Before Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, in an article in America, the Jesuit Review, Jeffrey Sachs wrote:
Pope Francis has declared that the joy of the Gospel can help the world to overcome the globalization of indifference to others. Undoubtedly, he will bring this message when he visits the United States. But when he does, he will face a society in thrall to a different idea — that of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The urgent core of Francis' message, which is the message of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, challenges this American idea by proclaiming that the path to happiness lies not solely or mainly through the defense of rights but through the exercise of virtues, most notably justice and charity.
After read Sachs' article I wrote in an article rebutting of his false understanding of principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence:
If Pope Francis bases his discussion of unalienable right on the intellectually depleted nonsense in Jeffrey Sachs' article he will seriously embarrass himself and the Catholic Church. Ignoring the actual language and logic of the Declaration of Independence, Sachs pretends that it promulgates the view of rights which illogically conflates right and freedom, in the absence of God, as leftists and God-rejecting Ayn Rand libertarians commonly do. This pretense is plainly false to the logic of the Declaration as well as the facts of America's history.
As it turned out, when the Pope visited Philadelphia in September 2015, the headline read "Pope visit Philadelphia, extols America's founding." Alluding to America's founding ideals he said its "ringing words continue to inspire us today even as they inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity."
Sachs' view implies that there is some fundamental conflict between the Declaration's articulation of the premises of just government and Christ's admonition to "seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice." He gets away with asserting this falsehood because, like so many other elements of America's educated elites, he insists on referring to "unalienable rights" without reference to the Declaration's plainly stated understanding that human beings are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
In fact, the term "unalienable" alludes to the fact that these rights are instilled in the very substance of human nature so that when they are disrespected or violated humanity itself is under attack. Pope Francis did well, therefore, to describe the liberty that is central to the Declaration's assertion of the rights of all human persons as the "freedom to live in accordance with their dignity." For their dignity is their intrinsic worth, as substantiated by God's specific endowment of their nature as human beings.
Liberty is not the freedom to do whatever we please. It is the choice to do right, according to God's will. The "laws of nature and of Nature's God" are the terms of God's endowment. We are to administer the inheritance that comes to us from God according to these terms. Through His Word let us know that our first parents departed from the terms of the endowment, alienating certain goods the title of humanity entails. Our consciousness of humanity comes with knowledge (conscience) of these goods, but the corruption worked by our abuse of freedom (sin), exampled in Adam and Eve, corrupts our goodwill in respect of them. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 7:19, "the good which I will, I do not: but the evil which I will not, that I do."
In Christ, God came to us in human form to remind us of our capacity to live according to the terms of the endowment that fulfills our specific nature as human beings. This primordial purpose of Christ's ministry on earth is also the primordial insight from which Pope Paul VI draws the logic of the commitment to life, human procreation and love, that is the heart of Christian family life. So, in Humanae Vitae, when he commences to describe "the characteristic features and exigencies of married love," he writes:
This love is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become in a way one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment.
Pope Paul's description of marital love depicts the combination of God-endowed natural impulsion and human good will, freely determined to accept God's programming. This combination characterizes all God-endowed unalienable rights. Such rights are not merely exercises of willful human freedom. They arise in the aftermath of choices, freely made, to follow God’s rule for our good and the good of all His Creation. So, in his description of the parenthood that results from human participation in God's power of creation (procreation) Pope Paul VI writes:
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.
Because it conforms to the will of God for His Creation, each human exercise of unalienable right takes account of the good of the whole in all its manifestations. Unalienable rights might, therefore, be described as wholesome exercises of human freedom which, in fulfilling the good of each species and objective relationship, takes account of all the rest, according to God's understanding of the whole, they altogether constitute, whose being informs and makes provision for all.
Thus, so long as the authority of God (i.e., that which flows from His being as Creator) remains in view, unalienable rights are not selfish pursuits, in contradiction of God's justice. They are exercises of right, in accordance with God's rule — the very definition of justice in respect of His Divine and natural law. Thus, anyone who understands and acts according to God's endowment of rights, accepts the obligation it entails. He or she acts, therefore, as the agent of God's justice, the practitioner of His law, as it concerns themselves, their family and all the other manifestations of God's wholesome intention for Creation.
In thus enacting God's wholesome will, each and every human being determined to do right adopts the view and understanding of God. This conforms with the truth of Christ's relationship with those who live in Him and through Him in God's good graces. For Christ is the King of Kings, the wholesome embodiment of God's sovereignty in respect of His Creation. Those in whom Christ dwells and who, therefore, lend themselves to the enactment of his commands of love, live to reflect the will of the sovereign in all they do and onto everything they touch and influence.
The enactments of those through whom Christ lives still, in this world, are thus sovereign acts in the true sense of the term — enactments that serve the good of the whole, not just some selfish particular interest. When people who come together as the result of their common commitment thus to enact God's will, their consent to be governed by God is the basis for a power of government that is sovereign because it reflects the highest sovereign's will. Everyone member of the community thus formed and informed to enact the sovereign's will is a member of the sovereign body, endowed by God with the authority to govern itself.
This, the logic of the Declaration of Independence derives its consistency and its consequential verification of the sovereignty of the people from the presence of God's authority, which as followers of Christ they represent in this world. Without God and the acknowledgment of His rule and law; without Christ, as the embodiment of God's word, according to our natural understanding, there is no liberty. For liberty is the enactment of God's rule, according to His word, in the world as we are made to understand it.
This means that without Christ and God, there are no citizens, empowered by their acceptance of God's will to govern the whole they constitute by their consent to follow it. But it does not mean that only Christians can be citizens of the United States. They can be citizens if they act according to the Christian understanding of right and justice, according to God's will. As St. Paul wrote in Romans 2:14, this includes people not yet consciously committed to the way of life in Christ, who nonetheless follow the natural rules His father has set forth by His Word (the natural law), through whom all things were made.
Anyone who lives sincerely in accordance with America's creed signifies their will to do this — for they accept the obligation to do right, according to God's rule. That sense of obligation is the work of natural conscience, drawing them toward Christ. As Christ's followers in the United States, our vocation as Catholic citizens — here in the United States, but for always in God's kingdom — is to make sure, through our testament in words and deeds, that they encounter Christ along the American way.