Tyler White, a freshman at De La Salle North Catholic High School, speaks to Portland’s mayor and police chief March 3. Tim Hennessy, De La Salle’s president, listens in background. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Tyler White, a freshman at De La Salle North Catholic High School, speaks to Portland’s mayor and police chief March 3. Tim Hennessy, De La Salle’s president, listens in background. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
This is the third story in a series on Catholic social teaching.
Late last year, Tim Hennessy had a dilemma.

President of De La Salle North Catholic High School, Hennessy was faced with a group of students wanting to block North Portland traffic over jury decisions in Missouri and New York. Panels had exonerated white police officers who had killed unarmed African American suspects.

Hennessy knew his students should be allowed to exercise their right to speak out. But he also wanted them to act responsibly. He asked them to think things over for a few days.

When the students returned, they said that dialogue with people in power would have a better effect than impeding cars. The youths invited Portland’s mayor, police chief and the retired chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court to a forum held last month. Students spoke their mind and listened respectfully. One senior has since gotten an internship in the city to work on community policing and race relations.  

“That was a huge lesson for them, for all of us,” Hennessy says. “They not only have the right, but the responsibility to speak for everyone in the community.” Next year, students plan a forum on immigration.

According to Catholic tradition, human dignity can be protected and healthy community achieved only if human rights are guarded and responsibilities are met.

“Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency,” the U.S. Catholic bishops say on their website. “Corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities — to one another, to our families and to the larger society.”

Catholic schools are a major source of teaching on rights and responsibilities. At De La Salle North Catholic, longtime teacher Edward Zupcic leads the Constitution team and discusses with students how how they have a responsibility to learn their rights and protect them.

“I don't want them to feel trapped in a culture that doesn't seem to offer much hope of progress on key social and political issues or by evidence which points to the problem of institutional discrimination or generational poverty,” Zupcic says. “I believe cycles can be broken if people choose to study and engage with the issues.”

In Catholic ministries like Blanchet House in Northwest Portland, rights and responsibilities are the stuff of everyday life. The longtime ministry offers meals to homeless and low-income people and provides alcohol- and drug-free housing for men trying to beat addiction. Everyone has a right to food and shelter, and society is obliged to provide it, says Greg Baker, executive director of Blanchet House.

“We just look at them and love them and care for them,” says Baker, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. “They are God’s children just as we are. It is not our role to judge. It is our role to be there with the hand of aid and to be there to help heal and go forward.”

Diners and residents at Blanchet also have responsibilities: No fighting. Attend 12 Step groups. See your case manager. On top of the list — no drinking and no drug use.

When men come to live at Blanchet, they write up a plan for their lives and sign it. When they go off the rails, counselors pull the plans out and talk straight.  

“We tell them ‘You have a responsibility to do all you can to try to straighten yourselves out,’” Baker says. “They need to work on themselves. We can’t really work on them.”

The Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good seeks to protect rights for those on the margins in the Portland area. The church-led group knows that responsibilities need to be paired with rights, says Mary Nemmers, lead organizer and a member of St. Andrew Parish in Portland.

For example, MACG was a major supporter of a failed ballot measure that would have allowed undocumented immigrants drivers’ cards. Though the new law would have extended rights, it also required the new drivers to be responsible and pass a driver’s test.

Now, the organization is hoping to pass a statute in Portland that would change local employment applications, nixing the box that asks about criminal convictions. That question can come later in the process, after applicants have proven their value, says Nemmers, explaining that this is a rights-responsibility issue, too.

“These are people who went to jail and paid their debt,” she says. “As it stands now, the skills they learned aren’t even being considered. I think that is a right they deserve. That’s the path for them to become responsible, contributing members of society.”