With great power comes great responsibility. You may recognize that line from the comic book hero Spiderman, or from one of the many movie versions of Spiderman. Spiderman really starts out as the ordinary teenage boy Peter Parker. Peter gets bitten by an experimental, radioactive spider during a school field trip to a lab, and he subsequently develops super powers. The basic story is about Peter Parker learning not to use his new powers for his own personal gain, because, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Do most people still believe that today? We certainly believe that other people have responsibilities towards us, but we stop short of saying that we have responsibilities towards other people. I like to talk about my rights and your responsibilities, but I don’t so much like to hear about your rights and my responsibilities. I’m exaggerating, of course. There are still a lot of people who feel their responsibilities to other people, to their family, and to the country, but we do talk a lot more about our rights than our responsibilities. Rights and responsivities always go together. If we have a right, then we must have a corresponding responsibility. We have the right to free speech according to the First Amendment to the Constitution. It protects our right to express ourselves in speech, writing, art, media, and even how we spend our money. We have a responsibility, then, to learn the truth, to speak the truth, and to stand up for those who have no voice of their own.
We have the right to own private property. That right is expressed by the Declaration of Independence and protected by the US Constitution. It’s also recognized by the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council teaches that private ownership of property “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom...stimulating the exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty (Gaudium et Spes, 71).” The right to property helps to ensure freedom because it allows people to care for themselves instead of relying on others or the government for their basic necessities. However, it also comes with a grave responsibility. Since we have the right to own things, we also have the responsibility to use well what we have so that it benefits that entire community and especially the poor. Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, “To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others (RN, 22).”
In the same way, if we have the right to speech, to property, to participate in government, to free assembly, to religion, or any other right, then we have a responsibility to use those rights well. Our rights don’t come from the government, even if the government recognizes them; they come from God, and He gave them to us for a reason.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.