

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