Meditations for Layfolks - Rights

What constitutes a right? for the word has a significance sacred in civilization. It is a word invoked by all who are oppressed, and it finds a response in every heart. It is a phrase that crosses my lips very often, but what exactly does it signify? for though it has been the battlecry of freedom, it has also been used to justify the most terrible tyranny. Every rebel against authority takes to himself the name of right, and every act of authority bases itself on the same sacred claim. How am I to know in my own case and in the cases of others, what is meant by the word? How can I tell whether really I have a right to this or that? What do I mean by my right to live, to serve God according to my conscience, to hold property, to demand from the state that my children be educated according to my religious beliefs? Of course, I am using these expressions every day of my life, but let me calmly in the presence of God try to make out what they really signify. I am led to this thought first of all, that the word right is not primary, but secondary; that is to say, it is based upon something else which is even more sacred. Every right is dependent on some duty which must precede it. I can have no rights except in so far as I have duties; and apart from what I owe to God, myself, and my neighbour, I have no real justification for any of my rights. That is the first and most important idea that I have to impress upon my mind, the intimate relation between the two things; so that I should never in my mind think of one without thinking also of the other.

Rights must, therefore, be described as the means to achieve duties. Once I find that I have a duty to perform, I shall find all sorts of conclusions following at once, and these conclusions establish definite rights. Thus my conscience informs me that I have certain duties to God, therefore I can fitly argue I have a right to all those things that enable me to fulfil those duties. I claim a right to attend Mass, to approach the sacraments, etc.: I find, again, that I have duties to myself, to the cultivation and development of my own soul, to the application of the various talents which God has confided to me. Then, obviously, I have a right to all those things which enable me to carry out these duties. Parents have rights over, because they have duties to, their young children; and the children, just because they have duties to their parents, must have rights also from their parents. Similarly, if I have certain duties to the State, I must also have claims of my own that are valid against the State. To repeat, the two ideas are interrelated, interdependent; I may, therefore, quite shortly define a right as the necessary means to achieve an essential end. Once I am convinced that I have something to do, incumbent upon me in my position as a creature or a member of a state or family or church, then I must claim and endeavour to make good my claim to those things which are necessary for my so doing.

This enlarges at once my idea of my rights, and imposes a responsibility on me on every occasion that I use that sacred word. I cannot claim anything as a moral right until I can prove that it is necessary for the fulfilment of some essential duty. Hence it is that if I can keep this idea well before my mind, I am in little danger of getting selfish in my life. If, whenever I find myself speaking of my rights (even in ordinary conversation), I set to work at once to see whether they are rights at all and what corresponding duties they oblige me to perform, I shall find that I shall not be so quick or so insistent in asserting them. It is a pity that the word "right" has become so popular a word, and the word "duty" so dull and respectable: for many people cannot stop talking of the one who imagine it to be old-fashioned even to mention the other. Duties themselves do, indeed, demand in their performance some tax upon my pleasure or my will. I must deny myself something: to do what I ought to do, there must always be some self-sacrifice. My rights, therefore, become nothing more than the requisite opportunities for denying my own will. Let me clamour, therefore, through life, never for rights, but for the better understanding of my own destiny, and only assert that I must be allowed to fulfil my duty. Let me never use the word "right" without the swift consciousness of the duty involved: for rights from the very nature of the thing have nothing at all to do with private privileges (which are exceptions on the whole to be reprobated, and seldom if ever to be demanded), but sacred obligations.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.