Retrieving a Catholic tradition of subjective natural rights from the late scholastic Francisco Suarez, S.J.

AuthorBrust, Steven J.


There is good reason to inquire into the Catholic contributions to the foundation of human rights. (1) There is a global proliferation of natural rights in nation-states, international treaties, charters and conventions, as well as in political rhetoric, court decisions, law, and even in personal conversation. Furthermore, the Catholic Church herself has emerged as one of the leading advocates of natural rights in its moral and social teachings as well as in its charitable practices. As a result of these omnipresent rights claims, debates have arisen with respect to the origin and nature of, and justification for, natural rights. These debates are not only between Catholics and those outside the Church (e.g., with contemporary secular liberals), but also between Catholics themselves.

At the heart of these debates are a number of questions: Do natural rights even exist? If so, what is a right? Are natural rights compatible with or contradictory to natural law understood as an objective order of justice? Are natural rights derived from natural law or is natural law derived from natural rights? Which is given a priority? Do natural rights entail a rejection or diminution of virtue and the common good?

For some Catholics, a very important aspect of this overall debate is the supposed break between pre-modern views on natural right/law and modern views on natural rights. They offer a narrative which includes the claim that rights are more of an invention of the modern political philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, and/or have their origin in the purported nominalist and individualist thought of William of Ockham. (2) They tend to be conflicted when attempting to explain why and how the Church can now be such an advocate of rights. (3) Instead of this narrative, I would like to offer another instructive one, which I believe to be a more historically accurate and a more correct understanding of natural rights within the Catholic tradition itself. My Article focuses on one person in this narrative, the prominent, pre-modern, late scholastic, Jesuit theologian/philosopher,

Francisco Suarez, S.J. (1548-1617), (4) who inherited the entire tradition before him. His thought can be summoned to resolve some of the above disputed questions concerning the origin and nature of natural rights, and their relation to natural law, civil law, virtue, and the common good. (5) Suarez's understanding of rights, I hope to show, is evidence of a Catholic tradition of human rights, which Catholics should not fear, and which is (generally) consistent with how the Church understands rights today. In addition, this tradition can help provide the proper grounding for any rights claims as Catholics engage the contemporary debate about rights in all venues.

The narrative I present here builds on the one advanced by Brian Tierney, who claims that natural rights discourse has its origin in early medieval canonists, jurists, theologians, and philosophers, and that the successors of the medieval developed natural rights discourse up to the modern political thinkers and into contemporary times. (6) Important to this is the claim that rights include a "sphere of free choice" which stems from a right of self-ownership. One of the key objections which some Catholics have with this narrative is that the modern and contemporary idea of rights predominately is understood as rooted in individual autonomous choice. (7) They argue that these putative free choice rights are the problem, in that they are rights not merely to choose among various goods, but to make choices in violation of the natural law and therefore undermine virtue and the common good. I will show that Suarez provides an understanding of and justification for a natural right as a moral power or faculty pertaining to the individual subject rooted in self-governance. Yet this understanding itself is rooted in his overall view of human nature; hence, rights do not have to be separated from or opposed to natural law/right, God's objective order, political power, virtue, and the common good. (8) Although Suarez fits most closely within Tierney's narrative, I must note that Tierney perhaps emphasizes too much the continuity of the pre-modern rights with the modem natural rights thinkers and contemporary rights. (9) I argue that there is a specifically Catholic understanding of natural rights which cannot be classified strictly as "modem" or "contemporary." This will become more evident when I briefly explore how Suarez's understanding of rights compares with current Catholic teachings on rights. As a result, I believe, Suarez's thought can help contribute to the Church's correction of the contemporary understanding of rights.


    In his impressive ten book work on law, De Legibus et Deo Legislatore, Suarez specifically describes the meaning of right (ius) as

    properly being called a certain moral faculty which anyone has either over a thing or to a thing due him. For in this way, an owner of a thing is said to have right in a thing (ius in re), and the worker is said to have a right to a wage (ius ad stipendum), by reason of which he is called worthy of hire. (10) Here, "ius" is used in what can be considered a "subjective" sense: it inheres in the human subject and, as a moral faculty, is distinguished from a mere physical power to control something. Rather, it signifies a rightful moral claim in or to something. However, it is important to explore how Suarez ultimately grounds a subjective right. To do so, I turn to Suarez's argument for the origin of political power. He begins by putting forth the objection that subjection to a prince is against human liberty, (11) and this objection has its foundation "in the natural dignity of man. For man was made in the image of God, and sui iuris, subject to God alone." (12) Therefore, the objection goes, it does not seem to be just that a man could be brought into subjection or enslaved to any man, and so the political principate usurps man's mastership. (13) In this objection, Suarez accepts the premise, but not the consequence--that man is subject to God alone, and therefore political power is unjust per se and political subjection would be a usurpation of man's mastership. In accepting the premise, Suarez implies that being made in the image of God and being created sui iuris includes a proper mastership over oneself. (14) The question arises: what is it about the person which allows him to be designated as sui iuris?

    Elsewhere, Suarez defines ius as a man's "power in himself and in the use of his faculties and members of his body." (15) This explanation of ius as a moral power over oneself is in accord with, and appears to be, the essence of the grounding for man's dignity and being in the image of God, and hence the grounding for one being sui iuris. Thus, one can conclude that man is sui iuris--of his own right--because he possesses a subjective moral power or faculty to be master of himself or, to express it another way, that he is a person with the capacity for self-governance.

    This is confirmed in De Opere Sex Dierum, where Suarez does an exegesis of the Old Testament book of Genesis in order to surmise man's nature in the state of innocence:

    [T]he capacity of dominion is fitting to man naturally because he was made in the image of God. This is manifest in itself, for man, on account of reason and freedom is in the image of God and on account of the same properties is capable of dominion and therefore the rest of the animals are not capable of dominion because they do not have the use of reason or freedom. (16) Here dominion, grounded in man's faculties of reason and freedom, is understood in the sense of mastership or self-governance. Furthermore, he claims that it is a natural right because it is part of man's nature flowing "from the force of his creation" and is a consequence of his nature. (17) It should come as no surprise to discover that Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II), in one of his philosophical articles, "The Personal Structure of Self-Determination," references St. Thomas's use of the term--persona est sui iuriset alteri incommunicabilis--and proceeds to philosophically expound on the meaning of that term in light of what he calls self-determination and self-governance. (18) This understanding of the person is an essential aspect of Cardinal Wojtyla's personalist philosophy, and it informed his papal encyclicals and other writings, including those concerned with rights. In effect, Cardinal Wojtyla developed what had already existed within the Catholic tradition (here, in specific reference to Aquinas and Suarez). (19)

    Although this self-governance can fall under both "dominium" and "ius," it can also pertain to "liberty." For Suarez, man has an "intrinsic right of liberty," (20) which means that man is not owned or enslaved by another and under another's control, but rather that he has control over his own faculties, actions, and bodily members. (21) It is not a liberty of self-governance grounded solely in an autonomous individual will separated from human nature and the objective moral and social order as created by God. Rather, it is intrinsically related to the latter.


    However, if one were to emphasize the subjective aspect of the person--the natural right of liberty to act, of self-governance, the right in something and to something, the right to use things, even the right of self-defense, which Suarez calls the greatest right (22)--one might promote both an undue emphasis on the individual, and the idea that these are rights to do what one pleases. As mentioned above, this concern is expressed by those Catholics who argue against the compatibility of natural rights with objective natural right/law, virtue, and the common good. (23) For Suarez, however, subjective rights exist only within a framework of communities, laws, and the...

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