January 11, 2010


Jacques Maritain and Dignitatis Humanae: Natural Law as the Common Language of Religious Freedom (Brian Jones, M.A., December 09, Ignatius Insight)

In his section of Man and the State concerning the "Rights of Man", Maritain states that there is no right of man "unless a certain order—which can be violated in fact—is inviolably required by what things are in their intelligible type or their essence, or by what the nature of man is, and is cut out for". In other words, the discussion of "rights" only makes sense if the participants involved hold to a proper anthropology, one that contemplates what man is in his nature and what his destiny is. Maritain continues by saying that dialogue concerning the truths about man and his ends can only take place if we recognize that the foundation of these rights "exists in a separate Spirit, in an Absolute which is superior to the world, in what perennial philosophy calls the Eternal Law".

Professor Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School has written that one of the greatest errors of modern culture, stemming from 18th-century Enlightenment philosophy, is its absolutizing of "rights"—as if "rights" were an autonomous licensed form of freedom that rejects any form of responsibility or duty. This is exactly the interpretive key that helps to unlock the "rights" language of Dignitatis Humanae, where the document warns against those "who seem inclined to use the name of freedom as the pretext for refusing to submit to authority and for making light of the duty of obedience".

The Council affirms that the dignity of the human person rests on the truth that man is a being endowed with reason and free will, and this sacred reality is known through Divine Revelation and reason itself. This truth about man, that he has been created with intelligence and freedom, impels him to be an ardent seeker of truth, "especially religious truth". Once this truth is known, man must assent to it, but only in a freedom that is removed from all forms of religious and/or civil coercion. The dignity of the human person reveals this: "the inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth."

The philosophical anthropology that we have received since the time of the Enlightenment has built no solid foundations for the rights of the human person. The true rights of man have been squandered because "it [the Enlightenment] led men to conceive of rights as divine in themselves, hence infinite, escaping every objective measure, denying every limitation imposed upon the claims of ego". This has led to the complete independence of the human subject, with his imagined absolute right to develop his human potentialities and abilities at the expense of all other beings.

Maritain believes that the best philosophy with which to refute this tendency is one that is rooted in a specific ontological structure, one which affirms that man possesses ends which necessarily correspond to his essential constitution and pertain to all. Since man is endowed with "intelligence and determines his own ends, it is up to him to put himself in tune with the ends necessarily demanded by his nature . . . this means that there is, by virtue of human nature, an order or a disposition which human reason can discover and according to which the human will must act in order to attune itself to the essential and necessary ends of the human being".

There are few things more amusing than listening to those who can't derive Rights insist on them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2010 6:55 AM
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