This quote from Diane Moczar’s book, The Church under Attack: Five Hundred Years that Split the Church and Scattered the Flock, has made me a bad American. As of last Thursday I began to think that some of the supposed “rights” that our forefathers planned for us aren’t necessarily rights. Reading this book enlightened me to the fact that the view of rights that our Founding Fathers had came out of “Enlightenment” thought (and almost all of the thinking from that time opposes the Church’s thought), which is a 180-degree turn from what the West had known before.
I’m almost thirty years old, I have been a Catholic all my life, and I had never heard this before.
So, Dr. Moczar goes on to explain, the Catholic view of “rights” are that they are not abstract or generalizable to everyone. The concept of a “right” (or a “liberty,” to use the traditional term) is defined by the concept of duty. Thus, if I don’t have a duty to do something, I don’t necessarily have a right to do it. This concept of rights gives the answer to that question we all have in the back of our minds, “Where does it stop?” Free speech, for example. Our courts have defended the printing of vile words and images that would have shocked anyone sixty years ago, as “Freedom of speech.” But if our courts thought of rights as tied to duties, they would rule that since there is no duty for anyone to print evil, graphic images and words, there is no “right” to go to press with such material. With this understanding, our culture would have appropriate boundaries for public expression.
Thomas Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence that we should all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I will agree with him now in a very limited way. We all have the right to life, because we have the duty to live, love and serve God. We have a right to the liberties to worship God as He commands us to do, and to do the good and avoid the evil according to our duties in our state of life. But I don’t think we have a duty to pursue happiness—unless by happiness we mean the ultimate happiness that comes from goodness.
It’s clear I have a lot more learning to do: in history, philosophy, and Catholic political thought. (Deo gratias for the current renaissance in Catholic education, arts, and letters!) It seems that Catholic views on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are untenable in modern America–but we were made for greater things than our current American culture holds out to us. With a rediscovery of Truth, we can make our country better than it has ever been!