They were not called “rights” at this stage. The key words were the Latin “dominium” (mastery) and “ius,” which gave “dominium” legal force. The Italian translation of “ius” was “diritto,” which means “right,” not “a right,” and still today is the Italian word for “law.”
In the 13th century, popes had tried their best to fudge the issue by agreeing to vest Franciscans’ property in the Holy See and distinguish between “possession” and “use” and then by banning discussion of it altogether. But the Avignon Pope John XXII (1316-1334) decided to resurrect it in spades, for reasons that remain obscure, perhaps simply because he was French.
In March 1322, he removed the ban on discussion and commissioned scholars to investigate. These duly accused the Franciscans of heresy. Their reasoning was flaky: If the Franciscan doctrine of apostolic poverty was correct, it implied that the Catholic Church could not have possessions either, which was unthinkable.
Many Franciscans, led by Michele da Cesena, refused to buckle. In May 1322, they met in Perugia, now known as the city where in 2011 Amanda “Foxy Knoxy” Knox from Seattle was acquitted on appeal of her conviction for the 2007 murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher. The Franciscans declared in a manifesto:
To say or assert that Christ, in showing the way of perfection, and the Apostles, in following that way and setting an example to others who wished to lead the perfect life, possessed nothing either severally or in common…we corporately and unanimously declare to be not heretical, but true and Catholic.
But Pope John XXII simply retorted that it was “ridiculous” to pretend “every egg and piece of bread given to and eaten” by the Franciscans did not belong to them. Even when they used something they did so, he said, either justly or unjustly, and if justly “by right” (de iure).
In November 1322, he issued a papal bull condemning as heretical the doctrine that Christ and the apostles had no possessions. He canceled the arrangement by which Franciscan property was vested in the Holy See, thus forcing them to accept it as their possession.
The controversy was not over. Ironically, the Franciscans now found themselves arguing that rights did exist: the right of a subject (a friar) to refuse a right imposed on him by a tyrant (the pope). It was William of Ockham, a Franciscan scholar that Michele da Cesena invited to help the rebel cause, who came up with that one. Pope John XXII summoned both to Avignon and put them under house arrest, but they and other friars escaped in the night soon afterward and fled to Italy by boat. They were branded heretics, and the Franciscans lost in the end.
The existence of natural, inalienable, and inviolable rights is denied both on the right and the left. For Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke, rights arise from the actions of government or evolve from tradition. For Karl Marx, who wanted to abolish private property, they were bourgeois inventions that would be unnecessary in a communist society. For Friedrich Nietzsche, they were creations of the weak to shackle the strong and destroy liberty.
No right, not even to property or life, is inviolable as Webster’s defines it—“not capable of being broken or violated.”
So rights were invented like Poulet Marengo in 1800 on the evening of Napoléon Bonaparte’s victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo which secured him Italy when his chef had to concoct something special in a hurry but had only the meager results of a local forage to work with.
Rights were not discovered, as was that semi-aquatic, beaver-tailed, egg-laying, freshwater mammal with venomous claws on its webbed feet that detects its prey by means of electroreceptors. I refer to the duck-billed platypus, first spotted splashing about the streams of eastern Australia by explorers in 1798. They thought it was an elaborate fraud, a man-made invention no less—just like a human right.
The bad thing about “what is right,” they say, is that it is prone to degenerate into “might is right” and tyranny.
The great thing about rights, they say, is that they take the tyrant out of the equation. But they don’t, and those who allege such things are simply not right.
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