This past Sunday, Church-goers heard one of the most well-known Christian tales, the story of the Good Samaritan. Like all of Jesus’ parables, each layer of meaning contains a wealth of wisdom about the faith and our relationship with God and each other.  For his part, Pope Francis, in his Sunday Angelus, chose to reflect on one aspect of this story that’s worth highlighting here. 

Francis said, “[Jesus] brings about a reversal in regard to His interlocutor’s question, and also to the logic of us all. He makes us understand that it’s not we that, on the basis of our criteria, define who is and who is not our neighbour, but it’s the person in a situation of need who must be able to recognize who is his neighbour, namely, ‘the one who showed mercy on him’ (v. 37).”

As Francis suggests, the story of the Good Samaritan challenges one area of our life that we all struggle with. In simple terms, we fail to see that our life is not about us at all. In fact, our life is itself a gift. God’s mercy and our salvation is a total and free gift of his love. Everything that is good about our life has been given to us as a part of God’s loving plan of salvation. Therefore, the Christian faith teaches us to die to self, especially anything that prevents us from fully accepting his gift, so that we can rise again with Christ.

This is the insight that Francis is pointing to in the story of the Good Samaritan. Francis shows how Jesus “relocates” the fundamental question of the parable. Instead of us asking “Who is my neighbor?” it is in fact the suffering one who asks “Who is my neighbor?”  Since the faith is not about us, but rather extending the love of Christ to all those who need to experience his healing touch, Jesus calls us to be the neighbors of the suffering.

For Americans, we can see a subtle shift away from Jesus’ teaching when discussing “rights.” Americans are proficient at discussing what they have a “right” to do. There’s a right to privacy, a right to speech, a right to practice one’s religion, etc. New rights are proclaimed at a seemingly increasing pace. But this focus on “rights” language can draw us away from the heart of the Gospel. We essentially become burdened with an array of rights that, rather than allowing us to do what we ought, isolates us from our neighbors who often have competing rights that supersede our own. 

With so much conversation about “rights,” it is not surprising when American Christians inject this rights language even into our faith life. Christians can easily lose sight of our responsibilities to others when we prioritize self-interested “rights” over Christ’s teaching. Instead of seeing every moment as an opportunity to share the love of Christ, too much focus on ourselves can create a bunker mentality, in which we lash out reflexively against a world we believe is out to strip us of our freedoms at every turn.

Mary Ann Glendon–a renowned Catholic author, professor and former US Ambassador to the Holy See– expanded on this insight in her book Rights Talk. Her summary of the book’s main points are included here. What she describes is an impoverishment of modern political discourse, in which talk about “rights” has grown so extreme and has been so utterly absolutized that it is practically impossible to make any progress on essential political questions. She writes in her summary, “[R]ights talk encourages our all-too-human tendency to place the self at the center of our moral universe.” 

Conversely, the Christian must strive, by the grace of God, to break out of these awful, self-centered attitudes. Following Francis’ logic in his Angelus address, the question must no longer be, “What do I have the right to do as a Christian?” but rather, “What must be done in the world?” Discernment is the task of applying our own God-given gifts to ameliorating the suffering of the world in all its forms but most especially the suffering of those who need God. 

That said, Christians do well to uphold certain rights when they are in the service of a true good. We can easily name a few: the right to life, to healthcare, to equal dignity of all people under the law, and to religious freedom. For example, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently described religious freedom as the “quintessential American cause.”  

Cardinal Dolan, fortunately, avoided a common pitfall when advancing the cause of religious freedom. Rather than couching his remarks in the rhetoric of one who is besieged, Cardinal Dolan focused rather on the role of faith in public life. Religious freedom is the Christian’s protection against a state that would prevent him from doing what he ought. He said, “We act not as sectarians but as responsible citizens. We act on behalf of the truth about the human person.” 

This was the same approach taken by the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae. There, the Church claimed a right to religious freedom. This right does not create a bubble around the individual, which no one, not even the Church, is allowed to pierce. Rather, the right to religious freedom exists to facilitate the Church’s true goal of evangelization. It is written there, “In human society and in the face of government the Church claims freedom for herself in her character as a spiritual authority, established by Christ the Lord, upon which there rests, by divine mandate, the duty of going out into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to every creature.” 

All our focus on rights must give way to a renewed focus on our collective responsibilities to each other. Pope Francis concludes in his Angelus, “It is thus that the commandment of the love of God and of our neighbor becomes a unique and coherent rule of life.” 

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