Rights and Responsibilities

Social Teaching on
Human Rights (Excerpts)

c. Rights and duties (Compendium on Social Doctrine)
156. Inextricably connected to the topic of rights is the issue of the duties falling to men and women, which is given appropriate emphasis in the interventions of the Magisterium. The mutual complementarities between rights and duties — they are indissolubly linked — are recalled several times, above all in the human person who possesses them.[322] This bond also has a social dimension: “in human society to one man's right there corresponds a duty in all other persons: the duty, namely, of acknowledging and respecting the right in question”.[323] The Magisterium underlines the contradiction inherent in affirming rights without acknowledging corresponding responsibilities. “Those, therefore, who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other”.[324]

[322] Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 259-264; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 26: AAS 58 (1966), 1046-1047.
[323] John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 264.
[324] John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 (1963), 264.


Digging Deeper

Digging Deeper on Marriage

Social Doctrine Related to Marriage, Family and Children from the Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church

Other items of interest:

Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church)

26.  At the same time, however, there is a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable. Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one's own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.

Hence, the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person if the disposition of affairs is to be subordinate to the personal realm and not contrariwise, as the Lord indicated when He said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.(6)

Pacem in Terris (Encylical, Pope John XXIII, 1963)

Reciprocity of Rights and Duties Between Persons
Mutual Collaboration


8. We must devote our attention first of all to that order which should prevail among men.

9. Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature, that is, endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable. (7)

10. When, furthermore, we consider man's personal dignity from the standpoint of divine revelation, inevitably our estimate of it is incomparably increased. Men have been ransomed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Grace has made them sons and friends of God, and heirs to eternal glory.


11. But first We must speak of man's rights. Man has the right to live. He has the right to 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 illhealth; 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. (8)

Rights Pertaining to Moral and Cultural Values

12. Moreover, man has a natural right to be respected. He has a right to his good name. He has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and—within the limits of the moral order and the common good—to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose. He has the right, also, to be accurately informed about public events.

13. He has the natural right to share in the benefits of culture, and hence to receive a good general education, and a technical or professional training consistent with the degree of educational development in his own country. Furthermore, a system must be devised for affording gifted members of society the opportunity of engaging in more advanced studies, with a view to their occupying, as far as possible, positions of responsibility in society in keeping with their natural talent and acquired skill. (9)

The Right to Worship God According to One's Conscience

14. Also among man's rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public. According to the clear teaching of Lactantius, "this is the very condition of our birth, that we render to the God who made us that just homage which is His due; that we acknowledge Him alone as God, and follow Him. It is from this ligature of piety, which binds us and joins us to God, that religion derives its name.'' (l0)

Hence, too, Pope Leo XIII declared that "true freedom, freedom worthy of the sons of God, is that freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person. It is stronger than any violence or injustice. Such is the freedom which has always been desired by the Church, and which she holds most dear. It is the sort of freedom which the Apostles resolutely claimed for themselves. The apologists defended it in their writings; thousands of martyrs consecrated it with their blood."(11)

The Right to Choose Freely One's State in Life

15. Human beings have also the right to choose for themselves the kind of life which appeals to them: whether it is to found a family—in the founding of which both the man and the woman enjoy equal rights and duties—or to embrace the priesthood or the religious life.(12)

16. The family, founded upon marriage freely contracted, one and indissoluble, must be regarded as the natural, primary cell of human society. The interests of the family, therefore, must be taken very specially into consideration in social and economic affairs, as well as in the spheres of faith and morals. For all of these have to do with strengthening the family and assisting it in the fulfilment of its mission.

17. Of course, the support and education of children is a right which belongs primarily to the parents. (13)

Economic Rights

18. In the economic sphere, it is evident that a man has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does. (14)

19. The conditions in which a man works form a necessary corollary to these rights. They must not be such as to weaken his physical or moral fibre, or militate against the proper development of adolescents to manhood. Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers.(15)

20. A further consequence of man's personal dignity is his right to engage in economic activities suited to his degree of responsibility.(16) The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice. This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity. Pope Pius XII expressed it in these terms:

"Nature imposes work upon man as a duty, and man has the corresponding natural right to demand that the work he does shall provide him with the means of livelihood for himself and his children. Such is nature's categorical imperative for the preservation of man."(17)

21. As a further consequence of man's nature, he has the right to the private ownership of property, including that of productive goods. This, as We have said elsewhere, is "a right which constitutes so efficacious a means of asserting one's personality and exercising responsibility in every field, and an element of solidity and security for family life, and of greater peace and prosperity in the State."(18)

22. Finally, it is opportune to point out that the right to own private property entails a social obligation as well. (19)

The Right of Meeting and Association

23. Men are by nature social, and consequently they have the right to meet together and to form associations with their fellows. They have the right to confer on such associations the type of organization which they consider best calculated to achieve their objectives. They have also the right to exercise their own initiative and act on their own responsibility within these associations for the attainment of the desired results(20).

24. As We insisted in Our encyclical Mater et Magistra, the founding of a great many such intermediate groups or societies for the pursuit of aims which it is not within the competence of the individual to achieve efficiently, is a matter of great urgency. Such groups and societies must be considered absolutely essential for the safeguarding of man's personal freedom and dignity, while leaving intact a sense of responsibility.(21)

The Right to Emigrate and Immigrate

25. Again, every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.(22) The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.

Political Rights

26. Finally, man's personal dignity involves his right to take an active part in public life, and to make his own contribution to the common welfare of his fellow citizens. As Pope Pius XII said, "man as such, far from being an object or, as it were, an inert element in society, is rather its subject, its basis and its purpose; and so must he be esteemed."(23)

27. As a human person he is entitled to the legal protection of his rights, and such protection must be effective, unbiased, and strictly just. To quote again Pope Pius XII: "In consequence of that juridical order willed by God, man has his own inalienable right to juridical security. To him is assigned a certain, well-defined sphere of law, immune from arbitrary attack."(24)


28. The natural rights of which We have so far been speaking are inextricably bound up with as many duties, all applying to one and the same person. These rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other.

29. Thus, for example, the right to live involves the duty to preserve one's life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it.

Reciprocity of Rights and Duties Between Persons

30. Once this is admitted, it follows that in human society one man's natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other.

Mutual Collaboration

31. Since men are social by nature, they must live together and consult each other's interests. That men should recognize and perform their respective rights and duties is imperative to a well ordered society. But the result will be that each individual will make his whole-hearted contribution to the creation of a civic order in which rights and duties are ever more diligently and more effectively observed.

32. For example, it is useless to admit that a man has a right to the necessities of life, unless we also do all in our power to supply him with means sufficient for his livelihood.

33. Hence society must not only be well ordered, it must also provide men with abundant resources. This postulates not only the mutual recognition and fulfillment of rights and duties, but also the involvement and collaboration of all men in the many enterprises which our present civilization makes possible, encourages or indeed demands.

An Attitude of Responsibility

34. Man's personal dignity requires besides that he enjoy freedom and be able to make up his own mind when he acts. In his association with his fellows, therefore, there is every reason why his recognition of rights, observance of duties, and many-sided collaboration with other men, should be primarily a matter of his own personal decision. Each man should act on his own initiative, conviction, and sense of responsibility, not under the constant pressure of external coercion or enticement. There is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force. Far from encouraging, as it should, the attainment of man's progress and perfection, it is merely an obstacle to his freedom.

Social Life in Truth, Justice, Charity and Freedom

35. Hence, before a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth. St. Paul expressed this as follows: "Putting away lying, speak ye the truth every man with his neighbor, for we are members one of another."(25) And so will it be, if each man acknowledges sincerely his own rights and his own duties toward others.

Human society, as We here picture it, demands that men be guided by justice, respect the rights of others and do their duty. It demands, too, that they be animated by such love as will make them feel the needs of others as their own, and induce them to share their goods with others, and to strive in the world to make all men alike heirs to the noblest of intellectual and spiritual values. Nor is this enough; for human society thrives on freedom, namely, on the use of means which are consistent with the dignity of its individual members, who, being endowed with reason, assume responsibility for their own actions.

36. And so, dearest sons and brothers, we must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality. By its means enlightened men can share their knowledge of the truth, can claim their rights and fulfill their duties, receive encouragement in their aspirations for the goods of the spirit, share their enjoyment of all the wholesome pleasures of the world, and strive continually to pass on to others all that is best in themselves and to make their own the spiritual riches of others. It is these spiritual values which exert a guiding influence on culture, economics, social institutions, political movements and forms, laws, and all the other components which go to make up the external community of men and its continual development.


(7) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1942, AAS 35 (1943) 9-24; and John XXIII's sermon, Jan. 4, 1963, AAS 55 (1963) 89-91.

(8) Cf. Pius XI's encyclical letter Divini Redemptoris, AAS 29 (1931) 78; and Pius XII's broadcast message, Pentecost, June 1, 1941, AAS 33 (1941) 195-205.

(9) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1942, AAS 35 (1943) 9-24.

(10) Divinae Institutiones, lib. IV, c.28.2; PL 6.535.

(11) Encyclical letter "Libertas praestantissimum," Acta Leonis XIII, VIII, 1888, pp. 237-238.

(12) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1942, AAS 35 (1943) 9-24.

(13) Cf. Pius XI's encyclical letter Casti connubii, AAS 22 (1930) 539-592, and Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1942, AAS 35 (1943) 9-24.

(14) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Pentecost, June 1 ,1941, AAS 33 (1941) 201.

(15) Cf. Leo XIII's encyclical letter Rerum novarum, Acta Leonis XIII, XI, 1891, pp. 128-129.

(16) Cf John XXIII's encyclical letter Mater et Magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 422.

(17) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Pentecost, June 1, 1941, AAS 33 (1941) 201.

(18) John XXIII's encyclical letter Mater et Magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 428.

(19) Cf. ibid., p. 430; TPS v. 7, no. 4, p. 318.

(20) Cf. Leo XIII's encyclical letter Rerum novarum, Acta Leonis XIII, XI, 1891, pp. 134-142; Pius XI's encyclical letter Quadragesimo anno, AAS 23 (1931) 199-200; and Pius XII's encyclical letter Sertum laetitiae, AAS 31 (1939) 635-644.

(21) Cf. AAS 53 (1961) 430.

(22) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1952, AAS 45 (1953) 36-46.

(23) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1944, AAS 37 (1945) 12.

(24) Cf. Pius XII's broadcast message, Christmas 1942, AAS 35 (1943) 21.

(25) Eph. 4:25.

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