Rosmini's understanding of rights in the church, the family, and civil society.

AuthorFastiggi, Robert L.
PositionAntonio Rosmini-Serbati

Blessed Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (1797-1855) was an Italian philosopher and theologian, as well as one of the most significant authors on human rights of the nineteenth century. In addition to his writings, he was the founder of two religious communities, the Institute of Charity and the Sisters of Providence. (l)

Rosmini was born on March 24, 1797 in Rovereto, a small city located in the Trentino region of the Italian Tyrol (an area which was then under Austrian control, but completely Italian in culture and language). (2) He died on July 1, 1855 at Stresa (Lago Maggiore) after being visited by several bishops and his good friend, the Italian author Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873). (3)

Rosmini had a reputation for holiness during his lifetime, and he enjoyed the friendship of several popes. (4) Nevertheless, various factors, both political and ideological, resulted in opposition to some of his ideas and writings. In 1849, two of Rosmini's books, The Five Wounds of the Holy Church and The Constitution According to Social Justice, were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Sacred Congregation of the Index (Holy Office), but in 1854--the year before his death--the Holy Office removed all of Rosmini's writings from examination with the Decree Dimittantur. (5)

Even after his death, Rosmini's opponents continued to press their case against some of his ideas. In 1881, the Holy Office determined that the 1854 decision, Dimittantur, did not mean that Rosmini's writings were to be considered entirely free from error but only that they were not forbidden. (6) In 1887, the Holy Office censured forty propositions of Rosmini (many extracted from posthumous and unedited works). (7)

In spite of the 1887 censure of the Holy Office, both the Institute of Charity and the Sisters of Providence remained devoted to Rosmini. (8) Moreover, both John XXIII and Paul VI admired him. (9) Subsequently, Pope John Paul II, in 1994, agreed to open the cause for the Italian thinker's beatification, and, in his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, he included Rosmini among recent thinkers who pursued a "fruitful relationship between philosophy and the word of God." (10)

Rosmini's cause for beatification led to a reconsideration of the 1887 decree of the Holy Office. (11) On July 1, 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ("CDF") issued a Note on the Force of the Doctrinal Decrees Concerning the Thought and Work of Fr. Antonio Romini Serbati.(12) In this Note, the CDF stated that the original motive for the 1887 decree was to warn against idealist, ontologist, and subjectivist interpretations of certain propositions of Rosmini. (13) These motives now have been superseded because such interpretations do "not belong to the authentic position of Rosmini, but to conclusions that may possibly have been drawn from the reading of his works." (14) The CDF, therefore, concluded that the plausibility of his philosophical and theological theories should "remain entrusted to the theoretical debate."(15) This (along with an approved miracle) opened the way for Rosmini's beatification, which took place on November 18, 2007 in Novara, Italy. (16)

While Rosmini can be studied as a speculative theologian, metaphysician, and spiritual writer, this present Article is concerned with his philosophy of human rights. Some of his more significant works concern social and political issues, for example: La Societa e il suo Fine [Society and Its Purpose] (1839); La Cosituzione secondo la Giustizia Sociale [The Constitution According to Social Justice] (1848); Il Comunismo e il Socialismo [Communism and Socialism] (1849); and Le Principali Questioni Politico-Religiose della Giornata, brevernente risolute [The Principal Political-Religious Questions of the Day, Briefly Resolved] (1853). (17) Among all of Rosmini's writings dealing with social and political questions, probably none is more significant than his six volume work, Filosofia del Diritto [The Philosophy of Right] (1841-1843). In these six volumes, he examines the essence of right (volume one), (18) the rights of individuals (volume two), (19) the principles of universal social right (volume three), (20) the rights in theocratic society or the Church (volume four), (21) the rights in the family or domestic society (volume five), (22) and the rights in civil society (volume six). (23)


    In The Essence of Right, Rosmini provides this definition: "[R]ight is a moral governance or authority to act, or: right is a faculty to do what we please, protected by the moral law which obliges others to respect that faculty." (24) This definition of "right" has five elements or characteristics: 1) it pertains to subjective activity, i.e., the activity of a subject; 2) it involves personal activity, i.e., the activity of a person endowed with a rational will and freedom; 3) it assumes that there is some good in the action undertaken; 4) it assumes the lawfulness of the act because there can never be a right to do what is evil, and a "right can only be a faculty to do what is intrinsically upright and lawful";(25) and 5) a right "implies a relationship with other intelligent beings according to which they remain morally obliged not to disturb the exercise of that faculty or moral activity." (26) This is what governance means.

    Behind these constitutive elements of "right" is the implicate notion of "jural duty," which refers to "that moral duty which obliges human beings to respect the freedom of others when this freedom has all the characteristics necessary to constitute a right .... [I]t is the duty which requires one human being to respect, without interference or damage, the jural governance of another." (27)

    Behind this understanding of right is a eudaemonistic view of ethics: one grounded in the pursuit of happiness. This is why Rosmini believes a right is a faculty to do what one pleases (cio che piace). Rita Zama notes that Rosmini's path is one that recognizes "the inseparability of the moral good and the eudaemonological good: the ontological union expressed in the law that 'a morally good will is a happy will.'"(28) For Rosmini, happiness ultimately is found by adherence to the "order of being," which can never be separated from the moral order. (29)


    According to Rosmini, rights can be broken down into subcategories. (30) Rights are innate, natural, or connatural when they are based on what is inborn or natural. (31) Among such rights are "the right to the truth, the right to justice, and the right of happiness." (32) Rights can also be positive or acquired when they are based on ownership or what is acquired during one's lifetime. For example, a person has a right of dominion over a house that he owns. (33) Rights, moreover, are either individual or social, and, therefore, they can be further categorized as: 1) natural individual rights and acquired individual rights; or 2) natural social rights and acquired social rights. (34) Social rights are related to various societies, which help human beings to unite with others and attain their perfection, either on earth or in the future life.

    These rights--natural and acquired, individual and social--can be applied to different types of societies. For Rosmini, there are three basic societies on earth: 1) theocratic society or the Church; 2) domestic society or the family; and 3) civil society or the state. (35) We now need to investigate how these rights are expressed in these three basic societies.

    1. Rights in Theocratic Society or "God's Church"

      What does Rosmini mean by "theocratic society"? He does not mean a civil society governed by priests or bishops. (36) Instead, he means "the Church of Jesus Christ," which is "simply the natural society of mankind raised in certain human beings to the supernatural order and brought to its final completion and full realisation." (37) Rosmini believes there are various connatural and acquired rights possessed by the Church. (38) He lived during...

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