One of the notable developments of Catholic thinking in the 20thcentury was embrace of human rights, and the language of rights. In his encyclical Rerum novarum, Pope Leo XIIIspeak of the rights of laborers to form trade unions. The Second Vatican Council developed the Catholic understanding of rights: Dignitatis Humanae established that Catholics should recognize a fundamental right to religious liberty, Gaudium et spes speaks of the “right to act according to a sound norm of conscience.” The language of human rights was heartily embraced by Pope Saint John Paul II who used language of rights in his encyclicals, such as Centesimus annus which speaks of a right of economic initiative. The examples here illustrate that the church in modern times has not been shy in using the language of rights and human-rights. As Catholics continue to debate the response to an increasingly hostile liberal modernity, Aquinas can help illuminate the path forward.

How are we to understand the term “rights”? In modern parlance, human rights are understood, since they are “unalienable,” almost as an extension of our being. That rights are something “we have” simply for being human beings, like parts of our body. The ontological status of rights as extensions of the human person goes unquestioned.

Is this the understanding of “rights” within the Catholic tradition? Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, says that a right is the object of justice and defines justice as the perpetual will to give others their rights, and that justice always involves some relation between two or more people commensurate in some respect. 
“In contrast to other virtues, it is the object of justice to direct human beings in their relations with one another” (ST II-II, Q. 57, A. 1). 
This idea becomes clearer as Saint Thomas divides rights into what he calls “natural rights” and “positive rights.” First is natural right. 
“Things can indeed be so rendered to them in one way by the very nature of the things, as, for example, when one gives so much in order to receive so much” (ST II-II, Q. 57, A. 2).
Things or people can have rights be the very nature of the relationship between the two parties: if a laborer puts in five hours of work, he is entitled to five hours of pay. Aquinas also speaks of parents having natural rights over their children. The second kind of right is positive, or political, rights: rights agreed upon between individuals either in a private contract or through public agreement. The laborer naturally has the right to be paid for five hours worth of work, but it is either up to the parties to establish a contract how much five hours worth of work is worth or for the government to establish by law how much his labor is worth.  

Rights, for Aquinas, are fundamentally relational; one’s rights are always situated within the fabric of society. Even the right to life is a relational right: while killing is never good in and of itself since it destroys what God has created, it can become permissible in relation to the greater good of the wider community. Aquinas says the death penalty can be permissible in relation to the common good, for if a criminal has threated the common good of the just persons within society to a harmful extent it becomes acceptable for legitimate authority to kill the criminal. Parts exist within and for the wider whole, if one of those parts becomes defective it must be removed or reformed. 

The modern liberalist conception of rights is grounded almost entirely in the idea of the autonomy of the individual, where “rights” are certain ontological extensions of the individual’s being above and against society. This conception of rights is born in early modernity with thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who conceive of society as a “social contract;” where individuals come together to agree on certain rights and responsibilities in order to create society. Hobbes even co-opts some of the language used by Aquinas asserting that there are natural rights rooted in the individual’s fundamental right to self preservation. In the pre-societal “state of nature,” according to Hobbes, every individual has the right even to take the life of other individuals in the name of self-preservation. 

Locke too asserts a theory of rights grounded in the autonomy of the individual. Like Hobbes, he argues that society is formed on the basis of a social contract formed among individuals who have existed in a state of nature. Unlike Hobbes who sees this state of nature as a “war of all against all,” Locke sees pre-societal man as a creature free "to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature." Every individual has a fundamental right to his own labor, and therefore the right to property is one very near and dear to Locke. The right to property is the basis for all our rights.  

The fundamental error in liberal thinker is that the individual precedes society. Aquinas, tacking his cue from Aristotle, asserts that it is society that precedes, shapes, and guides the individual. Man did not emerge out of a state of nature, rather man’s nature is to be social and to live among his fellow creatures. Rights are never merely extensions of an individual’s being, but are always relational in nature. 

This does not mean that the church cannot speak about individual rights. As I have pointed out, many popes have used the language of individual rights throughout church teaching. But it must be remembered when reflecting on these teachings that rights are, even when they are individual rights, always for the benefit of society and never just an expression of the autonomy of an individual. 

Tim Colvin is a grad student at Fordham University.