A REFLECTION ON RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

by Pat Guzman

Rights and responsibilities. Do these words go always together when we think about people in the context of the society?  Do we need to talk about both at the same time when we address social, economic, and political harmony or conflict?  Do we know why sometimes these words drift apart?  The current media environment uses loosely the meaning of these words creating confusion that gives way to idle discussions among the so-called experts.  At times, these individuals portray the concepts behind these words as if one word is more important than the other or that one applies to citizens and the other to the government or vice versa depending upon current events.  To make matters worse, politicians apply the meaning of these words based on their agendas, especially when these are at stake.  We cannot agree on the meaning of “rights and responsibilities” unless we know the conceptual definition of these words for us, Catholics.

Rights and responsibilities. Do these words go always together when we think about people in the context of the society?  Do we need to talk about both at the same time when we address social, economic, and political harmony or conflict?  Do we know why sometimes these words drift apart?  The current media environment uses loosely the meaning of these words creating confusion that gives way to idle discussions among the so-called experts.  At times, these individuals portray the concepts behind these words as if one word is more important than the other or that one applies to citizens and the other to the government or vice versa depending upon current events.  To make matters worse, politicians apply the meaning of these words based on their agendas, especially when these are at stake.  We cannot agree on the meaning of “rights and responsibilities” unless we know the conceptual definition of these words for us, Catholics.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (1995) in their report on the Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education included the definition of Rights and Responsibilities as follows:
In a world where some speak mostly of “rights” and others mostly of “responsibilities,” the Catholic tradition teaches that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. Therefore, every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities, to one another, to our families, and to the larger society. While public debate in our nation is often divided between those who focus on personal responsibility and those who focus on social responsibilities, our tradition insists that both are necessary.

The teachings speak to a balance of rights and responsibilities.  Otherwise, the gap created, when they are separated or individualized, opens a path to discrimination, human trafficking, neglect, abandonment, or abuse.  Sadly, this gap appears to be wide open in the 21st century across the globe.  St. John XXIII (1963) spoke about a human society that in order to be well-ordered and productive, it needed to lay down as a strong foundation the principle that human beings are persons empowered with intelligence and free will.  He stressed that we have rights and responsibilities precisely because they flow from our own nature; that is, we were created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26, The New American Bible).  Thus, these rights and duties are universal, inviolable, and cannot be surrendered.

It is not enough, however, to believe and acknowledge these rights and obligations. We should strive to give life to these teachings and become advocates for the preservation and respect for human dignity.   In all we do with everything we have, we should strive to be generous, charitable, serving, and solidary.  Every encounter with a human being is an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to contributing to the common good.  We should look for opportunities to join ministries that serve those in need, to participate in advocacy, to be guardians of ethical principles, to be responsible caretakers of natural resources, to vote responsibly, and to have a voice of action.

We are never alone when we act to champion and protect human dignity; the Spirit of God is always inspiring, supporting, and counseling us. Through a lively faith, we will inspire others to follow our lead.  Benedict XVI (2009) affirmed:
God’s love calls us to move beyond the limited and the ephemeral, it gives us the courage to continue seeking and working for the benefit of all, even if this cannot be achieved immediately. . . . God gives us the strength to fight and to suffer for love of the common good, because he is our All, our greatest hope. (p. 49)

 

References
Benedict XVI. Vatican. Caritas in Veritate. 29 Jun. 2009. 22 Sep. 2016.
John XXIII.  Vatican.  Pacem in Terris.  11 Apr. 1963. 20 Sep. 2016.
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (1995). Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and DirectionsRetrieved September 16, 2016.

Pat Guzman is a retired executive from one of the top consulting firms in the U.S. She holds the knowledge, experience, and insights of a 38-year career as a consultant. Currently, Pat is a Social Services volunteer at St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Houston, Texas. She manages the Food Pantry, serves Meals-on-Wheels, teaches ESL, and is a member of the Social Services Board. Pat holds a Doctorate in Organizational Management and a Master’s degree in Management Information Systems.