From one perspective, the difference between natural laws and natural rights is merely a matter of words.
A common story is that natural law is in harmony with Catholic morality, because all law aims at a common good, and thus to promote the natural law is to promote the common good. In contrast, natural rights are at odds, because they float about detached from any conception of the common good. Indeed, they look individualistic, like centers of power, or little zones of sovereignty. For reasons like these, some well-known Catholic philosophers have even at times forsworn any talk of natural rights.
Yet, the tradition of Catholic social thought makes such an attitude untenable. Natural rights loomed large in the magisterium of St. Pope John Paul II the Great. Nearly everything he wrote on social questions invokes natural rights. The Culture of Death, which he rightly decried, and which by no means has receded, is predicated on the denial of the right to life. And then immediately from the start, the founding charter of Catholic social thought, "Rerum Novarum" of Pope Leo XIII, defended the natural right to private property against socialist communism, which denied such a right. I quote: "Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own."
From one perspective, the difference between natural laws and natural rights is merely a matter of words. For each law which forbids everyone from dispossessing anyone of something, it follows logically that there is a right which each enjoys to that thing. If "Thou shalt not murder" (that is, directly cause the death of an innocent) holds of everyone, as a matter of law, then "Thy life is inviolate" holds of each, as a matter of right. If "Thou shalt not steal" is the law, then one's property is held by right.
And yet this exercise of mapping a standard list of natural laws to the standard list of natural rights proves instructive. Take the Decalogue to be a basic accounting of natural law. But the standard natural rights cited in the American tradition are life, liberty, and property. We see that eight Commandments find no correlate in rights, and one right (or two, if one includes pursuit of happiness) seem to have no basis in Commandments.
Straightaway, it becomes apparent that the list of natural rights takes the form it does in order precisely to press claims against government. Governments execute, imprison, and fine. Therefore, we insist upon the natural rights to life, liberty, and property.
To say that such actions by government must not be arbitrary, that they are justified only after due process of law, in punishment for some crime against some law -- a just law antecedently, which enjoys broadly the consent of the governed -- is to affirm these natural rights as public realities. To say that they are unalienable is to insist that they had not been given up in some obscure past age in a first social contract. Any such contract would be null and void from the start.
But the point is that the public doctrine of natural rights was never meant to be a comprehensive formulation of rights and duties inherent in the nature of things (and neither was the Bill of Rights). From the start, it had political and rhetorical purposes. I don't deny that those purposes remain pressing. But it is worth pointing out that the doctrine therefore tends to carry with it a general prejudice against government, which is antithetical to the Catholic tradition.
An ancillary point is that the doctrine tends to be useless, or to backfire, when turned against the depredations of fellow citizens, not government. Was the appeal to the natural right to life as asserted in the Declaration of Independence, successful in persuading fellow Americans in general, not a small minority of abolitionists -- "crazy" people like John Brown -- that slaveholding was simply null and void, without any legal support? "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which appealed to love, mercy, and fellow-feeling, was vastly more consequential.
In the aftermath of Dobbs, where are the resounding insistences by public figures that, as our nation is founded on the proposition that "all human beings are created equal," this fundamental truth on which our nation is based must impel all the states towards outlawing abortion? I see instead backpedaling and embarrassment.
The reason is that although without any question the unborn child enjoys an inviolable right to life, it must seem -- let us say -- almost impertinent for one citizen to invoke the right to life against another citizen. To do so is to employ the rhetoric of government oppression, which is not the nature of the problem.
This also explains why the "right to privacy," which is no right at all, and which indeed has no basis in any tradition of ordered liberty, continues to get traction -- because it's easier to represent people who want to prohibit abortion, not as united with the unborn child (as they are), but as united amorphously somehow with some sinister government intention of oppressing citizens. And that is why the politicians run high tail away.
Again, the order of love, mercy, and fellow-feeling supersedes. If the mother of the unborn child does not feel these, how can a stranger claim to feel them more? One suspects that the only remedy is an incontrovertible love for "strangers" among Christians -- so that "See how they love one another" becomes as "evident" as natural rights are supposed to be.
- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.
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