II Catholicism and Natural RightsLet me note that much of what Dr. Kraynak wrote above also arguably applies to traditional forms of orthodox Protestant Christianity, as he intimated. Kraynak would go on to detail these claims in his book, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy. I first became familiar with Kraynak's claims when I read the work of orthodox Protestant Dr. Gregg Frazer which further details why orthodox Christians generally (whether Protestant OR Catholic) ought to view these issues similarly.
What has Catholicism to do with these six sources of the American political tradition and with developments in that tradition since the colonial and founding periods? Not a great deal, as far as I can tell. Of the six elements mentioned above, only English common law could be said to have a direct Catholic connection. In its origins, common law is part of the Christian "higher law" tradition; it arose sometime during the feudal period of Catholic England, as Stanton Evans shows in his book, The Theme is Freedom. But I doubt if one could say that English common law is Catholic per se, since it did not arise in other Catholic nations (although some scholars such as Kenneth Farrington argue that a jus commune or common law tradition, including certain protections for liberty, emerged in the late middle ages on the European continent as well). As for the other strands of the American tradition, one would be hard-pressed to find a direct Catholic connection ....
In other areas of America, one can find historical Catholic influences-for example, in colonial Maryland (under Lord Baltimore's Catholic proprietorship, until the end of the seventeenth century, with its briefexperiment with religious liberty), in education (in the many distinguished. Jesuit universities and parochial schools), in trade unionism and social work (endorsed by Pope Leo XIII and promoted by Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers Movement), in the ethnic-Catholic neighborhoods of urban America, in New Orleans' Mardi Gras, and in today's pro-life movement. One can also point out, as Michael Novak does in his book on religion at the American founding, On Two Wings, that some prominent American Catholic families such as the Carroll family of Maryland had members who were personal friends of George Washington, as well as signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And, of course, the remarkable Orestes Brownson converted to Catholicism in the nineteenth century and wrote The American Republic. But this is not the same thing as claiming that their Catholic thought directly influenced the colonial or founding periods, or the civil war period, or the great periods of Progressive reform in America.
The crucial questions, then, pertain to indirect connections between Catholicism and American principles. One question is whether Catholicism has its own natural rights tradition beginning in the Middle Ages and flowing from its canon law or natural law traditions. This is the claim of Brian Tierney, who maintains that natural rights emerged from the notion of "subjective right" in medieval canon law. A similar claim is made by John Finnis, who argues in his new book on Aquinas that human rights are implicit in Thomistic natural law and its conception of the dignity of the person. A second and more general question is whether natural rights are implicit in the Christian idea of human dignity arising from the Biblical teaching that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ. Assuming the answers are "yes" to these questions, the third and final question is whether the Catholic conception of the rights and dignity of the person is the same as the God-given natural rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Let me approach these questions slowly by looking first at scholarly claims about a longstanding Catholic natural or human rights tradition.
At first glance, it would seem that Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular could not easily develop a conception of natural or human rights. There are several weighty reasons why it could not do so easily. In the first place, Christianity places duties to God and to neighbor before claims of rights and cannot accept the proposition that a right to pursue happiness as one sees fit takes precedence over duties to God and man. After all, the Bible uses the language of divine law rather than the language of rights to express morality and justice: It gives us the Ten Commandments rather than the Ten Bill of Rights, and the commands not to kill and not to steal do not necessarily mean that others have a right to life or to own property. Even the command to love one's neighbor as one's self is not necessarily the same as respecting the rights of others-if, for example, loving others means imposing on them for their own good (to save their souls or to steer them away from sin).
In the second place, Christianity's foundation on divine revelation implies a duty to accept transcendent truth; and Catholicism requires acceptance of authoritative pronouncements about truth by the hierarchical Church. This is crucial for Catholics, but even Protestants who allow individuals to interpret Scripture for themselves have developed means for promoting orthodoxy and suppressing heresy. It is not easy for any devout Christian to accept a blanket right of individual conscience, especially if it leads to a society indifferent to God or to a society in which bizarre New Age cults proliferate and the true faith is marginalized. While orthodoxy does not automatically imply theocracy or a confessional state, it is not easy to square with religious liberty, either.
Third, the Christian notion of original sin implies distrust of weak and fallible human beings to use their rights properly. Belief in original sin instills in Christians a keen sense of how freedom can go awry and seems to imply that any notion of political freedom must be a conditional good, rather than an absolute good and could not be an abstract principle of political legitimacy. Original sin means weak and corruptible human beings need curbs on freedom by social and political institutions, including the legislation of morality by the state. Of course, Catholics have always maintained that the corruption of man by original sin does not obliterate his rational nature; but this implies even greater responsibilities for the state-not only suppressing vice and sin, but also perfecting the rational souls of citizens by inculcating moral and intellectual virtues. Such political responsibilities are hard to reconcile with protections for rights. And they indicate why Christians and Catholics have put more emphasis on "inner freedom"-the freedom of the soul from sinful desires or self-mastery-rather than "external freedom"-the freedom from external political controls, including the controls of a repressive state or the institution of slavery. When St. Paul spoke of Christian freedom, he meant inner freedom, not the external freedom proclaimed by natural rights. Thus, Paul could say without contradicting himself, "For freedom Christ has set us free ... do not submit to the yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1) and "slaves, obey ... your earthly masters" (Col. 3:22).
Fourth, Christianity, and especially the Catholic tradition, elevates the common good above the rights of individuals and even above the rights of separate groups. Catholic teaching about the family and man's social nature also conflict with the individualism and privacy of rights. Traditionally, Catholicism did not define the common good as simply the condition for individual development (as it does today somewhat naively in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, see par. 1906-09). Rather, it viewed the common good in corporate fashion, embodied in corporate groups and upholding "unity in peace" that promotes the harmony of social classes and inculcates moral virtues that perfect the rational soul and promote civic friendship ("solidarity," in today's terms), as well as civic piety. The Catholic conception of the common good is best captured by the concept of corporate hierarchy, rather than by conditions for the exercise of individual or group rights.
Fifth, the Christian teaching about charity-whose essence is sacrificial love-makes the whole notion of rights seem selfish. The culture of rights, when deeply entrenched, seems to create a society in which people feel the world owes them something when they declare, "I have my rights!" As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said critically of Western rights: '"Human rights' are a fine thing, but how can we be sure that our rights do not expand at the expense of others?" More precisely, rights are a two-edged sword: They are noble and glorious when used against real tyranny and real oppression, but they are base, selfish, and destructive when used against legitimate authority and traditional morality, as they often are in modern society. Although rights have practical or horizontal limits ("my rights end, where your rights begin"), there is no clear guideline within rights themselves to distinguish between the legitimate and illegitimate use of rights-for example, between the rights of Christian marriage vs. the rights of gay marriage, between the right to choose abortion vs. the right to life, between true vs. false rights. This distinction cannot be found in rights themselves, but in an objective hierarchy of goods that explains how rights must be properly used in order to be legitimate. Hence, from a Catholic perspective, it seems that rights are conditional goods-their value depends on the ends for which they are used, which means that rights are not properly speaking rights, but conditional goods subservient to higher goods.
Finally, Christians and especially Catholics cannot accept the premise of the natural freedom of the autonomous self that underlies most doctrines of rights. The most influential doctrines of rights emerged from the philosophers of Enlightenment Liberalism (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Dewey, and Rawls). They argue that human beings are "born free," and they posit the existence·of a state of nature or an "original position" which proclaims personal autonomy at the expense of human dependence on God or on fellow human beings and which denies natural sociality, as well as naturally given or divinely ordained hierarchies. Natural freedom and equality are antithetical to the notion of divinely ordained religious hierarchy in the church or a natural hierarchy in the family or claims that those who are more wise and virtuous have some legitimate title to rule over those who are less wise and virtuous. Since these notions are inherent in Catholic teachings, a Catholic doctrine of human rights cannot begin from the assumption of an autonomous self in a state of nature or an original position. The rights must be derivative from duties, hierarchies, and prior human goods, which raises the question if they are still rights at all, rather than conditional grants from a higher authority to use one's freedom for specified ends and goods.
These objections to Christian theories of human rights are weighty objections. They make one wonder how Catholics today can embrace human rights so readily and incorporate them into Catholic social teaching; they also make one doubt if Catholic natural law has had, all along, an implicit or embryonic idea of natural rights that gradually came to be recognized in the modern age. What is the basis of these claims?
The answer, I think, is the development within Catholicism of a new anthropological doctrine-"the dignity of the human person"-that has enabled Catholics to claim that it has a conception of the person that includes the possession of human rights. The philosophical and theological label for this doctrine is "personalism," the most influential movement in Catholic thought over the last century and the main reason why human rights are now a central feature of Catholic social teaching.