The Catholic Thing
The Modern Regime of Rights Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 03 May 2011

In 1954, Thought published Heinrich Rommen’s important essay, “The Genealogy of Natural Rights.” Rommen pointed out that the real origin of rights was not located in an abstract “state of nature” theory, following Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau. Rather it is based in concrete negotiations in medieval cities. They specified exactly what was at issue. The “justum,” the “what was owed” on both sides, was spelled out. No one had a “right” to such rights. What was specified as “right” was clearly set down and agreed on. Rights were not subjective.

In her recent lecture at the Catholic University of America, the Norwegian scholar and writer, Janne Haaland Matlary (When Might Becomes Human Right, Gracewing), pointed out that, at least since about 1978, the discourse of world politics has shifted. Now it is dominated by what Mary Ann Glendon called “rights talk.” One can hardly read anything in the United Nations, the Vatican, or in western politics that is not “rights” based in its rhetoric.

At first sight, such a development appears to be “progress.” But when we look at the roots of “human rights,” “dignity,” “duties,” and “values,” we cannot but be concerned that these noble expressions have paradoxically become tools in the alienation of man from himself. They continue to mean what their modern formulators – Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Weber – intended them to mean. Only now they are carried to their logical conclusions in the public order.

In the natural-law tradition, Catholic sources tried to contain the explosive nature of “rights” as instruments promoting the growth and absolute control of the state. Their leading efforts – Maritain, Finnis, Hittinger, George, Grisez, Simon – often were brilliant. But they have been mostly ignored in the wider world because they upheld nature or logic as an objective standard of what is good. 

The modern regime of rights, however, now undermines any solid notion of national-state defined limits of rights as based in an objective order. The United Nations and such entities now look upon themselves, when possible, as definers and imposers of modern rights on “backward” nations who do not yet accept their notions of rights to abortion, euthanasia, scientific experimentation on human beings, homosexuality, war and peace. In the recent bombing of Libya, the president did not go to Congress and invoke war powers, but to the United Nations. Hardly anyone noticed. Or objected.

 The Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas (with Aristotle and Plato by Benozzo Gozzoli, c. 1480)

 What is wrong with such noble sounding words as “rights,” “duties,” “values,” and “dignity?” Why has not our vaunted “dialogue” with their advocates worked? Catholic sources were generally satisfied with the original 1948 U. N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It seemed grounded in the old Aristotelian and natural-law soil that upheld an objective human nature. It had norms or standards to indicate what man was, how he was to act. Reason could and did discover the meaning of nature and its ends.

The modern regime of rights is not the one supposedly envisioned in the Charter. We hold no truths to be “self-evident.” The great Jacques Maritain, who was involved in the original formulation, recognized that no theoretical agreement existed among the nations on how to justify such rights. He proposed that all simply agree with them. They could justify them, after the fact, with their own philosophical or religious sources. He thought they needed justification, but as a practical matter, political agreement was the best we could do. This agreement was easier after World War II when violation of what it is to be human was more obvious.

The assumption behind the “rights-duty-dignity-values” understanding of the modern world is that no human nature exists. Nothing is given. Dignity means that we are free to project on ourselves and the world how we understand ourselves. We make ourselves. Values mean that no ultimate explanation is possible about God, the cosmos, or human life. We give ourselves our own values. Rights mean that we can demand that how we define ourselves be recognized by others. Duty signifies that others have an obligation to “respect” how we define ourselves, whatever it is.

Obviously, this interpretation is relativist and individualist. It can easily, however, by the same logic, become collective. Here ecology and globalization come in handy. Natural disasters, “failed” governments, poverty, and restrictions based on religion or traditional reason are “threats” to the international community. The common good is defined in terms of modern “rights.” They give rise to “humanitarian” intervention in all parts of the world, including in this country. Since we are “entitled” to our “rights,” we can empower the collectivity to set conditions and enforce corresponding conduct.

The modern regime of “human rights” increasingly portends the soft totalitarianism implicit in our culture since we substituted will for reason as the ground of our understanding of God, the world, and ourselves. The warning was already in Aquinas. We just did not notice.

James V. 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 (7)Add Comment
written by joe, May 03, 2011
written by Mark, May 03, 2011
Excellent exposition. Perhaps another huge flaw with the "modern regime of rights" is the apparent absence of any sense of personal responsibility attached to those rights.
written by Ars Artium, May 03, 2011
I am reminded of all the peoples throughout history who did "notice" one or another ominous trend and were witnesses to destruction of all they cherished. Can a catastrophe be averted here? With the readers of thecatholicthing, I pray that it can be.
written by Other Joe, May 03, 2011
As the penumbra of tyranny approaches, long before the state feels compelled to resort to force (for the public good of course) language is first insulted and then pushed around. Reason cannot stand. All of the ironic quotes in the excellent article above illustrate how far we have come. The signs of trouble are many, too many to list. They include caprice passing for law and decree passing for representation. Those who seem to notice are few and many of them seem to be Catholic. In the face of a kind of general madness that can’t possibly turn out well for human dignity, we should never underestimate the value of prayer.
written by senex, May 03, 2011
In the Papal tradition of ‘human’ or ‘natural’ rights in the field of social justice, one should not overlook the explosive expansion of the scope and meaning of human rights created by John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris. There, in paragraphs 11 through 27 he created at least 17 new human ‘rights’ out of whole cloth. And in Mater et Magistra the same pope pushed for wealth redistribution and the shift of responsibility for the promotion of the common good from individuals to the government, from charity to taxation, from a moral responsibility to a legal obligation. The role of individual and subsidiarity charity gives way to the government as the primary implementer of social services. Paul VI continued his predecessor’s ideas and stressed that the energy of change should move from the economic sector to the political sector to bring about these socialist changes.

One of the results of these moves by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI is that when everything is made a ‘human’ right, the value of rights diminishes and their foundation in the natural law is weakened, if not obliterated.

May 15 will be the 120th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Is it too much to hope for that Benedict XVI will issue his own decennial commemorative encyclical that brings Catholic teaching back to the principles of Leo XIII?
written by Aeneas, May 03, 2011
This was a chilling article indeed, but not something unknown to me. These truths must be made known to more people, or else, how can we avoid a future built by our mad modern regime? And yes, it most certainly is mad.
written by AveMaria, May 04, 2011
And then we have Justice Scalia's take on "rights":

"The very enumeration of the right takes out of the hands of government -- even the Third Branch of Government -- the power to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the right is really worth insisting upon."

In other words, once you declare something as a "right" -- no law, judge, administrative guideline, policy or rule should be allowed to stand in opposition to the so-called "right."

Who chooses what constitutes a "right" then becomes critical. I had a debate with a canon lawyer in our local Bishop's office who released a document supporting so-called "immigrant worker's rights" and their "right to medical care." This diocesan leader felt her determination of so-called rights were without question and needed to be protected not as a course of law, but as a fundamental Christian right (read: above the law).

When I asked whether the lawyer would support the "right" of a woman to receive medical care as the woman saw fit -- specifically if it was acceptable to have her "right to medical care" be enough to force her doctor to perform an abortion, even if the doctor was against abortions -- the person's eyes opened and understood the idea that callously assigning "rights" to whatever was the topic-de-jour was suicidal to the Church long-term.

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