Those Inalienable Rights

A surefire way of demonstrating the existence of universal truths is to consult common experience. No one in their right mind likes being ridiculed or made a pure object of sport or derision, or robbed or lied to. From this, we can infer that there is something innate or “natural” to humanity that expects personal respect from others and respect for one’s property — and wants to be told the truth. It also follows that other people — all people — count and that an ordered society matters since none of us is an island.

The commandments against coveting, stealing and bearing false witness condemn wrongs that are rooted in the nature of what it means to be a human being. Again, we know this from experience because when we are the objects of another’s violation of these norms, we ourselves feel violated or sinned against.

Did we need the commandments to teach us this? No doubt that the law may function as a teacher, as St. Thomas offered, or as a reminder, in which case it is good to hear in the commandments an affirmation of what God already planted deep within us.

Before they got around to the Constitution, the founders fathers formulated a remarkable statement of fundamental truths that we doubt have changed one iota in the 236 years since Thomas Jefferson penned them. To wit, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One could almost write a dissertation on the Declaration of Independence as a literary text — its economy of style and expressiveness of language. Whatever the depth and breadth of the framers’ understanding of “Creator” — we know that most of them were Deists — there is no question of their understanding and respect for the divinely “given” nature of our fundamental rights, that their source lie outside any mere human authority or power. For the very next sentence is an affirmation that the role of government is to secure these rights — not to create them — and that it is human beings who “institute” (they avoid the word “create” here) government to protect these “unalienable” rights. It is inescapable that “unalienable” means no human authority — of which government is one — may compromise the exercise of these rights.

Why the civics lesson here? Actually, this is not about civics — nor politics, which it is above. No textbook can teach what must be discovered and affirmed by every human being. These rights are constitutive of our humanity and the very order of civil society itself. Without them — we think history can illustrate — civilization comes apart at the seams.

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Deny or distort these rights, and the seeds of violence are sown. That is why it is so important for us to come back to our first principles before we decide whether we want to be Democrat, Republican or whatever and before signing onto the latest list of promises from a candidate to whatever office we are delegating to her or him.

As this important election looms, a good consultation with one’s conscience is in order, especially for Catholics who have a very rich tradition of social teachings which not only affirm these fundamental rights but also place them in wide and rich contexts — such as the issues of the sanctity of human life, religious liberty, the freedom to move and migrate, the right to individual ownership and the commensurate good stewardship of goods and resources so that all humanity will enjoy the benefits.

A well-formed conscience will ensure a harmony between the exercise of our individual rights and the promotion of the common good, between personal freedom and social responsibility. Catholic voters have no good reason to enter the polling place without informed minds and well-formed consciences. In exercising our civic duty, we also fulfill our moral responsibility.