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 | By Father John G. McDonald

Our rights and responsibilities

A series on the social doctrine of the Church

The third of our seven themes of Catholic social teaching regards our rights and responsibilities. One Ash Wednesday when looking out over the congregation assembled for Mass, I saw the multi-millionaire owner of a large, transnational corporation exchange the sign of peace with an immigrant single mother of two who cleans houses to make ends meet for her family. At that moment, I witnessed the sacred dignity given by God to His beloved children, a dignity that is often damaged and twisted by worldly considerations and sinful judgments. In the context of the sacred liturgy, two people, divided from one another in the world by class, wealth, status, power, and in many other ways, were joined by the hand in front of the altar of God, Who sees no distinctions. This is a truth that all Christians and people of good will are called to live and to defend.

Every human person is endowed by God with certain rights: “The human person has the right to flourish and live, and have bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood." (Pope St. John XXIII, Peace on Earth [Pacem in Terris], 11)

Likewise, every human person has the corresponding responsibility to recognize those rights and protect them for their neighbor. That is where we often find a challenge. We are very clear about the rights that are due to us, but sometimes we are slow to defend the rights of our neighbor, as is our responsibility as Christians. In the Scriptures, we see Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David, ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, catch sight of Ruth the Moabite widow and then helps her in her misery, even though he had no legal obligation towards her. Boaz sees her dignity, and indeed, falls in love with her, marries her, and provides for her for the rest of his life. (Ru 2:2-23)

We must also fall in love with defending the rights of the defenseless, providing for them. We must look beyond the devilish divisions of this world to promote the sacred dignity God has endowed in us from conception to natural death — a dignity that is given to all who are made in His image and likeness.

Father John G. McDonald is currently pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Anniston. He was principal and then president of John Carroll Catholic High School from 2008 to 2016, and he served as the Carl J. Peter Chair of Homiletics at the Pontifical North American College in Rome from 2016 to 2019.