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Rights and Responsibilities

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November 21, 2011

“Every person has a fundamental right to life,” say the U.S. Bishops, “the right that makes all other rights possible. Each person also has a right to the conditions for living a decent life—faith and family life, food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing. We also have a duty to secure and respect these rights not only for ourselves, but for others, and to fulfill our responsibilities to our families, to each other, and to the larger society.”  (Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, 2003.)

Rights and responsibilities are inextricably tied:  “The obligation to earn one’s bread presumes the right to do so.”  (The Hundredth Year, Centesimus Annus, John Paul II, 1991)  

Emphasizing rights and neglecting responsibility leads to contradictions and threats to the common good.  Much of the discussion in politics today is focused on individual rights, and neglects the corresponding responsibilities including our corporate responsibility to each other and future generations.  

Rights

Human rights can be, and often are, interpreted very broadly and are sometimes confused with desires or wants.  In Catholic social teaching, the rights related to the basic necessities of living a dignified life take center stage.

In his Address to the 34th General Assembly of the United Nations, John Paul II enumerated the basic rights of all individuals: 

“The right to life, liberty and security of the person; the right to food, clothing, housing, sufficient health care, rest, and leisure; the right to freedom of expression, education and culture; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to manifest one’s religion either individually or in community, in public or in private; the right to choose a state of life, to found a family and to enjoy all conditions necessary for family life; the right to property and work, to adequate working conditions and a just wage; the right of assembly and association; the right to freedom of movement, to internal and external migration; the right to nationality and residence; the right to political participation and the right to participate in the free choice of the political system of the people to which one belongs.”

The effort to insure these rights often leads to conflict – between and within nations.  And it often leads to conflict among individuals, especially if “my” perceived right conflict with “your” perceived right.  That’s why discussion and, eventual, consensus on the common good is essential in our politics and society.  We can sometimes be called to sacrifice our right so that others can enjoy theirs.

Responsibilities

We have individual duties, such as to care for ourselves and our families, and social duties, such as promotion of the common good in reducing poverty and improving education, transportation, environment, safety, health care and other areas.

In today’s world, for instance, what responsibilities do government, investors, economist, financial institutions, corporations and others have in solving the financial crisis facing our nation?  Can they be allowed to take advantage of the situation, or are they called to temper their actions?  In the same vein, can an individual enter into a loan agreement he or she cannot possibly pay back?  Because the state offers unemployment assistance, can an individual stop looking for a job?

The individual responsibility is often very clear and relatable.  No one wants to be a “deadbeat” and we admire the “self-made person.”

But the social and corporate responsibility is sometimes less discernable.  Few of us are solitary decision makers in a corporation or other organization.  It is easier to dismiss our part or the role we play.  It matters little if we save gas because we are after all “only one person” or “nobody else does it.”  How responsible are we for the gas crises and pollution by ourselves?

Obviously, the levels or responsibility are different, but not the basic premise.