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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

3/13/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

the Church's social doctrine includes not only inalienable rights, but also the other side of the rights equation: inalienable duties.

Though both the Enlightenment thinkers and the Church agree that inalienable or unalienable rights pre-exist the State and relate to the common good, the Church's social doctrine is broader as it includes not only inalienable "rights," but also the other side of the rights equation: inalienable "duties."


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

3/13/2012 (3 years ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: inalienable rights, inalienable duties, Social Teaching, Social Doctrine, Common Good, American founders, Right to Life, Duty to defend life, Andrew M. Greenwell

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The political community is ordered to the promotion of the common good.  Intimately tied to the common good--in a manner that the two cannot be separated--are the fundamental and inalienable human rights.  No political community is promoting the common good where these fundamental and inalienable human rights are trespassed or not enforced. 

It follows that the political community has as one of its principal purposes the defense and promotion of these fundamental and inalienable human rights.  Here the American Declaration and Catholic social doctrine are in perfect agreement and accord.

Compare the words of the Declaration of Independence with the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

First the Declaration: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . ."

Now the Compendium: "Considering the human person as the foundation and purpose of the political community means in the first place working to recognize and respect human dignity through defending and promoting fundamental and inalienable human rights: 'In our time the common good is chiefly guaranteed when personal rights and duties are maintained.'  (Compendium, No. 388) (quoting John XXIII, Pacem in terris, 273)

The distinction between alienable and unalienable rights in Jefferson's Declaration appears to have come from the moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson.  In his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue first published in 1725 and highly regarded by the Founding Fathers, Hutcheson clearly anticipates the language eventually appearing in the Declaration of Independence: "For wherever any Invasion is made upon unalienable Rights, there must arise either a perfect, or external Right to Resistance. . . . Unalienable Rights are essential Limitations in all Governments."  

Though unmentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but stressed in the Compendium, Hutcheson also linked these unalienable rights with the common good, stating in the same book, that "there can be no Right, or Limitation of Right, inconsistent with, or opposite to the greatest publick Good."

Though both the Enlightenment thinkers and the Church agree that inalienable or unalienable rights pre-exist the State and relate to the common good, the Church's social doctrine is broader as it includes not only inalienable "rights," but also the other side of the rights equation: inalienable "duties."
"The rights and duties of the person contain a concise summary of the principal moral and juridical requirements that must preside over the construction of the political community.  These requirements constitute an objective norm on which positive law is based and which cannot be ignored by the political community, because both in existential being and in final purpose the human person precedes the political community.  Positive law must guarantee that fundamental human needs are met." (Compendium, No. 388)

Natural right and natural duty-the natural law-comes before the State and is what should inform our laws.

In this regard, the political philosophy underlying the Declaration of Independence and the philosophy underlying the Church's Social Doctrine are aligned.

The role of political authority is to assure that its citizens can pursue the good life.  "The political community pursues the common good when it seeks to create a human environment that offers citizens the possibility of truly exercising their human rights and of fulfilling completely their corresponding duties." (Compendium, No. 388, 389) 

In other words, governments are instituted among men to protect the "moral ecology" or the "social ecology" of a people.  We might borrow from Robert Bellah who in his Habits of the Heart defined "moral ecology" or "social ecology" as "[t]he web of moral understandings and commitments that tie people together in community."

If this is indeed the case, our government has unquestionably failed in its fundamental task.  The "web of moral understandings and commitments" that tie Americans together, including commitments to the right to life, to marriage and family life, to modesty, to respect, to self-sufficiency, seems to be unraveling at breakneck speed. 

The political community is not a "necessary evil" in its best state, as Thomas Paine called it in his book Liberty and Great Libertarians (though he was certainly right that in its worst state it is an "intolerable evil").  Rather, the political community is a positive good and required both as part of the nature of man, who is a political animal. 

This notion of the political community is as old as Aristotle who taught in his Politics "that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal." (1253a1-3)  The political community civilizes man, makes him a man, for a man without a city would in reality either be a beast or a sort of god, and certainly not man.  "He who is without a city through nature rather than chance is either a mean sort [beast] or superior to man [god]." (1253a4-5)

Not only is the political community something that is natural to man, it is, as a matter of experience, something practically required to prevent might of any kind from gaining the upper hand over right:

"Experience has taught us that, unless these [political] authorities take suitable action with regard to economic, political, and cultural matters, inequalities between citizens tend to become more and more widespread, especially in the modern world, and as a result human rights are rendered totally ineffective and the fulfillment of duties is compromised." (Compendium, No. 389)

The relationship of the political community to these fundamental human rights and duties is two-fold if it is to accord with the common good.

First, it must defend and promote these inalienable rights and respect the inalienable human duties an equal manner so that one group is not given preeminence over another with respect to these fundamental rights.  "It should not happen that certain individual or social groups derive special advantage from the fact that their rights have received preferential protection." (Compendium, No. 390)  The political community and its organs are not a res privata, a private thing, but they are a res publica, a public thing.

Obviously, our government has failed abysmally in this area-most poignantly by failing to do anything to stop the massive assault on the right to life of the smallest of its citizens-to the point such a judicious mind such as the natural law philosopher Russell Hittinger's has suggested the government is suffering a "crisis of legitimacy." 

Second, the political community and its organs of government should not, in the name of protecting or promoting those rights, become a sort of officious and high-handed intermeddler so that "in seeking to protect these [inalienable human] rights," it becomes an obstacle "to their full expression and free use." (Compendium, No. 389) 

What is even worse is when the government becomes an obstacle to the full expression and free use of real inalienable rights, when it promotes and protects the interests of a special interest and their false rights whether it be such "rights" as the abortion "rights" demanded by the radical feminists or the homosexual marriage "rights" of the LGBT groups.  This is the trap a government falls into when it promotes the right over the good.


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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