Catholic Rights Talk

It’s become increasingly common for the Church to talk about “rights” when describing our fundamental duties to our fellow men. Reading through Faithful Citizenship, you’ll find several references to the “fundamental right” to life, echoing statements by the late Pope John Paul II in various encyclicals. However you’ll also find reference to the right to a just wage, housing, accessible health care, the choice of where to educate one’s children, etc. For instance: “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right.” (Faithful Citizenship, 80) “Parents—the first and most important educators—have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private, and religious schools.” (Faithful Citizenship, 72)

I must admit, I really wish the Church had not got into using “rights” terminology at all — in part because I think the Church is using the term “right” in a different way from the standard American usage, thus causing confusion; and in part because it seems to me that it reverses the direction of obligation in human actions.

What is a right to health care or a right to a just wage? When we get down to it, it is not a personal right to have any particular thing. (After all, how could we have an innate right to medical procedures that didn’t even exist until the last fifty years of human history; or a right to wages at a certain level when for most of human history most people have lived pretty much by subsistence.)

Rather, this “rights talk” seems to me a sort of backward discussion of our mutual obligations to one another.

When we say in a Catholic context that people have a right to basic health care, what we mean (unless I am much mistaken) is that as human beings we have the duty to provide whatever medical assistance is within our power to our neighbors. “Care for the sick.” Five hundred years ago, that might mostly have meant simply visiting the sick, providing them with food and drink, and seeing to their basic personal needs as much as possible. Today, with the greater means of caring for health that are available to us in the modern world, it means making sure that people who need them receive modern medicines and other forms of appropriate care. But they key is not that each person has an innate right to specific medical procedures or a specific level of care, but rather that as human persons we have an innate obligation to care for our fellow creatures via whatever means possible.

Similarly, when we talk about a “right” to a just wage, it seems to me that this cannot be taken to mean that people have some sort of innate right to a specific monetary wage level (say, a right to make at least $20/hr) nor more generally a right to make enough to have a certain lifestyle relative to the rest of society (a right to make at least 1/5th as much as the richest person in one’s region.) Rather, it seems to me that the right to a just wage is essentially an obligation of one who controls labor (whether that be a modern employer or a medieval lord of the manor) to see that those who work for him receive a fair portion of the value that their work produces.

In this sense, the terminology of “rights” (at least to American ears) strikes me as being counter-productive in discussing Catholic moral teaching. Saying that someone has a “right” to something seems to connote an idea of: “All right, you owe this to me. Where is it? I’ve got a right to it!” Whereas, I think that what the Church has come to refer to with “rights” terminology is an obligation that each one of us bears to our neighbors.

32 Responses to Catholic Rights Talk

  1. Zach says:

    Darwin, this is a very helpful post.

    Especially this:

    Rather, this “rights talk” seems to me a sort of backward discussion of our mutual obligations to one another.

    The Church does not seem to be using the term “rights” as it is used in usual discussions of justice, of who owes what to whom. I wish the Church would elaborate on its use of the term right. It’s vague and hard to understand now.


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    Its about whats most important to you.

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  3. Eric Brown says:

    I agree and disagree. I think the Church should not give up using “rights” as a form of terminology. I imagine you wouldn’t either, but were stressing a point (correct me if I’m wrong). We’d have to give up talking about “freedoms” and other terms that aren’t exclusively used in Catholic circles. We need to have an outreach of catechesis (which is failing) or, at best, in Church documents clarify in no uncertain terms what the Church means by ‘rights,’ which as you rightly state refers to something that is due to us by our human dignity. The ‘what’ that is due and what they mean by, say, healthcare needs clarification.

    I personally think “Faithful Citizenship” is a horrid document. It gives Catholics a crash course in natural law morality applied to politics, with as you say, presuppositions that everyone understands ‘rights’ and ‘proportinate reasons’ (in regard to the voting for pro-choice questions) and with little clarification presupposing that most American Catholics understand. Does the document reflect Church teaching? Definitely. As a voting guide and an instruction for confused Catholics in America? Good luck.

  4. Tito Edwards says:

    Unfortunately many documents that the USCCB endorses or issues are off target, Faithful Citizenship being one of them. I still find it difficult to adhere to many things the USCCB says, but there are pronouncements that do hit their target.

    But some of make the mistake of treating the USCCB as an alternative magisterium, using them as tools in the political arena.

  5. cminor says:

    “Similarly, when we talk about a “right” to a just wage, it seems to me that this cannot be taken to mean that people have some sort of innate right to a specific monetary wage level…’

    Indeed; moreover, jobs serve different purposes to different people. Not everyone is trying to singlehandedly support two kids and pay a mortgage. Convenience, flexibility, and the ability to work from home are some of the factors that may be considered in a job search.

    The notion that every job out there has to provide a certain level of pay and/or benefits limits options not only for the employer but for the employee. The implementation of that notion generally results in job loss for some, not in better jobs for all.

    Perhaps the “right” needs to be seen as an individual right to seek out jobs and negotiate job terms that as much as possible suit one’s own needs. To that end, a diversity of job options is more just than is a standardized wage.

  6. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    “Unfortunately many documents that the USCCB endorses or issues are off target, Faithful Citizenship being one of them. I still find it difficult to adhere to many things the USCCB says, but there are pronouncements that do hit their target.”


    Care to back this up with some argument?

  7. Tito Edwards says:

    Mark DeFrancisis,

    The Seamless Garment, the footnotes to the New American Bible, USCCB’s movie reviews, and Faithful Citizenship.

    Need more?

    Or are you going to continue with ad hominems and other deragatory remarks?

  8. Mark DeFrancisis says:


    And I guess the Thomist Jacques Maritain was wrong to pen the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, eh? Maybe he did not read enough manuals and got off track..


    You are the one making quite a bold move– as a self-confessed non-intellectual layman– in issuing such blanket judgments on the USCCB, the NAB et al.

    It seems that the onus to justify your continuation of derogatory remarks is on you, don’t you think?

    Fellow AC bloggers,

    Step up to the plate and show the substance (or lack thereof) of this blog.

  9. Tito Edwards says:

    Mark DeFrancisis,

    Straw man arguments and ad hominems will not be tolerated on this blog.

    Your antics may pass for “intellectual commentary” over at Vox Nova, but it won’t fly here.

  10. Mark DeFrancisis says:


    You accuse me of an ad hominem in my first comment, challenging your simple, negative assertion of the USCCB. I made no such thing in my first comment. I merely pointed out that you offered no argument or evidence for you statement about the USCCB, which, by the way, puts you dangerously close to being at odds with the local teaching authorities of the Church

    Or, maybe I am wrong. Can you explain to me what an ad hominem is?

  11. Rebekka says:

    (I am not even going to pretend that I am on the same debate level as you guys! My question here is not meant as a springboard to argumentation but as a request for clarification.)

    How is “a right to health care” the same as the right to any specific procedure? The question of what is the right to health care is asked, but in order to answer that you have to answer what health care is. “Caring for the sick” is what “health care” is — that and preventing people from getting sick in the first place. Where in that do specific procedures or levels of care lie? Is anyone who talks about health care rights really saying “free MRIs for everyone!!!”?

  12. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    It would be a mistake, I think, to use only “rights” language when speaking of morality. The ethics of rights is an ethics of obligation, but there’s moral to the moral life than obligation. Virtue, for example.

  13. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    I’ve no problem with speaking of healthcare being a right, but that shouldn’t be reduced to meaning that someone else has an obligation to providing me healthcare. I have rights, and I also have to respect my rights. If my right to healthcare obligates that I receive adequate healthcare, then I too am obligated to act.

  14. Either ‘side’ could make a long list of what the modernists have done that is either in line with or against the teachings of the Church. Asking for credentials and challenging authority are devices used by dissenters to bring not only personal convictions but everything else up to Papal pronouncements into question. The idea is that persistent questioning will eventually create a breech in the wall and change will flood into the Church. Dialogue is the last chance to keep the discussion going until those who oppose the progressives capitulate. Gone are the days of ‘Roma locuta est, causa finita est’. Truth cannot be compromised!

    Maybe one simply needs to observe whether a group such as the USCCB has added value to the Catholic Church in America by their very existence or have contributed to the confusion and uncertainty that appears to be prevalent in our Church today. A telling indicator is that much of what they publish is used by both ‘sides’ to prove their stand on issues. That just does not sound like properly forming consciences to me.

    To me and not a few other unenlightened and uneducated(not progressive nor indoctrinated) laity there seems to be an ineffective witness by the USCCB to the truths taught by our Church. I think that there is no worse personal attack(ad hominem) than to abrogate your responsibility as a shepherd by allowing wolves in sheeps clothing to decimate the faithful while catering to the sensitivities of those who publicly and boldly defy Church teachings.

    In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum.

  15. Tito & Mark,

    National bishops’ conferences are certainly not guaranteed to be free from error (Dutch Catechism, anyone?) but I would certainly not call into question the entire corpus of writing which comes out with the USCCB name on it — both because that seems inappropriate for me to do as one of their flock and because I don’t think it’s an accurate characterization. If Tito meant to do that, I disagree with him.

    However, I would agree that some USCCB documents have been problematic — not so much in teaching anything false, but rather in emphasis and level with respect to their intended audience. Always Our Children springs to mind as a serious example of this. I don’t think that Faithful Citizenship is intended to be misleading at all, but it does read as a very heavily committee-written work, and one of the ways that committees of experts often find consensus is to push out to more general statements couched in more technical terminology. Some of this went on with Faithful Citizenship, with the result that while I’d say it’s a valuable resource and is not untrue or misleading, it is not as straightforward for the average layman to read as I could wish.

    Finally, I think it’s important to distinguish when talking about the USCCB between items put out by their lay employees and side committees (such as their movie reviews) and their documents which are worked on and approved by the bishops and are meant to be serious teaching tools.

  16. Rebekka,

    I think the right way to understand the “right to healthcare” would be that we have a right as human beings to have made available to us the means (such as are available in any given time an place) to take care of ourselves and our families. We also have the duty to take care of others around us to the best of our abilities, and the right to expect them to do the same for us.

    So no, I don’t think one could say that there’s a human right to any given procedure, but rather that we have a right/duty pairing to provide for our brothers and sisters with whatever means are available to us.

  17. Lance,

    While I can understand frustration with some of the USCCB’s documents, and have shared it on a few occasions, I think you may being a little over hard on them.

    Among other things, I’m not sure there ever was a ‘Roma locuta est, causa finita est’ in the sense that everything was sure, and clear and easily defined. There have always been issues on which the Magisterium either has not yet spoken, on where the local authorities or even some in Rome are hesitant to speak clearly and bravely in regards to the troubles of the day.

    While the times are bad in right now, I think we have reason to think they have got better over the last ten years, and that under the guidance of Benedict XVI (as under John Paul II) the barque of Peter is gradually accustoming itself to the choppy waters of the modern world.

  18. Rebekka says:

    “So no, I don’t think one could say that there’s a human right to any given procedure, but rather that we have a right/duty pairing to provide for our brothers and sisters with whatever means are available to us.”

    I agree with you that rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. But is that right/duty at the individual or at the societal level?

    An individual can bring someone some chicken soup. But you can look at a society as a whole bunch of individuals, who all show up with chicken soup because that’s what they each can muster as individuals, or as a group who has the means to provide *equal access to health care according to each person’s needs* — which is more right?

  19. Tito Edwards says:


    I agree on your well written response.

    If what I said seemed to be a wide brush of negativity on all of the USCCB’s pronouncements then I want to rescind that perception. It’s certain bulls and statements that eminate from the USCCB that instead of clarifying positions it causes more confusion.

    There is a need for a national bishops conference. Like any human organization the USCCB is not mistake prone. Unfortunately there are too many mistakes to overlook and not respond to appropriately.

  20. blackadderiv says:

    At the risk of letting my narcissistic side show, I wrote a post on this very subject a little while ago, which I believe goes to the very point Darwin is making here.

  21. Tito Edwards says:


    Great post at your Lair. It’s amazing how convaluted and confusing this can be when the word “rights” is thrown around carelessly by both secular and religious authority.

  22. Tito and Darwin,

    I certainly agree that things seem to be getting better although there are some regions where there has been little or no acknowledgment that things are changing. Probably one of the reasons(not an excuse) for my rough edges is partly due to location. I live deep in the Bible Belt and must keep my armor on(including a backplate) and sword handy at all times.
    The denizens here respect straightforward truth and conviction and are very suspicious of ambiguous or veiled statements.

    Catholics are 2 – 3 % of the general population here and the missteps, vagueness, and lack of action by our National Conference is not lost on our separated brethren. In fact, they seem to be more aware of what our leadership does than the vast majority of my fellow Catholics. However, they are also very intent on Christianizing Catholics and are in the right place to receive moral and material support to do so.

    In the last eight years we have had parish meetings to ‘explain’ Dominus Iesum and the fairly recent Motu Propio. I dare say there was more negative reactions from Catholics on both of these important documents than from the Protestants. We have a real identity problem and I still stand by the assertion that little has been done in this regard by the national level of leadership to help the ‘workers in the fields’.

    On another point. I do believe that Rome is ignored more so than in the past. Maybe it is because there is no longer a feeling that Rome will actually punish errant clerics and religious?

    Cor Mariae dulcissimum, iter para tutum.

  23. Blackadder,

    Good point. Actually, I should confess, though I was set off on this post by a Faithful Citizenship reference, I also re-used some of the text which I originally wrote in responding to your post. Which was very good.

    No offense meant in dropping that bit of context.

  24. Daddio says:

    Interesting post. I was listening to Dr. Roderick’s podcast this morning and he spoke about minimum wage. Seems that the minimum wage in The Netherlands is about twice as high as ours. The result is that, as he explained in an earlier podcast, he’s paying 1,000 Euros a month for a very modest 2-room apartment. (He didn’t tie to two together, that was my conclusion.) Seems that mandatory minimum wage just raises prices.

  25. Tito Edwards says:


    Unfortunately we cannot rely on the clergy or laypeople in positions of authority to teach the catechism properly or with fidelity.

    What we can do is educate ourselves, be a witness to others through practicing our faith, and prayer.

    One reason for this blog is to assist those that are looking to learn more about the teachings of the Church. Especially to how it relates to being a Catholic in America and the issues that arise from that.

  26. Tito,

    Indeed. I was simply offering some of the experiences that I am sure many of us share out here in the general population and I know there are people who endure much worse.

    There are some good Catholic resources available and I thank God daily for the internet and access to material that I and others would never be aware of if we solely depended on our limited local offerings.

    My home library has become extensive(ran out of shelves years ago) and I consistently crack open the covers of at least a half dozen books at a time. Just recently finished Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth(great book once you get past the preface) and a non-catholic Syrian apologist’s comparative reading of the Gospel of St. John as it relates to the Quran.

    Much of what we laity try to communicate is ineffable and we are not always as erudite and ‘articulate'(everyone loves that word) as we could be.

    Pauper servus et humiluis.

  27. Nate Wildermuth says:

    “Unfortunately we cannot rely on the clergy . . . to teach the catechism properly or with fidelity.”

    You know, if our Popes, Bishops, and Councils have all embraced the terminology of “rights” (while maintaining that rights must be intertwined with “responsibilities”), who are we to question their fidelity, or their competence and authority as teachers?

    Just because some people can’t understand what the Church teaches doesn’t mean that we should criticize our Popes, Bishops, and Councils. They are the ones invested with teaching authority.

    Moreover, it seems that while many have a clear understanding of “responsibilities”, they don’t really understand “rights”. Rights do exist. A person has the right to life, a God-given right to life that no one may intentionally violate. Moreover, the right to life extends into other areas related to life – freedom of conscience and religion, family life, and health of mind and body.

  28. Nate,

    I think you do make a good point about the importance of not becoming jaded about the teaching work of our clergy. Though many American laity feel they have been burned by the neglect or poor catechesis put out by our parishes in the last fifty years, we can’t close ourselves in and cease taking our priests and bishops as shepherds. (An unfortunate thing I often run into in my parish is that some of the families which would be most help with our catechesis program have completely checked out of any idea of working with a parish, because they believe RE programs are always a force of ill.)

    However, I do think it’s appropriate for laity to at least question the usage of “rights” terminology in a Catholic context. So far as I am aware, rights terminology remains very new — used a lot locally, sometimes by bishops, and a very few times by the last two popes. Historically, it’s not the way we’ve talked.

    Perhaps it is a good way to talk to the modern word, but if so I would love to see a clearer explanation of what we mean by it as Catholics. The right to life, clearly, is a basic natural right. We are given our lives by God and neither we nor anyone else can take that life away without just cause.

    My concern with the “right to health care” is that the general usage (which may very well not be what the Church means by it) seems to be, “I have a right to health care, therefore someone had better come give it to me.” And in that formulation, it’s not a natural right. If one is sitting around without a developed civilization to give one things, one’s life remains one’s own regardless. But there is no one to give you health care.

  29. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    In an undeveloped civilization, I am sure that its inhabitants still have the natural right to health assisance from other inhabitants.

  30. Phillip says:

    “Rights, in Catholic Social Teaching, serve as a means of orienting our thinking about questions of social policy. To say, in Catholic Social Thought, that something is a right is to say that it is a constitutive element of the Common Good (which Gaudium et Spes defined as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment“). So, for example, when the Church declares that there is a right to basic health care, what She is saying is that access to basic health care is one of the conditions of social life which allows access to human flourishing and fulfillment, and that achieving this right should be a central goal of social policy.”

    Very well written BA. I might just add that human fulfillment ultimately is a spiritual and not a temporal end. This is not to say that the common good (and rights) do not have a temporal dimension. Rather the common good must keep in mind the eternal end of all the individuals of society.

  31. […] no reason to suspect that this would affect the comparison between younger and older voters. Also (paging Darwin), Douthat has some interesting thoughts on rights-talk and the success of the pro-life movement […]

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