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Catholic Social Doctrine: Human Rights are Given, Not Taken

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By Andrew Greenwell, Esq.
11/14/2011 (7 years ago)
Catholic Online (

Human rights are simply given by God. They are not to be taken by the State or by any human being without giving offense to God.

Human rights are not something that man creates out of whole cloth, on mere subjective whim, by social contract, or through popular vote. Human rights are based upon an objective moral order.  Human rights are built upon human dignity, which comes from the fact that man is made in the image and likeness of God and is called to communion with God. 

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The Church has adopted into her teaching the modern language of human rights with some important qualifications.  It insists that human rights be understood within the limits of human nature and natural law.  By being grafted into the Church's notions of human nature and natural law, the modern concept of human rights can be reconciled quite felicitously with the traditional social doctrine of the Church. 

Unfortunately, the concept of human rights is often misunderstood even perverted by its most vociferous advocates, and so we have such anomalies and absurdities such as the view that men have a right to define marriage as they see fit, that women have a right to an abortion, that men have a right to take their own life if it seems to them (or to others) too burdensome.

The expansion of rights without any sort of basis other than the will of the person decrying its supposed infraction is proof that there is something more than the word "right" required to make a right.  There has to be a reference to an objective moral order.

In the Church's view, human rights are not something that man creates out of whole cloth, on mere subjective whim, by social contract, or through popular vote.  Man is not the measure of human rights.  God is the measure of human rights.  In the eyes of the Church, human rights are based upon an objective moral order.  Most fundamentally, human rights are built upon human dignity, which, as we may recall, comes from the fact that man is made in the image and likeness of God and is called to communion with God.  The "roots of human rights," the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church observes, "are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being." (Compendium, No. 152)

Amidst the incessant, frequently irresponsible and cacophonous "rights talk," how do we distinguish true and authentic human rights from their counterfeit? 

The Church directs us to two sources: reason and nature, on the one hand, and Revelation, on the other.  "The natural foundation of rights appears all the more solid when, in the light of the supernatural, it is considered that human dignity, after having been given by God and having been profoundly wounded by sin, was taken on and redeemed by Jesus Christ in his incarnation, death, and resurrection." (Compendium, No. 153)

The fundamental source of human rights is human nature, which is to say, that nature as created by God.  God, then, may be said to be the ultimate guarantor as He is the ultimate foundation of human rights.  Human rights are therefore different from civil rights, the latter being based upon the positive laws of the State.  What the State gives, the State may give away.  But human rights are not given and taken.

Human rights are simply given by God.  They are not to be taken by the State or by any human being without giving offense to God.  "The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human being, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator." (Compendium, No. 153)

Since human rights are given by God, they enjoy a four-part quality. They are universal.  They are inviolable.  They are inalienable.  They are indivisible.

Human rights are universal.  Inasmuch as they are founded upon human nature, they are "present in all human beings, without exception of time, place, or subject." (Compendium, No. 153)  These rights, like the natural law upon which they are ultimate based, apply equally to all humans irrespective of condition.

Not only are human rights universal, they are also inviolable.  They are inviolable because "they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity."  Other humans and human institutions, therefore, have an obligation to recognize the inviolability of human rights.

Finally, human rights are inalienable.  "No one," the Compendium states quoting John Paul II, "can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature." (Compendium, No. 153)

The universal, inviolable, and inalienable quality of human rights means that they must be defended "not only individually, but also as a whole." They are therefore indivisible.  They are a sort of total package, encompass man in his integrity, covering both body and soul, both "material and spiritual spheres," from the first beginning of his life to his natural death.

The indivisibility of human rights means that we are not entitled to select some human rights and ignore others or promote one to the expense of another.  "The integral promotion of every category of human rights is the true guarantee of full respect for each individual right."  Moreover, the indivisibility of human rights requires that they be recognized to "apply to every stage of life and to every political, social, economic, and cultural situation." (Compendium, No. 67)

In terms of identifying the more important of these human rights, the Compendium draws from John Paul II's social encyclical Centesimus Annus.  They include: (1) "the right to life, an integral part of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother's womb from the moment of conception;" (2) "the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child's personality;" (3) "the right to develop one's intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth;" (4) "the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth's material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one's dependents;" (5) "the right freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible exercise of one's sexuality;" and (5) the right of religious freedom, "understood as the right to live in the truth of one's faith and in conformity with one's transcendent dignity as a person." (Compendium, No. 155)

Particularly in the dissolute West, we speak often of "rights," but rarely of "duties."  Yet for the Church, rights and duties are correlative principles.  Rights and duties are "inextricably connected."  They are mutually complementary.  They are "indissolubly linked." (Compendium,No. 156)  For every right there is a corresponding duty. Human rights are like coins, they have an opposite face which shows a duty.

To speak only of rights while disregarding duties is irresponsible.  To do so is, to use Pope John XXIII's image from his encyclical Pacem in terris, akin to one who builds with one hand and destroys with the other.  "The Magisterium underlines the contradiction inherent in affirming rights without acknowledging corresponding responsibilities." (Compendium, No. 156)  The Church's notion of human rights is clearly different from that notion espoused by modern liberalism or moral relativism, which tend to think only of rights, and never of duties.

There is a sort of irony in the modern preoccupation with human rights in that there is a huge credibility gap between word and deed, between the lip service given to rights and the "painful reality of violations, wars and violence of every kind, in the first place, genocides and mass deportations, the spreading on a virtual worldwide dimension of every new forms of slavery such as trafficking in human beings, child soldiers, the exploitation of workers, illegal drug trafficking, prostitution." (Compendium, No. 158)

With respect to human rights, we are like the Pharisees of old of whom Jesus observed: "for they say, and do not do." (Matt. 23:2) The Compendium calls this a "gap between the 'letter' and the 'spirit' of human rights."  We must therefore work towards closing this gap and assuring a greater correlation between word and deed, letter and spirit. But there is more.

As Christians, we are called to perform acts of sacrifice when it comes to rights: "The Church's social doctrine, in consideration off the privilege accorded by the Gospel to the poor, repeats over and over that the 'the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others." (Compendium, No. 159)  We must remember Christ's words: "as long as you did it not to one of the least of these, neither did you do it to me." (Matt. 25:45)

How, then, can human rights be anything else than part of the message of the Gospel? The Church sees the promotion of human rights as part of her evangelical duties.  "This pastoral commitment develops in a twofold direction: in the proclamation of the Christian foundations of human rights and in the denunciation of the violations of these rights." (Compendium, No. 159)


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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