Catholic Values Column: Stop talking about rights and values



ElishaValues and rights  we hear those terms thrown around often, especially in political discourse. Whether it’s conservatives standing up for “traditional family values” or liberals advocating for “reproductive rights,” it’s nearly impossible to discuss these and other topics without invoking “this value” or “that right.” 

But has anyone actually ever changed someone else’s opinion because he convinced the other that his value superseded the other’s right? I wouldn’t think it is a common occurrence. It’s like saying “Well, I value watermelon more than your right to eat a banana; therefore, I want the superstore to sell only watermelon from now on.”

The two people in the watermelon-versus-bananas debate are not likely to find common ground because they simply don’t perceive the fruits in the same way. Perhaps Person A likes watermelon because of the low-carb content. And maybe Person B favors bananas precisely because the fruit is higher in carbs.  

These two people base their preferences on their subjective perspectives and desires, meaning they probably won’t find common ground. In fact, if Person A convinces the supermarket to only sell watermelon, Person B might take that as a personal affront and say he is being persecuted by Person A. This then leads to further antagonization on either side and results in a constant back-and-forth with the supermarket, and it never gets better.  

We can speak similarly of the way our society debates the many issues it faces. Whether it’s over abortion, contraception, guns, euthanasia or something else, two sides with entirely different moral codes combat each other with values and conceptions of rights that are diametrically opposed to those held by the other. 

This is especially problematic given the culture war we find our world entrenched in today. We have a culture of life and a culture of death, and each side defines its actions and the items it esteems by its worldview. There is no common ground found between the two, so it is entirely ineffective to argue for one set of values against the other, as much as the name of the column — “Catholic Values”  might indicate otherwise. 

Just as Person B considers Person A as violating what Person B thought to be his right to buy a banana, so too abortion advocates see the pro-life movement as the devil incarnate because it stands between these people and what they consider to be their right: an abortion. But it’s not as if the pro-life movement and the pro-abortion advocate are disagreeing on the same issue as it is laid out. Really, their worldviews are so different from each other that they cannot comprehend how the other came to hold their position. 

Don’t get me wrong  I am not saying the beliefs of the Catholic faith are relative and can be cherry-picked. However, the reality is that our understanding of the words “values” and “rights” has been so distorted from their original meanings that they don’t have any binding force when used in an argument.  

Instead of trying to change someone’s subjective view of his values and rights, we need to go deeper than that. We need to understand that values and rights result from morals, which are conclusions brought forth by an individual’s understanding of cosmology. How one understands oneself to be created and how one understands one’s nature directly guides how one believes life should be lived.  

That is why Catholics can talk about upholding human dignity and the right to life by valuing life from conception to natural end and be just as serious in their definitions of the terms as someone who talks about upholding human dignity and the right to be happy by choosing to end life when it becomes painful or inconvenient, whether through abortion or euthanasia. This illustrates precisely why the conversation must move from defending rights and values to helping others come to new conclusions about the meaning of life and human nature. 

If we are serious about fighting for the culture of life, then we won’t trot out the same talking points about why abortion is bad or why marriage must remain between one man and one woman. Instead, Catholics must go deeper. We need to take a more philosophical approach that causes people to revisit the question of human nature and cosmology because if that understanding doesn’t change, it’s naive to believe that definitions of values and rights will. And unless we can effect this change, the fight to uphold a culture of life will die with us. 

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