The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the church’s social teaching proposes principles for reflection; it provides criteria for judgment; it gives guidelines for action” (No. 2423). Occasionally this model is simply expressed in aiding a person of goodwill to “see, judge and act” rightly.
Just like all of church teaching, the themes of Catholic social doctrine form an integrated unity, making it always a challenge to separate them one from another in practice.
In theory, however, really going into depth on one will highlight just how practical this teaching is for our everyday life, both personal and social.
The concept of rights and responsibilities is of great practical importance. As people made in the image of God and living within a particular social, political and religious context, there are certain things that we owe to others in justice and certain things others owe us in justice.
One relationship that bears this out very evidently is that of a parent and child. The child has the responsibility to obey their parents, not because their parents are the wisest and most virtuous people, but because they are the child’s parents. Likewise, the parent has the right to be obeyed when asking something that is reasonable and good.
This right is not because the parents are just that special that everyone owes them obedience. It is precisely the relationship and the context that establishes the right and the responsibility. Someone’s rights often meet someone else’s responsibility.
This same example could be flipped. The child has the right to be cared for and loved by their parents, and the parents have the responsibility to care for and love the child.
St. John XIII wrote in the encyclical, “Pacem in Terris,” that “one man’s natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right” (No. 30).
Ody Ekonwa, a graduate public health student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, sees the interplay of rights and responsibilities play a prominent role in her work with Community Organizing and Family Issues, an organization that helps low-income and working families to come together to better their communities through advocacy on the local, state and federal levels.
“Rights and responsibilities is the idea of respecting individuals,” Ekonwa explained.”(We) work with low-income individuals and immigrants. … One thing COFI does is help people see these people’s rights. The way they do this is to help people organize groups and coalitions.”
For Ekonwa, this work is inseparable from her vocation as a member of the mystical body of Christ. “I think our duty as Catholics is to help one another. No man is an island. There is only so much that we can do by ourselves,” she said.
In training parents to be leaders both within the family and within the broader community, COFI is an organization that encompasses the call to both meet responsibilities and secure the rights that all people and families are due by virtue of their humanity.
Again in “Pacem in Terris,” Pope John XIII listed some of the fundamental rights of man according to church teaching: “the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services” (No. 11).
These rights of all people also represent a responsibility of all people to enable these rights to be met for everyone. Parents have a responsibility to secure these for their children first and foremost, but other parts of society also are obligated to aid and support that “first society” of the family.
We as individuals and societies can ensure everyone’s natural rights are met in a variety of legitimate ways, but we cannot forget that we do have the corresponding responsibility to indeed ensure these rights are met for every person in some way.
By Louis Damani Jones, Catholic News Service
Louis Damani Jones is a member of the board of directors for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is also the 2020 recipient of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award and a co-host for the podcast “Living Communion.”