The Catholic Thing
"Rights" and Liberties Print E-mail
By James Schall   
Thursday, 14 May 2009

What Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk” is increasingly prevalent and dangerous to human liberties. Everywhere “rights” are being codified, enforced, and redefined to mean whatever governing bodies want them to mean. They have no other source but positive law.

Briefly, we are losing our liberties because of our “rights.” The totalitarians among us now zealously speak “rights talk” with the best of them. “Defending” modern human “rights” means suppressing what rights meant in the older sense of that term.

In Rome recently, Janne Haaland Matlary, the Norwegian scholar, politician, and member of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, remarked: “Human rights are becoming increasingly vulnerable to political exploitation.” We Americans, and not only we, might assume that “rights” have a solid, unchangeable meaning. We think this grounded meaning is in the Declaration. That older meaning, however, has been all but obliterated.

Few recognize how dangerous the origin of this word is. Many fine scholars such as Jacques Maritain, John Finnis, and others have worked valiantly to save “rights” terminology from relativism, the context in which it is understood in modern political philosophy. They have not prevailed in baptizing it as was their intent, even though they provide plausible arguments about why it need not be a relativistic concept. These arguments are simply ignored or rejected by most rights advocates, though seldom confronted intellectually.

David Walsh has noted that the word “rights” still retains a vague relation to some stable grounding in being. Today, however, “rights” mean what Hobbes, its original formulator, claimed: namely, the word rights means whatever the de facto political authority says it means. A “right” is what the government defines and enforces as a right, nothing more, nothing less. The current president’s whole anti-life agenda, the most extreme ever designed in any responsible or irresponsible polity, is presented to us under the guise of “human rights.” It is breathtaking.

The idea that such “rights” have “natural law” behind them, a way of looking at them so that we can appeal to a common and agreed rational concept of human nature, is fine. But this understanding is neither what the word nor the actions of the government mean. We like to say that the “right to life is the fundamental right.” Nix that “right” and all else falls. This is true. All else is falling. The “right to life” now means politically what, and only what, the government and courts define it to mean, not some “inalienable” idea of human dignity from God or nature.

The Church has taken up the term “natural right” as if it meant something rooted in human nature. I can count almost on one hand the number of times that, aware of the problem, a pope or theologian will say, almost as an aside, that “natural right,” of course, does not mean what “natural right” does mean in the public order. They then use the very same term as if everyone agreed with a grounded view, rooted in natural law.

In practice, we seem to think that everyone agrees with this Catholic background of “natural rights.” We have a basis for common discourse. Yet we soon find that people polemically inquire: “If you claim a ‘right to life,’ why not grant a ‘right’ to abortion or any such thing?”

In the public mind, we end up contradicting ourselves. We say we are for “human rights,” then we oppose that growing list of “human rights” – abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, euthanasia, and Lord knows what – which “democratic” people all “accept” because that is the law that they have “freely” enacted.

Increasingly, we are not even allowed to talk about this problem. To do so is “hate language.” We are “fanatics” to insist that these things are fundamentally, always, and everywhere, wrong. We are shoved aside in public life.

Archbishop Burke noted the other day in Washington that present governmental policies portend that doctors who understand that “life” is inviolable and healthcare services that operate on this principle will be closed down. This is no joke, of course.

Such warnings are not stated by some dreamer or by some man with no clue about what is happening. It is happening in a regime democratically brought to power. Thus, when we define such things as immoral, as we do, we are not only violating “human rights” but the very basis of “democracy.”

So when President Obama goes to Notre Dame this week, we should be sure what is at issue. He goes there for one reason, namely, in this symbolic place, to convince the vast majority of Catholics that his operative definition of “human rights,” not that of the Church, is the correct one.

“Rights” mean precisely what the government defines them to mean. The president is the government.

“Liberty,” in this context, means this: The freedom to obey these laws that embody these “rights” that governments alone establish, whatever they are.

The American Founders would be astonished that our great nation has come to this pass.

James Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
Le Nouveau Regime
written by William Dennis, May 14, 2009
Excellant Fr. Schall! This Enlightement mentality seems to be pervasive in this new regime. The rights of man are determined by the state. These rights being determined by what is considered relief for "man's estate." The present regime has been born and bred on this phliosophy. There are no truths to be held self evident these days! This is not the philosophy of our Founders. Where has man heard this jargon before? Why do I hear the shrill of La Guillotine? Perhaps I am a bit dramatic.
written by Bradley, May 14, 2009
The Founders and the 18th century Church would be more astonished that slaves are now free, that women have rights and can vote, and that Jews are not held responsible for Christ's death. The point is not that the Church is wrong on abortion (it's not!). Rather, it is that Church/State have indeed informed one another on the notion of rights, and that each party's understanding can evolve. To change hearts on abortion, witness to the truth, but don't treat opponents like the anti-Christ.
written by Vincent C. Muscarello, MD, May 14, 2009
Father Schall, as usual, is spot on in his analysis. This president, along with
"those in power" (Archbishop Burke's apt term), view abortion as settled law in this country. The president comes to my alma mater, Notre Dame, not for any dialogue on abortion but to consolidate his position among Catholics for the upcoming health-care debate in which the elderly will be the next target. Look for euthanasia to be the new "right to choose" in this country.
written by SC Phelan, May 14, 2009
Bradley: it IS wrong to demonize opponents. But it is also wrong to imply that the Catholic Church and the modern American State are simply equal interlocutors on the question of rights. Yes, they've informed each other, but one's account is based in Truth, and the other's is currently based in some combination of Enlightenment rationalism and Nietzchean will to power. the modern left only engages in a false dialogue, nodding heads while never conceding a thing, bringing us into totalitarianism
written by William H. Phelan, May 14, 2009
The Obama admin. is merely taking advantage of a vast lacuna which has resulted from the weakness of the Church in not enforcing its (Christ's) teachings. It started with CONTRACEPTION which demands abortion as a backup in case of failure. Notre Dame was very honest in 1967 when it asserted that it had left the the Church. Catholics just refused to accept that reality. Football, the Gipper, you know.
To SC Phelan
written by Bradley, May 14, 2009
They are not equal interlocutors, but can learn from one another. What the Church learns from the State/Enlightenment can help the Church more fully understand and proclaim its own revealed Truths (eg, slavery, women's rights). On abortion, what is our objective? If saving babies, then how do we convert a woman's heart? What will motivate politicians to reflect? How will they both best learn the Church's Truths? Inaccurate broadsides ("the president is the government") don't help much.
written by Charlie Horn, May 15, 2009
Thank you, Fr. Schall. This 'rights' talk is starting to reach critical mass. Without a grounding in the natural law, those in power will be proclaiming even more crazy rights. Hopefully Dr. Muscarello's prediction about euthanasia is averted. As a future physician, how will I confront these new 'rights'? I am an '08 ND grad and can't say that the Obama invite was a big surprise considering recent history there. When Fr. Jenkins actually attended the V-monologues I knew we were in trouble.
Modern Rights=Atomization
written by Tod Worner, May 15, 2009
Rights are now defined by how they enhance "personal autonomy" (with a sneer at the notion of rights defined by "preservation of dignity"). And so our enlightened society has decided to atomize the individual from society itself - no qualms about disposing of unborn, infirm, or unhappy & no quarrels with walking your own path even if it is in contravention of the most enduring common values/mores/norms. Rights have replaced religion and they will lead us exactly where they should - utterly alone
written by Molly B, May 15, 2009
President Obama is going to Notre dame because they invited him. He did not apply to speak at commencement so that he could use it as a bully pulpit to push any abortion agenda. The Roman Catholic church speaks of "right to life" but focuses only on unborn life. They do not send out squads of rosary prayers to march outside prisons with death row inmates. Soial justice issu are pulling people from RC pews and sending them elsewhere.
written by Achilles, May 15, 2009
Molly, you sound very sweet, but you are talking about apples and fried greem tomatoes. Clear thinking is rendered almost impossible by the fog of relativism, Fr. Schall is a lighthouse.
written by Charles Adams, May 15, 2009
You state that President Obama goes to a symbolic place of Notre Dame but I doubt he knows that Notre Dame as well as St. Johns, Geogetown and many other Catholic univerities have left the faith. Nore Dame is a symbol only but will someone with guts and influence inform the President of this fact. But then again is there any individual that is a true believer of Christ close to him.
written by Jacob, May 17, 2009
Actually Molly Catholic groups do send out groups to pray the Rosary and other prayers at executions.

(You'll understand if that Catholic movement to save 20-30 completely guilty murderers every year is not quite as intense as the movement to save over a million completely innocent unborn babies every year!)

It will certainly take the Lord's hand to save us from this unimaginable seemingly apocalyptic mess! ..But I think the world has been this messed up before and recovered!
written by Jacob, May 17, 2009
So Bradley you're not acting as an "anti-christ" when you do something that's anti Christ?
Part of what got us into this mess is people who don't think abortion is a big deal telling us exactly what people would have thought more than 200 years ago.
You're mixing up the Church with Protestants who were lynching Catholics at the same rate as slaves.
This is not to say that all Catholics weren't racist but the Church itself was a center of early abolitionism and later the Civil Rights movement!
written by Craig, May 18, 2009
Father Schall's point extends beyond just the "right to abortion", "gay marriage", etc. The "human rights" argument was on full display by Jenkins and numerous students trotting out the worn rhetorical argument that Obama's position concerning universal healthcare, immigration, [fill in the blank] is in keeping with Catholic "social justice" teaching. Again, none of this is necessarily "justice", but it most assuredly reflects political ideology.

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