Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: the Person and the State

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The Person and the State

Two words are very useful in our modern vocabulary, “social welfare” and “social adjustment“. They are even right and necessary when they imply that each citizen must work for the common good of society. But there is also a danger that these words may lull people into believing that the person is secondary, and that society is primary.

This problem can be put into focus by asking: “Where do we get our rights of free speech, freedom of conscience, property and freedom of assembly?” Those thinkers who have been bitten by the ‘social bug’ would say that the state gives them to us. But if these rights are not inherent and God-given, as our Declaration of Independence states, if they are state-given, then the state can take them away.

Communist claim that all liberties are given by party: —- He who opposes it thereby loses his state-given rights — this means the person has no right which is inalienable.

You see the problem? It is whether our rights are inherent, that is to say whether they exist prior to state, are inalienable and cannot be taken away. Our Declaration of Independence rightly state that they were bestowed on us by the Creator.

On the other hand, if the rights and liberties exist only because they are socially useful, then a powerful government can interpret their abolition as socially useful. If they say that society is apt to be harassed if we are intolerant about these rights, then what shall they say to a dictator with a pistol who says that society gains by such intolerance?


The overemphasis on the social is apt to lead people to believe that the state has a conscience and has a brain all its own. The truth of the matter is that the thought, the freedom and the conscience of distinct personalities are the only thoughts, freedoms and consciences there are. The state is not an organism with its own intelligence and will: because the people choose a government, they do not choose a total different truth and a totally different good than those inherent in persons. The state exists for persons, not the persons for the state.

The business of “social adjustment” can be overdone. First of all, we do not want a nation in which everyone thinks alike politically and economically, and is educated in exactly the same pattern. It is one thing to have unity in a nation, and quite another thing to have uniformity: which recognizes certain basic differences. In 1939, when our socialist theorists were asking for “social adjustment,” it turned out they were adjusting themselves to a war that set out to destroy two-thirds of totalitarians, while calling the other third “democratic.”


When this socialist mentality seizes a nation, then everyone is told what to do. Our great republic would make more progress if our citizens were told what they are. Doing flows from being. Once the people are conscious of their God-given inherent liberties, and that their rights are always balanced by duties, they produce a sound government.

Whoever brings a being into the world, incurs an obligation. Parents owe children something and not because the baby has done something, but because they are parents. Telling citizens what to do, regiments them: it assumes they are puppets to be pulled by bureaucratic managers. Citizens who are personalities are ready to do, because they know that doing is a duty, and a duty “is the other side of a right.” Thus a nation is what its citizens are — no more and no less— and citizens are what they develop to be through exercising individual initiative. Out of this concept, the new world will be reborn. There are no short-cuts, either for individuals or the state. Too many Americans these days are forgetting this great truth, as they demonstrate their willingness — this socialist idea — is the termite that is nibbling away at the foundations of western civilization.

Fulton J. Sheen, D.D., Ph.D., Bishop Sheen Writes, 1956