Social justice: Our rights and responsibilities as Catholic citizens

By Barbara Budde

Columnist

Our nation was born during the historical period known as the Enlightenment. This era was one that focused attention on the importance of every individual human person and on their individual rights. Our Declaration of Independence, which proclaims the right to "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and the Bill of Rights in our Constitution are clear examples of the Enlightenment values held by our founding fathers. It is no wonder then that so much of our public conversation and debate center around individual rights.

Our Catholic tradition is centuries older than the Enlightenment. Our faith promotes and upholds the dignity of every human person and their basic human rights; however, our tradition always ties rights with corresponding responsibilities. In 1991 the U.S. Bishops wrote: "Flowing from our God-given dignity, each person has basic rights and responsibilities … People have a fundamental right to life and to those things that make life truly human: food, clothing, housing, health care, education, security, social services and employment. Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities –– to one another, to our families, and to the larger society, to respect the rights of others and to work for the common good." (A Century of Social Teaching)

What this means for American Catholics is that we bring an important balance to our civic conversation around rights. We call people to responsibility and we balance individual rights with the needs of all –– the common good. Catholic teaching says that people have the right to life and to all that is necessary for life –– food, clothing, shelter, education, health care and work. Each person also has the responsibility to utilize their gifts, talents and energy to work to provide for themselves and their families. As sisters and brothers in Christ, we are also called to share those gifts for the common good and to assist those who cannot provide what is needed for themselves.

In his encyclical On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis) from 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote that "Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part … should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others" (39).

The Gospel of Jesus and the teaching of our church call us to a way of living and thinking that is different from the consumerism and individualism prevalent in our American culture. Our faith calls us to bring these values to our public and political debate. Our Texas Legislature is back is session. Over the next few months elected officials will be visited by many interest groups who care about very specific issues. Sometimes the interests of those groups are the same as our Catholic values and sometimes they are not. As a diocese we are partnering with the Texas Catholic Conference to promote the agenda of issues identified by our Texas bishops. This is a very broad agenda that cuts across many ideologies but represents our understanding of protecting human rights and calling all to accept responsibility for the common good.

All Catholics in the diocese are invited to learn more about the Texas Catholic Conference agenda by visiting www.txcatholic.org. For information on ways to support the advocacy efforts of the bishops, contact the diocesan Office of Social Concerns at (512) 949-2471 or barbara-budde@austindiocese.org or the diocesan Office of Pro-life Activities and Chaste Living at (512) 949-2486 or marie-seale@austindiocese.org.

Our nation is founded on rights and freedom. Our faith invites us to embrace both our rights and responsibilities in ways that foster the common good –– not just an individual good. As we move through this legislative season, we can bring the vision of the common good, the concepts of rights and responsibilities to our public discussion so that our state can be strengthened by the wisdom of our faith.

Barbara Budde is the diocesan director of social concerns. She can be reached at (512) 949-2471 or barbara-budde@austindiocese.org.