The Foundation of Rights in Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI from the Perspective of the Gift

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Pope Benedict begins the third chapter of his encyclical Caritas in Veritate with the following words:

   Charityin truth places man before the astonishing experience of
   gift. Gratuitousness is present in our fives in many different
   forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist
   and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for
   gift. ... Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the
   sole author of himself, his fife, and society. This is a
   presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon
   himself. ... (1)

He had stated earlier that truth grasps the meaning of charity as "gift, acceptance, and communion." (2) It follows, then, that the human person is created for love, an affirmation that should not be surprising coming from a Pope. The incongruity seems to appear when "charity as gift" is accorded the important and even systematically central place given it by Pope Benedict in his encyclical on social justice and economics. (3) A similar incongruity suggests itself in the context, if one notes the difficulty in resolving a twofold tension: one between a free individual and the claim made on him by a "law," and the other between the individual and a similarly free individual "over and against" whom he exercises a claim by virtue of a "right." In the first instance, the law is in the vertical dimension: it stands "above" and claims to bind him, a free individual; in the second, he makes a claim on another free individual in the horizontal dimension. If one understands freedom in the full and proper personal sense, the proposition that a "law" has its foundation in the "good" cannot reconcile the freedom of the individual and the binding character of the law. Nor can this occur with the reduction of the binding character to the "agreement" to limit individual claims as a matter of practical necessity. Pope John Paul II considers such a reduction as precisely excluding objective interpersonal bonds:

   [S]ome kind of compromise must be found, if one wants a society in
   which the maximum possible freedom is guaranteed to each
   individual. In this way, any reference to common values and to a
   truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life
   ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism. At that
   point, everything is negotiable, everything is open to bargaining:
   even the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life. (4)

It is interesting that explaining the ensuing relativism in the same paragraph, Pope John Paul II simply and correctly notes, "right' ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part." (5)

I do not intend to dispute in the present Article what has become a formulaic assertion in Catholic circles, that human rights are grounded in the dignity of the human person (6) and, one almost invariably finds added, in the fact that man has been created in the image of God. (7) Yet this truth is not grasped with a theoretical clarity sufficient to raise consciousness about the very thing Pope John Paul II notes in the preceding two paragraphs, the "surprising" and the "remarkable" contradiction between the affirmation of human rights in words and their denial in deeds. (8) In the context of these paragraphs, he indicates cultural and moral reasons for this remarkable contradiction. In plain language they are selfishness; in more theoretical language they are a concept of subjectivity pushed to the extreme. He lists a number of explanations for the violation of the value and dignity of human life identified as foundation for human rights. (9) One of these is the crisis of culture that "makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights and his duties." (10) But he gives only a brief indication of what might be taken as a theoretical explanation or grounding of this dignity itself or of the meaning, that is, of the nature of rights and duties. …