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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Question F: To what extent are Christians obliged to forgo their rights?

1. The gospel’s demand for perfection clearly requires that Christians forgo their rights in some circumstances (see Mt 5.39–41). To what extent is this requirement binding on a Christian’s conscience in his or her relationships with others, with society, and especially with the Church?

2. There are three possible ways of regarding one’s rights. One can be concerned to claim them precisely because they are one’s own. One can be concerned to claim them for the sake of justice. Or one can be ready to claim or forgo them the better to fulfill one’s commitments. Only the third way is appropriate for Christians (see S.t., 2–2, q. 72, a. 3).

3. In the fallen human condition, people often are most concerned to protect their rights simply because they are theirs. Because this bias toward self is virtually universal and in this instance is concerned with what one is justified in demanding, conventional morality approves this approach. Still, it violates the fifth mode of responsibility, since it leads one to act out of love of self rather than love of justice. A person who loved justice would not be concerned with rights precisely as his or her own but would instead be concerned impartially with the justice to be done, and so would be concerned with the rights of all who suffer a similar injustice.

4. As for those who take the second approach and are concerned to defend their rights on principle, they do have a social consciousness and they pursue their own rights for the sake of justice to all who are similarly situated. Indeed, they do this even in cases where they would otherwise consider it too much trouble to defend their rights. Based as it is upon an impartial love of justice, this approach conforms to the common requirements of moral responsibility.

5. Christians, however, must seek and accept everything as a gift from God. In imitation of Jesus, who did not cling to his right to divine honor, they ought to pursue others’ interests in preference to their own (cf. Phil 2.1–11). Transforming justice into mercy, they should voluntarily forgo their rights and more than fulfill their duties (see Mt 5.38–42). Overcoming evil with good, they should forgive injuries (see Mt 5.43–48; Rom 12.21). Living redemptively, they should suffer evil meekly so that good might come from it (see Mt 5.10–11).

6. Christians therefore ought not to be concerned about their rights but about the responsibilities entailed by their personal vocations. St. Paul, for example, did not accept support from the Corinthians, though he was entitled to it, for he wished them to receive the gospel entirely as a gift even from its human agent (2 Cor 11.7–9). In sum, Christians should seek to vindicate their rights when this is required to fulfill their responsibilities, but not otherwise.

For example, a bishop ought to defend his right to preach the gospel and to minister to his flock; Christian workers ought to seek just compensation for the support of their families and the work of the Church; Christian nurses should defend their right to exemption from assignments to participate in abortions. Christians may make establishing and protecting justice in society a part of their vocational commitment. But if they do, they will prove that their concern for justice is redemptive by preferring to act in defense of rights whose violation does not affect them personally.

Because Christians should claim their rights when doing so fulfills the responsibilities of their personal vocations, there often will appear to be little difference between the behavior of conventionally moral persons and that of Christians in exacting rights. If one has the mind of Jesus in this matter, however, in certain cases one’s behavior will be strikingly different.