This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.
I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.
In his encyclical Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII sought to advance the restoration of Christian philosophy against the modern trends of secular philosophy, emerging from Enlightenment rationalism. The critique of modern intellectual errors and the way in which such false thinking manifests itself in the world has deeply shaded my personal reflection on the tragedy of legal abortion.
How are we, as American Catholics, to understand our Second Amendment rights? As the Constitution of the United States is a document made by man, it is subject to errors, and has contained notable ones in the past. Could it possibly be that the “right to bear arms” itself is a mistake? Certainly gun ownership has come under heavy fire in the past few decades, and while this issue hasn’t been as loud as others, it remains a divisive issue (especially since, once again, it is a polarized issue, with the loudest proponents on the Right, and the loudest opponents on the Left). Recently we on the Right celebrated what we viewed as a great victory in the battle for gun rights, as the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the ban on guns in Washington D.C. But should we, as Catholics, see this in the same way?
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.