Catholic Rights Talk
It’s become increasingly common for the Church to talk about “rights” when describing our fundamental duties to our fellow men. Reading through Faithful Citizenship, you’ll find several references to the “fundamental right” to life, echoing statements by the late Pope John Paul II in various encyclicals. However you’ll also find reference to the right to a just wage, housing, accessible health care, the choice of where to educate one’s children, etc. For instance: “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right.” (Faithful Citizenship, 80) “Parents—the first and most important educators—have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private, and religious schools.” (Faithful Citizenship, 72)
I must admit, I really wish the Church had not got into using “rights” terminology at all — in part because I think the Church is using the term “right” in a different way from the standard American usage, thus causing confusion; and in part because it seems to me that it reverses the direction of obligation in human actions.
What is a right to health care or a right to a just wage? When we get down to it, it is not a personal right to have any particular thing. (After all, how could we have an innate right to medical procedures that didn’t even exist until the last fifty years of human history; or a right to wages at a certain level when for most of human history most people have lived pretty much by subsistence.)
Rather, this “rights talk” seems to me a sort of backward discussion of our mutual obligations to one another.
When we say in a Catholic context that people have a right to basic health care, what we mean (unless I am much mistaken) is that as human beings we have the duty to provide whatever medical assistance is within our power to our neighbors. “Care for the sick.” Five hundred years ago, that might mostly have meant simply visiting the sick, providing them with food and drink, and seeing to their basic personal needs as much as possible. Today, with the greater means of caring for health that are available to us in the modern world, it means making sure that people who need them receive modern medicines and other forms of appropriate care. But they key is not that each person has an innate right to specific medical procedures or a specific level of care, but rather that as human persons we have an innate obligation to care for our fellow creatures via whatever means possible.
Similarly, when we talk about a “right” to a just wage, it seems to me that this cannot be taken to mean that people have some sort of innate right to a specific monetary wage level (say, a right to make at least $20/hr) nor more generally a right to make enough to have a certain lifestyle relative to the rest of society (a right to make at least 1/5th as much as the richest person in one’s region.) Rather, it seems to me that the right to a just wage is essentially an obligation of one who controls labor (whether that be a modern employer or a medieval lord of the manor) to see that those who work for him receive a fair portion of the value that their work produces.
In this sense, the terminology of “rights” (at least to American ears) strikes me as being counter-productive in discussing Catholic moral teaching. Saying that someone has a “right” to something seems to connote an idea of: “All right, you owe this to me. Where is it? I’ve got a right to it!” Whereas, I think that what the Church has come to refer to with “rights” terminology is an obligation that each one of us bears to our neighbors.