From Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate (2009):
“The reality of human solidarity, which is a benefit for us, also imposes a duty.”105 Many people today would claim that they owe nothing to anyone, except to themselves. They are concerned only with their rights, and they often have great difficulty in taking responsibility for their own and other people’s integral development. Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere licence.106 Nowadays we are witnessing a grave inconsistency. On the one hand, appeals are made to alleged rights, arbitrary and non-essential in nature,* accompanied by the demand that they be recognized and promoted by public structures, while, on the other hand, elementary and basic rights remain unacknowledged and are violated in much of the world.107 A link has often been noted between claims to a “right to excess”, and even to transgression and vice, within affluent societies, and the lack of food, drinkable water, basic instruction and elementary health care in areas of the underdeveloped world and on the outskirts of large metropolitan centres. The link consists in this: individual rights, when detached from a framework of duties which grants them their full meaning, can run wild, leading to an escalation of demands which is effectively unlimited and indiscriminate. An overemphasis on rights leads to a disregard for duties. Duties set a limit on rights because they point to the anthropological and ethical framework of which rights are a part, in this way ensuring that they do not become licence. Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defence and promotion as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good. Otherwise, if the only basis of human rights is to be found in the deliberations of an assembly of citizens, those rights can be changed at any time, and so the duty to respect and pursue them fades from the common consciousness. Governments and international bodies can then lose sight of the objectivity and “inviolability” of rights. When this happens, the authentic development of peoples is endangered.108 Such a way of thinking and acting compromises the authority of international bodies, especially in the eyes of those countries most in need of development. Indeed, the latter demand that the international community take up the duty of helping them to be “artisans of their own destiny,”109 that is, to take up duties of their own. The sharing of reciprocal duties is a more powerful incentive to action than the mere assertion of rights.
105 Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 17: Acta Apostolicæ Sedis [AAS] 59 (1967), 265-266.
106 Cf. John Paul II, Message for the 2003 World Day of Peace, 5: AAS 95 (2003), 343.
107 Cf. ibid.
108 Cf. Benedict XVI, Message for the 2007 World Day of Peace, 13.
109 Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 65: loc. cit., 289.
— Caritas in Veritate 43
* Those to sexual and “reproductive” license and to the destruction and distortion of family structures being the most notorious examples, then and now. — Ed.