A June 2 news article in the Washington Times recounted the case of a Catholic woman in Lewiston, Maine, who ran a foster home for mentally retarded adults. She forbade the presence of pornography and sexual activity in her establishment. However, it seems that “state rules say that people with mental retardation and autism in group homes have a right to participate in activities of choice, which include using pornographic materials and sexual acts, such as masturbation and consensual sex.”

The Lewiston woman will have to get out of the business if the state removes her license on the grounds of depriving the retarded of their “rights.” Surely this is one case where a good Christian cannot simply obey the positive law.

I do not intend to go into this particular case except to emphasize that the word “right” is not unequivocally a neutral or positively good word in today's usage. What is left of Christian morality is being step-by-step eliminated in the name of human “rights.” “Rights” is the word most used to protect and justify deviant and sinful behavior as perfectly legitimate and “normal.” The “new man” is to be created by naming his “rights.”

Notice that in Maine, and presumably elsewhere, these “rights” come from rules of the state government. These “rights” are invented by the legislative and executive processes of the government and protected by, even invented by, the courts. If we begin simply to list the things that are presently called “rights” — abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, cloning, income, happiness, and a thousand other “rights” — we see that something is radically wrong with the word and what it connotes.

It is simply not a benign word and cannot be used naively as if it is not the cause of great confusion and disruption in public and private morality.

Yet, the Holy Father uses the word “rights” all the time as if it were perfectly appropriate. The Declaration of Independence uses it. The United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights uses it. It is the fundamental tool by which democracy and human dignity are said to be protected.

A number of philosophers, George Orwell, for instance, imply, however, that the initial wars of a culture are wars over the meaning of words. If we can change the meaning of words, we can more easily get what we want.

In the benign sense, “rights” were held to derive from certain truths that were said to be “self-evident.” They had grounding not simply in themselves nor in human formulations.

Beginning approximately with Hobbes in the 17th century, however, the word “right” took on a meaning that is always implied in modern usage. It no longer meant something rooted in an ordered nature. “Rights” were explained instead as absolutely dependent on human desire or will. “Rights” in this sense is a modern, not medieval or classical, word. We now have “rights” literally to everything. “Rights” are no longer opposed to or correlated with “obligations” or “duties.” Since the resulting multiplicity of “rights” was seen to be chaotic and dangerous, all our rights were turned over to the state. They became what the state willed and enforced.

Thus it has become easy to speak of a “right to choose,” a “right to abortion,” a “right to die.” There is no “natural law” to set a limit to such “rights.” The only “natural right” we presuppose is that which says we can do whatever we want to protect our lives or achieve our purposes. There is no God who has anything different to say. We propose “rights” for ourselves.

Thus when Catholics and others speak today about protecting and fostering human “rights,” they suddenly face this kind of question: What is the difference between a “right” to life and a “right” to abortion? The only thing that justifies either is what we will. If we give ourselves a “right” to abortion, it is no different than if we give ourselves a “right” to life. Both are equally arbitrary. Both are established or abolished by the state.

Thus when the state of Maine tells nursing homes that clients have a “right” to sexual activity and pornography, it is almost impossible to reply — in the name of natural law, the commandments or common sense — that they have no such “rights.” The only thing that counts is what the state enforces.

Sometimes the Vatican newspaper, L‘Osservatore Romano, calls these new modern rights “will-rights,” meaning they were simply legislated by the will of the state, having no further rational standing. Of course, the state can legislate. But if there is nothing higher than the state, then “will-rights” stand as law.

Notice, that in a home for retarded adults, a worker who sexually harasses or abuses one of the patients without consent would be put in jail. Why? Because his act was wrong? No. Rather, because the act violated another person's “rights.” Consensual sex, on the other hand, violates no one's “rights,” and is itself a “right” of the retarded in the state of Maine.

What has happened here? By subtle use of the word “right,” we have passed through the following stages: 1) Sexual acts ought to be ruled by reason. 2) Sexual acts outside of marriage are sinful. 3) Sexual acts outside of marriage, though sinful, are to be tolerated. 4) It is wrong to judge people who participate in sexual acts outside of marriage. 5) We should have compassion for those who perform sexual acts outside of marriage. 6) People have a “right” to sexual acts outside of marriage. 7) Sexual acts outside of marriage ought to be encouraged even for those like the retarded least able to handle them. 8) People who prevent the exercise of sexual “rights” outside of marriage are guilty of violating “human rights.”

The only “crime” is committed by the good woman in Lewiston, Maine, who is violating someone else's “rights.” Circle completed. Culture corrupted.

Jesuit Father James V. Schall teaches philosophy at Georgetown. His most recent book is At the Limits of Political Philosophy, CUA Press.