What do we mean by the Dignity of the Human Person?

"It's my right!" That's a statement frequently heard today. It is also a claim that is often backed up by a lawsuit; we have become a very litigious society. We belong to a culture that tends to see "rights" as weapons to be used against others rather than as means to promote a peaceful and ordered society.

When Pope John XXIII published his encyclical Peace on Earth in 1963 he spoke positively about the fact that we are more conscious of human rights today, and he praised the United Nations for its Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed on December 10, 1948 (no. 143). At the same time Catholic social teaching has always insisted on the difference between genuine human rights and mere individual preferences or advantages. Unfortunately that difference is widely ignored in everyday life and even sometimes in civil legislation. Conor Gearty, a specialist in human rights who teaches at the London School of Economics, has indicated one reason why this difference is often ignored. He points out that even a respected document like the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights fails to provide in its Preamble any clear criterion for determining what is or what is not a human right. It simply provides a list of what are widely regarded as human rights.

In Catholic social teaching the basis for human rights is clear: we have rights because we have duties or obligations. We are reminded that first and foremost we humans have certain duties or responsibilities. It then follows that we have claims to what we need in order to fulfill those responsibilities. This is what is meant by a human right.

The point is that to be human is to be answerable or accountable. We are first of all answerable to God. As humans we have a duty to become what God calls us to be as human beings. Secondly we are answerable to the natural human communities that make us who we are: our family and our social or civic community. So we have a duty to act in such a way as to support the common good of those communities.

Since we have a duty to become what God calls us to be as human beings, we have a human right to what that duty implies. So we have natural rights to life, to food and shelter, to health care, to practise our religion publicly, to receive an education, to marry and have children, and so on.

Since we have a duty to pursue the common good of those natural communities of which we are a part, we have a right to what that implies. For example, we have a natural right to employment and to a living wage to support our family. Pope Pius XII stated: "Nature imposes work upon man as a duty, and man has the corresponding natural right to demand that the work he does shall provide him with the means of livelihood for himself and his children." We also have a natural right to vote and to participate in the life of our political community, to possess property, and so on.

If something is going to be claimed as a natural human right, that claim must be supported by showing that it corresponds to a natural obligation or duty that we have either to God or to the common good. Do I have a natural human right to get drunk? Clearly not, because my duty to God is live in accord with reason, and so to pursue a life that involves the disciplined exercise of my appetites. Do I have a natural right to bring about my own death or arrange to have others do so? I do not, because my duty to God is to preserve my life so long as that is under my control.

Do I have a natural human right to possess as much property as I can manage to acquire? In many cases, the answer would be no, because my property-holding, as well as my business practice, has to respect the requirements of the common good. Do I have a natural human right to distribute pornographic literature? Again, the answer would be no, because such activity is contrary to the human duty to become what God calls humans to be. Do I have a natural human right to spread falsehood? Obviously I do not since a well-ordered society has to be based on truth.

In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict speaks sadly of the contrast in our world between a so-called "right" to excess, even to vice, in rich societies, and a lack of food, good water, elementary health care in poor societies. (no. 43)

As Catholics we have a serious responsibility to defend human rights. At the same time we need to be alert to the many situations today in which various groups of people and even some political leaders claim as natural rights what are in fact only individual preferences or advantages. The key question to ask is: If you claim that particular reality or activity as a natural right, then what natural duty do you have that supports that claim? In what way does your accountability to God or to the common good involve the entitlement you claim?