The Foundation of Human Rights

Monday is Independence Day and a good time to reflect upon this nation’s heritage of freedom under
the law of God. People rightfully value human rights and dignity, but they rarely ask what human rights are
based upon. Our Founding Fathers justified the Revolution on the principle that God is the author of human
rights and freedom. As they stated in the Declaration of Independence, “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.”

The Catholic Church agrees that our fundamental rights are based upon the callings of the Almighty
God. Thus, for example, the Vatican II Council argued of freedom of speech, press, and the like on the grounds
that there is a duty to seek and share truth. See Inter Mirifica 9-12. The Council likewise supported the right of
parents to raise their children according to their best judgment precisely because they have the duty to raise
children well. See Gravissimum Educationis 3. Similarly, its affirmation of freedom of religion was based upon
the principle that, “everybody has the duty and consequently the right to seek the truth in religious matters.” See
Dignitatis Humanae 3. More recently Pope St. John Paul II re-affirmed that people have the right of free
enterprise precisely because there is the duty to work and develop one’s talents and abilities. See Centissimus
Annus 43.

In the modern Western world, however, people often want to claim rights, but without any reference to
the law of God, imagining that duties limit their freedom. However, without a sense of duty, freedom loses all
of its meaning, for it becomes a mere pursuit of desire, which ends in death. Furthermore, without a sense of a
higher law, there is no restraint on earthly power and all rights become based upon the ups and downs of
majority opinion, the whims of judges, or the preferences of those in charge. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in
his final encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “Duties thereby reinforce rights and call for their defense and promotion
as a task to be undertaken in the service of the common good.” Freedom and reverence for the law of God are
thus, now and always, one and inseparable.