What rights are civil and what rights are natural?

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Here's is a political question with a natural law twist. I (and probably you) frequently read sentiments like this: "...of all rich countries the US has lost the most civil liberties recently. But I'm not too worried yet. I'm hoping once the present administration is out, the natural openness of American culture will reassert itself."

You can see the quotation in context here, but it doesn't matter that much. What interests me are two things:

1. The blatant exaggeration. In this case, the author doesn't bother to enumerate which civil liberties we have "lost" -- and people who write such things rarely do. They talk about wiretapping powers as if the Feds are listening to every phone call we make. But even if these measures are contrary to our rights, at best these are marginal encroachments: no one, to my knowledge, has abolished the right to free association.

2. The connection with natural law. Americans like to conflate natural rights (which are given by God) and civil rights (which are granted, or at least recognized, by temporal powers.) These are overlapping categories, certainly. The right to bear arms is connected with the natural right to self-defense. The right to property is explicit in both natural law and revealed scripture.

What about other civil rights? I do not consider voting to be a natural right, as it is possible to have a just government without elections or democracy. Free speech, at least as we constitute it today, does not seem to be a natural right, either. Those civil rights are good for our system of government, because they allow citizens to remove bad politicians and substitute good (or less bad) ones, and to speak out against their government's policies or actions and urge correction. But that does not make them part of natural law, as their objects -- the goods they serve -- are ordered toward right government and not man per se.

I am not arguing that any civil right should be curtailed or abolished, but it would help to distingush between them and the ones that are truly inalienable.

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On life and living in communion with the Catholic Church.

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This page contains a single entry by Eric Johnson published on June 12, 2006 8:59 PM.

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