Responsibility, Not Rights, Not Relativism

William Newton’s Zenit piece today takes as a starting point Pope Benedict’s address earlier this month, but doesn’t really go anywhere with it. For starters, the use of “relativism” in the headline is another example of the erosion of meaning in that term. It might as well be defined as “something I don’t like,” for all the times it gets used, abused, and misapplied. Getting back to the content of the essay, I thought there were two glaring omissions.

First an acknowledgement:

While the Convention points out that the welfare of children is best secured by being part of a family …

… but without any reference to the millions of children worldwide who have no parents, and nothing to say on adoption, the harping on same-sex unions seems pretty hollow to me. The Church is likely powerless to do anything about the sexual orientation of people, especially its five billion non-members. But it seems to me that the Pontifical Council for the Family could do much more to promote the right of a child to have parents. A perusal of recent meetings, addresses, and other documents on the Vatican web site shows no mention of adoption anywhere going back five years.

Number two: speaking of rights, this emphasis on “rights” strikes me as evidence of an entrenched narcissism. When Mr Newton writes:

Another contradiction that has emerged in recent years (and this was foreseen by the Holy See in its main reservation to the Convention) is to pit the rights of the child against those of the parents; minimizing the influence of parent while increasing the influence of the state.

… it makes me want to grind my teeth. Children have rights. Parents have responsibilities. Parenting a child isn’t a right. This sense of entitlement, something we see in such statements like, “Every adult has a right to a child,” or “I have a right to control my child,” can be taken–and is indeed held–to unhealthy extremes. I’m amazed that otherwise self-styled orthodox Catholics don’t recognize this line of reasoning is all wrongheaded. The harping on rights cheapens the role of the parent. And at worst, it becomes a sort of competition. We see it when parents are pitted legally against children, or one parent against another.

In continuing to miscast duty, obligation, and responsibility as “rights,” otherwise well-intentioned people are totally missing the boat. How can I drive the point home?

I have a friend. I don’t have a “right” to hang around significantly with a peer. But I do have obligations to anyone I consider a true friend. I have a duty to listen to my friends, to spend time with them, to be gracious, accommodating, generous, and the like. They don’t have a “right” to my attentiveness. But in mutual friendship, we have mutual responsibilities, as long as we agree to maintain our friendship. In this mutuality of giving, of sacrifice, the friendship blossoms and functions as an aid to both our lives. That’s the way it should be.

I also have a spouse. Marriage brings certain privileges, but I don’t think any of the shared legal and moral obligations can be termed “rights,” at least not in a Christian context. I don’t have a “right” to sexual intercourse, for example. Intercourse is part of the privilege of marriage. I would say that a spouse has a responsibility for the overall physical, emotional, and spiritual care of the partner. Sex is part of that, but sex becomes a means to an end, not the ultimate value in the marriage itself. By framing the context in this way, it keeps the notion of sacramental sacrifice in the foreground. And it shades any sense of entitlement to the rear.

When we approach friendship, marriage, or parenting as containing privileges and rights for the self, I think we do ourselves and our partners an injustice. Not to mention Christ’s notion of self-sacrificing love.

Let’s take adoption now. Children live without parents, despite the UN and the Church saying they have rights to a family. By inaction or by distraction, these rights, these needs go unaddressed. This is a grave moral omission on the part of society, and it convicts the Church as well–as long as we are unable or unwilling to promote a far more widespread adoption of needy children. That few of these children are in the direct care of the Church is irrelevant. The Church feeds hungry people, cares for sick people, advocates for disenfranchised people–and we don’t require membership for this work of charity and justice.

Lacking a more convincing pro-life witness on the adoption front, I can’t consider the institution’s stated opposition to same-sex unions as a support for the family as anything more than a smokescreen. Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe the Church has a responsibility to preach moral virtue. But we do not have the right to be wrong or wrongheaded about blaming one problematic aspect of family life (the lack of support for married couples) on the willingness of some same-sex couples to add a legal dimension to their acknowledged personal commitment and responsibilities.

When I see more support for Catholic families* and couples adopting fatherless and motherless children, I think our pro-life witness on the family front will ring less hollow than it does these days. And if the institution is looking for ideas, I’ll clue you in: my phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook about it, not unlike the phones of the overburdened secular social workers.

* Adopted children are not solutions for the fertility problems of couples. I applaud infertile couples who do want to adopt out of a sense of addressing a need in the life of another person. But adoption is not a “cure” for infertility. This is why families with children probably should be considering adoption more seriously, especially families that have discerned that being large is a basic good. For the record, I have no problem with families of six, eight, or more children. As long as they don’t mind my suggestion that maybe a few of their children could be adopted.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to Responsibility, Not Rights, Not Relativism

  1. It might as well be defined as “something I don’t like,” for all the times it gets used, abused, and misapplied.

    Exactly one of the problems with the way most people use the word!

  2. David D. says:

    The misuse of the term “relativism” is certainly no more prevalent or regrettable than the blind assertion of various so-called “rights.” In my younger years I had occasion to interview hundreds of individuals who had been arrested. Often, the chief complaint among the arrestees was the failure of the arresting officers to “Mirandize” them, i.e., read them their rights.

    As to the article’s discussion of parental rights, I think the author is simply referring to one’s right to raise his or her children free from unwarranted outside interference. The author clearly recognizes that the mere exercise of such rights is not a fulfillment of one’s parental responsibilities. As he later states, “All authentic rights presuppose that we can point to a duty that the right seeks to fulfill.” For example, as a parent, I should have the right to direct the manner of my children’s education because I have an obligation to provide my children with a proper education.

    • Todd says:

      And yet, the notion of “right” implies a choice. If I have the right to own and use a firearm, it is an option I might choose: like voting, like getting a particular job, like blogging.

      As parents, I don’t believe you and I have the choice to opt out of the manner of the education of our children.

      That said, interference is part of the fallen human condition. A bitter teacher, or an unformed catechist, or a government initiative, or a bully may interfere with my child’s education. I think parents are able to provide a base of support/love/formation that will work to counteract such influences we might deem unhelpful.

      I guess I’m concerned that conservatives don’t slack off when it comes to their responsibilities.

  3. smf says:

    Rights and responsibilities are always two sides of the same coin. To seperate them or place them in opposition to one another is a serious problem in and of itself. In my Catholic grade school we were always taught that those concepts went together just as much a the right and left shoe in a pair of shoes.

    To put this another way, if you have some responsibility, you must be given the rights needed to make it possible to fulfill this responsibility. Just the same, if you are granted a right, it must be used in a proper and responsible manner.

    Unfortunately modern notions of rights have been intirely seperated from responsibilities. When rights and responsibilities are made seperate, then talk of rights is really talk of liscense.

    When a right is taken away we hear of infringement, oppression, things of that nature. In like manner responsibilities can also be usurped, which is just as tyrannical as any denial of rights.

    It is a great tragedy that we now wish to hand over all our responsibilities to some other. This should be just as horrifying to any lover of true freedom as any lack of respect for rights.

    Another point:
    The base unit of society is the family. Thus, when some outside force makes unjust interference with parenting, they do not offend primarily against the parent, they offend against the family.

    In the US parents may face some problems with their rightful responsibilities being infringed by the state, but Europe has a far more advanced problem. In Britian they are preparing to pass a law requiring comprehensive sex ed for all students from about age 5 up (to include contraception and abortion,, homosexuality, and loads of genuinely relativist nonjudgemental crud) in all schools (even Catholic) and as I understand it no option for parents to opt out. Thus it is clearly a serious concern even within the western world that the family may very well face unjust outside interference.

    • Todd says:

      Good thoughts here. I’m not so sure I’m separating or putting rights and responsibilities in an adversarial mode than challenging what I see as an across-the-board overemphasis on rights and the accompanying narcissism.

      While I agree with you that evil or even misfortune can impede the carrying out of one’s responsibilities, it doesn’t change the God-given situation. Parents are responsible for children. Period.

      I can’t get all torqued up about British sex ed, especially given the market-driven culture in the West is already oversexed. I’m a lot more concerned about corporations like Fox or Disney promoting irreverence, sex, substances, and the like. I can’t take conservatives seriously on the issue of homosexuality when they seem very willing to overlook what their bedfellows have been selling for a generation or more.

      • smf says:

        I think the reason conservatives tend to be less worried about the economic sphere, is that there remains at least a possibility (perhaps notional) of opting out at the family or other local level. In theory you don’t have to pay for our consume those things most objectionable (the practice is often a bit less ideal).

        On the other hand, what government does, is not offered as an option, but rather becomes a required part of life. You are forced to pay for it, you are forced to consume it (less so in the US, but the general idea still holds). Other than fleeing the country, there is no good way of getting out of what the government has decided is best.

        I will agree that I have a problem with much of what the economy and the culture have on offer. I take the concrete action of trying to be careful with what I read, watch, listen to, etc.

        Now for those so inclined, there is a logic in protesting what these corporate forces do as well. This can be done through awareness campaigns, petitions, letter writing, and boycotts, etc.

        It would seem we live with an increasingly statist/corpratist system, and thus the lines between government and business are increasingly blurred, particularly at the informal level.

        I will also raise a novel idea that far too few think about:
        subsidiarity
        Now this is often invoked by conservatives to use against some “big government” intrusion, but it applies just as much to “big business” and even “big (popular) culture”. Subsidiarity ought to be one of those ideas taken up by all Catholics and we should be willing to use it to defend our families and communities in solidarity with one another. (Instead it is alternately neglected and used as a partisan internecine wedge.)

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