There are many aspects of the U.S. law and the legal process that also find their roots in canon law, Pietrzyk said, such as the idea in corporate law that entities sometimes have rights like persons would, or the idea of due process.
“People condemn the Inquisition, but the Inquisition was a step above the civil courts because there was real, procedural due process with the Inquisition that just didn't exist in secular law,” he said.
Payne said he sees a Catholic influence in U.S. law with respect to some issues of social justice, especially as they are treated in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, “Rerum Novarum” and other works by the three most recent popes.
Their writings on social justice have had “a significant influence on how many people, at least in our country, think about social justice, especially in such arenas as helping the poor, healthcare, immigration, abortion, end of life, workers' rights, the death penalty, and so on,” he said.
Payne added that the U.S. legal system also includes ideas that come from natural law, a concept emphasized in the Catholic tradition that has roots in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and even further back to Aristotle.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, natural law is “present in the heart of each man and established by reason….It expresses the dignity of the human person and forms the basis of his fundamental rights and duties.”
“Our break with King George III was justified on natural law grounds, and many of our constitutional rights and much of our common law was founded in and flows from natural law and natural rights,” Payne said.
Furthermore, Payne said, “the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic social teaching have a great deal to say about the common good and the dignity of the human person. And a significant part of that focuses on the natural law, and how seeking the common good enables individual human beings to flourish in community.”
In a way, Pietrzyk said, the Catholic understanding of human dignity is reflected “in the Declaration of Independence. ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal and they're endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’”
“This is a very Christian idea,” he said. “As much as we talk about the common good, there's still a reality to the individual value and the dignity of the person and that the person has rights. Not simply because he's a citizen of a particular country, but simply because he's human and that human nature itself, whether born or unborn, endows that person with rights. Modern progressivism in some ways assumes that without understanding it.”
Modern progressivism “collapses” as a philosophy, Pietrzyk said, because it lacks “a coherent sense of a human person. It's really just this sort of naked kind of freedom, or I would say autonomy.”
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Conor Dugan is a Catholic attorney who practices in Michigan. He said the conflict between the Catholic understanding of the human person and the modern progressive understanding of the individual is due to the U.S. founding fathers, who mostly held Enlightenment principles and ideas, such as those from English philosopher John Locke.
The American legal system takes a Lockean view of people as individuals with rights, “which doesn't necessarily nestle the person in a community,” Dugan told CNA.
On the other hand, Catholics understand the human person as someone who is always in relationship - to God, to others, to himself - and therefore while a person has rights, he also has responsibilities, Dugan said.
“It's almost like the individual becomes atomized” in the U.S. legal system, he said, and “an individual who is cut off from all those things just has a packet of rights and no responsibility.”
Pietrzyk said an example of this Lockean understanding of the individual can be seen in U.S. law under the 2015 Supreme Court case, Obergefell v. Hodges, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
That decision demonstrated “a strong belief in an individual's rights to marry whomever he wants, regardless of the nature of the institution or the nature of the person. It's this raw exercise of will, but disconnected from any reality or any nature or anything like that,” he said. “It has no rational core to it.”