Notice

A Question of Rights:

How Can ARCC Talk About "Rights"?

By James E. Biechler

I just do not see where ARCC gets all this nonsense about "rights" in the church. The church is a divine institution, established by Christ for our salvation. Sinful human beings have no "rights" against God. You're copying from secular society where talk about rights makes sense because human beings create society. But as Catholics we have no rights over against our savior and creator.

--JCM, Hales Corners, WI

Even though you haven't asked a question your statements are typical of a mindset present in the church at least since the First Vatican Council (1869-70) defined papal infallibility. It is a mindset which characterizes such sectarian groups as Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenate, and Communion and Liberation. In the United States you might find such sentiments in The Wanderer and, sadly, among a growing number of bishops. Perhaps worst of all, there is evidence that highly-placed officials in the Vatican share this view and act upon it.

If you had read ARCC's Charter of the Rights of Catholics in the Church you would have noted that many of the rights which ARCC affirms are listed as such in the Code of Canon Law. Thus, they are supported by the highest authority in the church. Title I of Book II of the Code is entitled "The Obligations and Rights of All the Christian Faithful." This title wisely sees that obligations and rights are inseparably related to each other. Surely you will admit that Catholics have "obligations." If they have obligations they also have the right to those conditions which make it possible for them to fulfill those obligations. The Code nowhere gives a comprehensive list of the rights of the Christian faithful; in addition to those listed in the above-mentioned title others are found scattered throughout the document. ARCC's Charter of Rights is by no means a complete list of all the rights enjoyed by the People of God.

You're dead wrong when you suggest that the church is modeling itself on secular society. If you studied history you would find that the very notion of "natural rights" was developed by Catholic theologians and canonists in the Middle Ages. Participative and representative democracy is based upon the theological principles that human beings enjoy a natural, God-given equality, and that they are inherently free and responsible before God. Before modern democracies existed Catholic thinkers like Nicholas of Cusa asserted the natural equality and freedom of human beings and their consequent right to choose those who would govern them.

The church has unfortunately not always been faithful to its own best principles. In modern times, the church has moved so far away from these principles that to outsiders and even to many of its own faithful it seems to be opposed to these principles. Pope John Paul II has not always said positive things about democracy. It is quite understandable why you and many others think that the notions of human rights and representative democracy developed on secular soil. What really happened is that secular governments took over and developed the ideas and structures which Catholic canonists and theologians hammered out between the 12th and 16th centuries. In his work Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought 1150-1650 Brian Tierney shows how "Western man came to perceive how the old truths of his religion could serve as foundations for a new constitutional order." It is indeed sad that leaders of the church have all but disowned its own democratic heritage.

There is a hint in your statement that the question of "rights" is a peripheral matter to the church. After all, you seem to suggest, the church is about salvation and "rights" are not of the essence. Similar sentiments were expressed on the Internet some months ago when ARCC placed its Charter in an online library. "All of the rights ARCC espouses are of human origin," the critic stated. "The truths that the Church teaches are from God." The first statement is, of course, incorrect. Many of the rights ARCC espouses are natural rights, therefore from the Author of nature. And secondly, not everything the church teaches is from God. When the church supported slavery or condemned usury we could not blame God for such teaching.

When Jesus began to preach the Kingdom of God he announced his mission with the words of Isaiah: "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord's year of favor"(Lk 4:18-19). The essence of Jesus's teaching is liberation, the transformation of society, the elimination of the injustice which makes people captives, downtrodden and poor. Jesus identifies with the downtrodden and the oppressed.

Jesus saw his mission as one of bringing the righteousness of God (divine justification) to his people. People are "justified" when the justice of God becomes their justice. Salvation or justification is therefore about justice. When we say that Jesus saves us from our sins we mean he saves us from our injustice for all sin is, in essence, injustice. The church's saving mission is one of bringing God's justice to the world. There is no salvation outside of God's justice. Since justice is about rights, ARCC's talk about rights touches the very essence of the church.

Of course, there should be no need for an organization like ours. The whole church should be engaged in the struggle for justice and rights. ARCC's Charter is "nonsense" only if the gospel is nonsense. We'll be happy when we can go out of business as an organization. We will do that when church leaders regain their focus on God's justice.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America.

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