Do we have rights?

Posted on November 5, 2011 by

Chris wrote an interesting post recently. An excerpt:

We have no rights. We have but faith in the new covenant, made by Jesus on the Cross. Any rights we have a political and quite fragile — from unreasonable search and seizure (which the US authorities ignore) to free speech they require the consent of the governing to exist.

This is a very popular meme going around, as memes tend to go, but is this correct? Do we really have no rights on this earth? Or is this simply the understandable human attempt to resign ourselves to the inevitable infringement of our rights, by denying that those rights even exist?

One of my favorite encyclicals is Rerum Novarum, and I have read and reread it until my eyes ached. It focuses mainly on “the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor.”

Pope Leo XIII argues that, not only do human rights exist, rights are the basis of our very humanity:

For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation, for the brute has no power of self direction, but is governed by two main instincts, which keep his powers on the alert, impel him to develop them in a fitting manner, and stimulate and determine him to action without any power of choice. One of these instincts is self preservation, the other the propagation of the species.

…And on this very account – that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason – it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time.

Life, liberty, and property are the three inalienable rights because they are endowed by our Creator, and not granted by the State. Someone else can infringe upon these rights, but he cannot remove them as they are inherent to the nature of Man. These three rights build Man’s natural state, and all laws are based upon the limitations imposed upon these rights in order to reflect God’s design for Man (natural law) or to further the common good (positive law).

Human Rights –> Natural Law –> Positive Law