The following story appeared in the October 21 Idaho Catholic Register.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of columns, “Made in His Image,” on Catholic social teaching by Eddie Trask.
By Eddie Trask
For Idaho Catholic Register
The third theme of Catholic social teaching is Rights and Responsibilities.
Regarding this theme, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states: “The Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities – to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.”
As with other social themes, the Church emphasizes inherent dignity – not for a few or many, but for all. Regardless of our education, our social status, our zip code, or any other social classification, healthy communities are not possible if we do not equally recognize our rights and the rights of others. This vision for humanity is only attainable through God-graced charity. This theme encompasses the Christian charge to love ourselves, our neighbor and – above all – God. Doing so helps us to avoid turning inward and pursuing selfish ambition.
At the basis of this teaching is the foundational right to life. This right acknowledges a heartbeat, a precious soul, a dignified life – no matter how small or handicapped. As Pope St. John Paul II noted, in Christifideles Laici (“On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful”): “The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”
In other words – using abortion as one example – it is short-sighted and foolish to fight for human rights if the point from which we all began is disregarded or defined in increasingly abstract terms that attempt to make the meaning of conception irrelevant. If the weakest and most innocent among all living beings are left to fend for themselves, what can we rationally say about our human rights?
For those fortunate enough to be living and breathing, human rights often seem to be a given. By virtue of our existence, we all desire justice. This applies to all: the unborn, the weak, the marginalized, the imprisoned, the refugees and migrants, the sick and the dying. Shouldn’t the realization of our innate worth translate to those who do not have the capacity to do the same?
By virtue of knowing we are alive and would willingly fight for our existence, we should naturally want to fight for those who cannot help themselves. By defending the weakest – whether in or out of the womb – we foster the strongest communities.
Pope St. John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”) writes: “In human society, one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.”
In other words, it is foolish to incessantly talk about ourselves and our individual rights without acknowledging and advocating for others’ rights. Our dignity is equal to the dignity of others. Therefore, as indicated in other social teachings of the Church, a human being who lives and acts in isolation does not advance the greater good. A person with this mindset may insist on his or her God-given rights, but if they do not likewise see the equivalent need of others, they are short-changing their community.
There are several Bible verses that help complete this theme’s picture. Isaiah 1:16-17, with its theme of seeking justice by rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow, speaks to this topic. James 1:27 reminds us to look after the vulnerable among us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
We cannot recognize the vulnerable among us if we are looking only inward. We cannot recognize “the least of these,” as mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, if we only associate with specific people. This sort of myopic viewpoint can distract us from a broader worldview that seeks to understand the fabric of humanity and its innate dignity.
Lastly, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 reminds us that we all possess different gifts. These gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded. Practically speaking, it means we live with others in mind. This is charity. And it is this type of charity that promotes a future of diminished class warfare and increased human solidarity.
Our individual rights and responsibilities are important, but must be equal to those of our neighbor. Other-wise, we will fashion our own islands while foolishly insisting such an approach will lead to a utopia.
Trask, a convert to the Catholic Church, is employed by the Augustine Institute as a project manager for the “Amen” social media application. He has an MBA in market research from Sonoma State University and worked in marketing for the wine industry be-fore moving to Idaho. He is the author of “Confession All: A Humiliating, Tormented Pilgrimage to God’s Will.” His website is eddietrask.com. He and his wife are the parents of five children.
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