Now that we’ve briefly surveyed the historical development of our current economic situation, we can move on to the specific principles of the “Catholic Economy.”
These principles will serve as a cumulative answer to the many problems I’ve mentioned throughout the life of this column. So to begin, let’s talk about the concept of “rights”.
Rights are on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and at the center of every political debate from Obamacare to marriage to modern warfare. But what exactly are these “rights,” and where to do they come from?
Let’s begin with what they are not; they are not absolutes. In traditional Christian thought, rights are drawn from man’s inherent obligations toward God. Look at it this way; the right to private property is drawn from the 7th commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.”
The right to life is likewise drawn from the 5th commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” The divine commands came first, the rights second. They pertain to obedience.
The Catholic catechism explains it like this: “What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.”
This means that rights do not exist because man is born with privileges, but because he is born with moral obligations. He is to seek the good, and the good is God. Man does not get to claim his rights in order to do whatever he wants. It is the opposite; his human dignity carries rights so that he may do what he should, orienting himself toward his Creator. If we divorce rights from justice, and try to make them ends in themselves, we undermine them and make them ridiculous.
Again, in the minds of traditional thinkers like St. Thomas Aquinas, rights were never something one claimed for oneself against the rights of a neighbor or of the community, as is done today in our perpetual legal battles over the subject. For Aquinas, rights were something a man owed, in justice, to his neighbor; they were oriented outward, not inward toward the self.
This may seem like a pointless semantic difference, but it has great implications. Without the proper aim towards God, goodness, and neighbor, a right will immediately degenerate into an arbitrary license to do whatever one pleases. And this is exactly what has happened. Not only do we accept this twisted notion of rights, but we even vehemently defend it!
For example, we’ve all heard the saying, “I may not believe in what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.”
Page 2 of 3 - Is this not absurd? Why on earth would a man die for what he believes to be a lying opinion? To die for the sake of truth is noble, but to die defending a lie is a terrible waste of precious life. Such strange notions are the result of our promoting rights to the point of absoluteness.
So when did we lose the counterbalancing obligation towards truth and justice, and thereby cause rights to lose their logical validity?
If we look at the genesis of this transformation, we can also understand its deep rootedness in the American psyche. It was popularized by a liberal Enlightenment philosopher named John Locke, who turned out to be the single largest influence on the Founding Fathers. He believed that rights were part of nature and that they were, as we now say, “inalienable.”
This was an unprecedented promotion of rights, removing them from the larger context of justice which they had previously inhabited. Freedom of speech, the press and religion, even the right to bear arms, were thenceforth removed from the framework of limits. For, if something is considered an absolute truth, how can that truth be given boundaries?
The traditionalists knew better, and reacted accordingly. In the words of Pope Leo XIII, writing specifically on the right to free speech:
“It is hardly necessary to say that there can be no such right as this, if it be not used in moderation…For right is a moral power which - as We have before said and must again and again repeat - it is absurd to suppose that nature has accorded indifferently to truth and falsehood, to justice and injustice…lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State…If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate…Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail.”
Here we see the vital connection between rights and truth — between rights and justice — which is absolutely necessary in order to keep things coherent.
Pope John Paul II summarizes the teaching: “Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known.”
Each one of us is called to seek the good life, to walk ceaselessly in the direction of truth. We can choose not to pursue that truth, of course. People do it all the time — criminals, for example. But, as with thieves and villains, the rejection of our universal vocation logically implies the rejection of our rights. You cannot reject the inherent responsibilities of freedom and expect to retain full exercise of the benefits.
Page 3 of 3 - You cannot have your philosophical cake and eat it too.
The opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the The McPherson Sentinel or GateHouse Media. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at email@example.com.