Saturday, July 14, 2012

What Are My Rights?

How often have you heard it said:  “I know my rights!”  I couldn’t begin to estimate how often I have heard that sentence, but lately I’ve been hearing a different phrasing, (perhaps deliberately, I believe) which is confusing people.  Lately I’ve been hearing: “You should have the right to ….”
This is such a broad subject that I wanted to make sure I was talking about the correct definition of “rights”, so I looked up the word “Rights” using the thesaurus option in this word processing software.  Under “Rights” it had the comparable words of “human rights, civil rights, constitutional rights, civil liberties, privileges.”  That helped clarify things a bit, however under “human rights” was listed the comparable word of “rights” --- I guess the software authors couldn’t bring themselves to mention God as a source of human rights.  The writers of our Constitution, however, could do so. 
All of the definitions of “rights” stated above refer to things we are free to do, and the last definition states it pretty definitively:  “privileges.”  They are things you can’t be stopped from doing.  People mention “acceptable” laws as those limiting rights when those rights infringe upon another.  People fight laws which limit what we can do to ourselves, and seemingly not impact others (I’ll leave the fact that “No man is an island” for another meditation).  So rights, by definition, are about things we can do.
But recently, the public discourse has been confused by the words I mentioned in the statement above:  “You should have the right to …,” for instead of ending that statement with things you should be able to “do”, it ends it with things you should be able to “get.”  You should have the right to get good medical care.  In the local paper today the lead editorial noted that you should have the right to a college education.  And, of course, we remember the one broadly proclaimed a few years back: “You should have the right to own a new home.” 
And how did that “right” work out when it was dictated by Congress?    
I suspect all these other rights-to-be-given-things will work out the same way.  And, for our country, it won’t be good. And for our Church, it won’t be good.  I said I had begun a study, with friends, of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Like this blog says on its header, I am not here to preach, but to grow in faith, myself.  You are invited to come along, if you wish.  So when I tell you what I read in the catechism it is not to convince you of anything; it is just what I read, and my thoughts here are mine and not ANY church’s.  And that is as it should be, because the topic I want to delve into is “freedom.”
I didn’t have to read many pages in the catechism, reading in a section about how we should live our lives, when I came to a doctrine titled: “Freedom and Responsibility.”  The very first sentence read:  “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility.” 1731  So freedom is the underlying basis for what I can do or not do --- this sounds a lot like “rights.”  But note what goes along with freedom in the title:  Responsibility.  It’s not often said, but that word also goes along with “rights.”  They go together.  Since freedom and rights are about what you can do, there is a responsibility about your actions. 
Now sometimes in human affairs there will be those who do not act responsibly.  In the public arena that results in laws, to limit freedoms or rights which infringe upon others.  If you won’t act responsibly, the laws will dictate that you do.  Relative to human rights, that is why God gave us the Ten Commandments.  And, in fact, many civil laws are based on the Ten Commandments (for those not accepting the religion-based limits).  But rights are not totally defined by laws.  In fact, the Constitution talks about “inalienable” rights --- rights which cannot/should-not be limited by laws.  We talk about rights based on our human dignity --- we are not like other animals --- even if we cannot bring ourselves to mention God as a source of those rights.  Dropping back to the catechism for a moment, it has this sentence:  “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person.”  1738  This doctrine of the Catholic faith is the reason Catholic bishops are opposed to the HHS mandate on contraception and abortificants:  it limits a person’s right, his inalienable right, to the exercise of freedom in religious matters.  I spoke of limiting rights being permissible in a society when people don’t responsibly exercise freedom --- they infringe on someone else’s rights.  But my religious right to not do or pay for abortion does not infringe someone else, only me.  I can’t make you get an abortion.  Aahhh, but under the revised concept of “rights”, “You have the right to …” make me give you an abortion, or contraceptives.  Or as we’ve seen, to make me give you medical care, or a college education, or a home. 
The definition of rights has been subtly changed from “what I am free to do”, to “what you are free to do to me.”  But the words “I” and “you” are interchangeable, depending on who is speaking.  Who defines “I” and “you?”  As we are now seeing in this country, it is whoever is in power.  Thus the all-consuming effort of people in government to STAY in government:  they have the power to say what your rights are; what can be done TO you.  By subtly changing the meaning of rights, they have ended individual rights, those “inalienable” ones given us by God.     
“What are my rights?” is a scary question right now in America.  I saw it in the newspaper editorial this morning:  “You should have a right to a college education.”  The newspaper editors are in a position of power to demand those “rights.”
The Catholic Church weighs in heavily on the responsibilities associated with freedom, and rights.  “Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary.  Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.” 1734  Freedom involves our will, and we are responsible for forming our will; we can train ourselves to do what is right.  The catechism talks about the morality of our acts, conscience, and virtues as things involved in our freedom, things we can reason on and train ourselves to do better.  “By free will one shapes one’s own life.”  “Human freedom … attains its perfection when directed toward God.”  1731 
So freedom and rights are about doing good things, and good things are those directed toward God.  Rather than commanding what we should not do relative to our neighbor (limits to our freedom), Jesus gave us the Beatitudes, defining how we should behave relative to our neighbor.  At its heart was the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  This understanding, or lack of it in the public sector, is at the heart of the debate over rights.
The Ten Commandments defined limits on what you were free to do under your “rights.”  These commandments became the basis for laws limiting human rights.  Then Jesus came and gave us a more encompassing viewpoint, not only what we “can’t” do, but all that we should do.  Here was a picture, in the Beatitudes, of how to live like Him.  This is the way we should not limit, but use our rights, to love our neighbor.  But while the civil area copied the commandments into laws, it does not copy the Beatitudes, and indeed many now even decry the limits of our “freedom” imposed by the commandments.  Instead of copying the Beatitudes on how we should love others, many focus on the fact that we should love ourselves.  Crying against the Beatitudes, they change its words: “don’t limit what I can do for others” into “don’t limit what I can MAKE THEM do for me.”
The great commandment went from “Love God and you neighbor as yourself” into “Love yourself.”  The temptation of that latter alternative is exactly the temptation of the Garden of Eden.  We saw how “everyone has a right to own a home” turned out in our human existence.  How do you think “everyone has a right to love himself” will turn out relative to our heavenly existence?  God gave Adam and Eve a preliminary example of His thoughts on the matter, and then gave us Jesus to help clarify our thinking.  But it appears many are still confused.  
“What are my rights?”  As we’ve noted, your civil rights today depends on who is in power and what they say.  They can change.  So don’t get too comfortable with your rights to do something to others today, because tomorrow someone else may be in power, to use their “right” to do something to you. 
Our human rights, our rights from God, do not change.  And they are associated with responsibility.  On a comparable basis in civil society there are responsibilities associated with rights also.  You DO have a right to medical care and a college education and even a home.  Your responsibility associated with those rights is to DO what is necessary to obtain those things:  work.  And in the “rare” exception of someone not able to work “the poor old granny who you would throw in the street and starve if the government didn’t give her stuff,” there is a responsibility for me to “freely” give to support her, in love. 
There are so many things we have a right to:  a big-screen color tv, a cell phone, a big new car, fancy clothes, and even drugs.  But if I use my freedom to choose those things and spend my money on them, I am also choosing not to spend my money on food for my kids, for their education, or for my retirement.  Consistently making choices for my immediate happiness means I am not acting responsibly.  To choose the good, to choose God, to love his neighbor, man must make choices that are not focused on himself and things to pleasure his body today.  This is acting in freedom; this is acting responsibly; this is acting in align with the Beatitudes; this is growing in holiness and attaining heaven.
This is my right; no one has a right to take it from me. Or to slyly change the meaning of words, like the ones heard in the Garden:  “You will not die …”


  1. I study the catechism for a month. I read three books. I referenced a half dozen other books. And suddenly it all makes sense, and I understand things better, and document it so that I will remember and, perhaps, that others might understand what I so painfully learned.

    And kam says: "Yup."

    Thank you, kam. Really. Having an affirmation that it really does makes sense gives me consolation, because although I would like to believe that I need no "pat on the back" to continue on, sometimes it helps to know that you are not alone.

    Peace to you, brother.