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A Catholic point of view on rights and duties


One of the most significant hallmarks of American democracy is the “Bill of Rights” – the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual, such as freedom of speech, press and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the people or the states.

There is a great deal of talk these days – in political conversations, on the news, even around the dinner table – about our “rights.” Frequently these conversations focus on the right of the individual: the right to free speech, the right to own a gun, the right to vote. What’s missing from a lot of those conversations is the talk about our “responsibilities.”

In Catholic teaching, we can’t have one without the other. This was written about so clearly in the encyclical by St. John XXIII, “Pacem in Terris” (Peace on Earth). The pope was clear in outlining such basic rights as the right to life and to a worthy standard of living, the freedom to search for and express opinions, freedom of information, right to an education, right to emigrate and immigrate, and to participate in public affairs – among many others.

But each of our “rights” comes with a duty and a responsibility. For example, the pope listed the duty to acknowledge and respect the rights of others, to collaborate and work together with others, to act for others responsibly, and to preserve life.

The bishops of New York state put it this way: “The Church teaches that every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human dignity: food, shelter, health care, education, employment. But corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. While public debate in our nation is often divided between those who focus on personal responsibility and those who focus on social obligations, our tradition insists that both are necessary.”

In other words, our Catholic conscience must go beyond just the talk of the rights of the individual and must extend to a serious consideration of the common good. Many times in our legal system rights are limited and restricted for the benefit of others – like the well-known prohibition against shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. But for Catholics, we are called to a higher standard – to use the rights we have specifically for the common good.

In that sense, it’s a lot harder to be a good Catholic than to be a good citizen. For example, from a Catholic perspective, we certainly have the right to purchase whatever clothing we want, but we have a responsibility to make sure that it was not manufactured in a “sweat shop” or by means that diminished the dignity of others. We might acknowledge a right for persons to own a gun, but we also have the responsibility to advocate for sensible restrictions on guns like universal background checks and the elimination of assault-type weapons.

So often during the pandemic, people had misconceptions about their “rights” and neglected their responsibilities to the common good. The refusal to wear a mask because it was perceived as some sort of imposition on freedom ignored the responsibility that we have to keep others safe whenever possible – even if it means some inconvenience to ourselves.

A Catholic point of view never sees a right without a parallel responsibility. The next time a discussion about “rights” comes up, help others see the duties that must accompany those rights.

Deacon Don Weigel is the diocesan director of Catholic Relief Services and can be reached at deacondon@gmail.com.