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Duties Before Rights

Interview With Director of Van Thuan Observatory

VERONA, Italy, DEC. 16, 2006 (Zenit) - By promoting a culture of rights without first promoting a culture of duties, society creates a "babel" of rights in which the strong prevail over the weak, says the director the Van Thuan Observatory.

Stefano Fontana, who heads the institute that promotes the social doctrine of the Church, is also the author of "Per una politica dei doveri dopo il fallimento della stagione dei diritti" (For a Politics of Duties After the Failure of the Season of Rights), published in Italian by Cantagalli of Siena.

In this interview, the author explains why it is necessary for a society to not only promote duties, but to make them a priority.

Q: Two questions immediately come to mind when reading the title of your book. The first is: Has the season of rights failed already? Are we still far from the complete fulfillment of human rights?

Fontanta: It is true that many people in the world do not enjoy even the most basic human rights. But I wonder: Isn't this because other people in the world have sped up the race for the state of the art rights to the point that they have transformed all their desires into rights?

Q: But the Church, and especially Pope John Paul II, has been a leading advocate for human rights for a very long time.

Fontana: The question is not to deny rights, in fact the opposite is true. The point is that we have to understand that without duties rights spiral upon themselves, they annul each other. In the end, the babel of rights leads to the triumph of the right of the strongest. The rights themselves, in order to be truly such, must accept the priority of duty over them. This is the right way to protect rights and the Church has always done that.

Q: Why talk about the priority of duty? Isn't it enough to reaffirm the complementarity between duties and rights?

Fontana: Any right has a corresponding duty and vice versa, this is absolutely true but it is not sufficient. It is easy, in fact, to artificially fabricate a duty that can be used as a justification for a new right. In Italy, the right to abortion is recognized by a law that starts from the duty to nurture life. The right to euthanasia is based on the duty to relieve suffering. The complementarity between rights and duties is true but is susceptible to ideological manipulation. We really have to go back to the priority of duty.

Q: And this priority of duties would be grounded on what?

Fontana: On the priority of receiving and accepting over producing. We do not produce ourselves but we receive and accept ourselves. We do not produce nature but we receive and accept it, we do not produce culture but we receive and accept it. Of course, we also do produce, but on the basis of an original receiving and accepting.

Q: Receiving and accepting implies a duty?

Fontana: Duty is "being available" while a right is "to have the availability of" something. This is why duty does not come from within us but from the outside. Now we have to decide if we are our own masters and the masters of our own being or if we, ourselves, and our own being are entrusted to us as a task. Modern thought holds the first belief and therefore absolutizes rights, I hold the second belief and thus I start from the duties, i.e., from a call, from a task that has been entrusted to us.

Q: It seems to me that the "I" is a rather risky concept: Isn't the "I," i.e., the subject, the place of free creativity? After all, we are who we want to be. We are the architects of our lives.

Fontana: According to the modern notion of consciousness, this is true: the "I" is a pure consciousness that shapes itself as it wishes. However, according to Christian philosophy, from Augustine to Wojtyla, the "I" is not pure consciousness, but is consciousness of being, i.e., it is a subject that becomes aware that it is something that is given to itself. I am first and foremost also a task for myself, I am a duty to myself, I cannot even dispose of myself, as well as of others, as I wish.

Q: In other words, the priority of duty over rights is the response to a call that comes from outside, from transcendence that is?

Fontana: Rights refer to the right to do something. Thus, they refer to having the availability of something. Instead, duty is to be available. Thus, it refers to a dimension that is unavailable to me, which I cannot use but which I must serve. Since it refers to the unavailable, duty always refers to the transcendent. As Dostoevsky said, without God there is nothing a man is bound not do; i.e., there are only rights and not duties.

Q: In the title we see the word "politics." What does politics have to do with duties?

Fontana: Our society is dying from rights. The right to produce man in laboratories and, in general, the right of doing any action is absolutizing technology, and technology alone is deadly. Rights will never put a limit on themselves. Rights are the right to do something; there will always be new things to do and therefore new rights, without any limits. Limits stem from duties. A politics of duties is a politics of sense and of limit.

Q: A politics of duties, where do we start?

Fontana: A politics of duties concerns all social spheres. However, if I were to suggest a starting point, I would say it is the theme of life. It is the first duty we are entrusted with, the first duty that is placed in our hands. When life is denied, all the subsequent duties are weakened and at the end only the rights prevail.

Q: Could you suggest other realms where a politics of duties might be urgent?

Fontana: I think about the fact that we have many universal declarations of rights but none of duties. I think about the fact that no community identity can be created without duties and therefore the dialogue between cultures is extremely difficult. I think about the crisis of citizenship if it does not become an ethical citizenship, i.e., one that is grounded on sharing duties. I think about the many subjects of civil society that would be ready to take on new responsibilities, i.e., duties.


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