JMC : The State and the Church / by Ryan and Millar

14. The Rights of the Citizen

by Rev. John A. Ryan, D.D.

THE citizen possesses two distinct classes of rights. One of these belongs to him as a human being, the other as a member of the State. Rights of the first class are called natural, those of the second class civil. The distinction between the two depends, not so much upon their nature, as upon their source. Natural rights are those which are derived from the individual's nature, needs, and destiny. They are those moral prerogatives which the individual needs in order to live a reasonable life, and attain the end appointed for him by God. Civil rights are conferred by the State for the promotion of the common good, and for the welfare of the individual citizen.

Probably a majority of the writers on political science, as well as the greater part of non-Catholic authorities in economics and sociology, reject the doctrine of natural rights. In their opinion, all rights are derived from the State. Hence the citizen possesses only civil rights. It is not necessary in this place to set down a formal refutation of this theory. It will be sufficient to point out that the theory inverts the position of the State relatively to the individual. According to its logic, the individual exists for the State. Against the State he has no moral rights, but only those immunities and guarantees which the State itself is willing to grant. Consequently, the State may, if it chooses, deprive the citizen of all rights whatever, may arbitrarily take away his liberty and his property, and even put him to death. According to the Catholic doctrine, the State exists ultimately for the individual, and the individual is endowed with certain natural rights which belong to him because of his nature, because he is a person, and because of his intrinsic sacredness. As the State does not create or confer these rights, it cannot take them away.

This doctrine is not only Catholic, but it is a part of the traditional American political theory, and it is specifically included in the Declaration of Independence. The second paragraph of that immortal document begins thus: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Although the last clause of this statement is not an explicit enumeration of all man's natural rights, it does embrace them all implicitly. Life and liberty cover a very large part of the field of natural rights; the pursuit of happiness implies the rights of marriage and of property, which embrace the remainder of that field. Man's natural rights may, therefore, be summarized as those of life, liberty, marriage, and property. Liberty is, of course, a wide conception extending to physical movement, education, religion, speech and writing. Under the head of life is included immunity from all forms of arbitrary physical assault. All these rights belong to the citizen as a human being because they are all necessary for his existence, for the development of his personality, for reasonable human living, and for the attainment of the end which God commands him to attain. In the United States they are all likewise rights of the citizen as citizen. In other words, they are civil as well as natural rights.

A systematic exposition and defence of these several rights is not necessary in this chapter. Most of them have been sufficiently treated in earlier sections of this volume. The right to life is intrinsic; is an end in itself, being directly based upon the sacredness of personality. The right to the various forms of liberty is a means to the end of right and reasonable living. It does not include the right to do or say unreasonable things. Like all other rights which are means, it is limited by the ends which it is designed to promote. The right to marry is directly necessary for the welfare of the individual. Even though a person does not need to marry and can secure his welfare better as a celibate, he has, nevertheless, the right to determine for himself whether or not he shall marry. The State has no right to decide this question for him. Property in those kinds of goods which meet man's immediate wants, such as food, clothing, and shelter, is directly necessary for individual welfare; therefore, the individual has a natural right to acquire them as his own. Property in goods which have a more remote relation to individual needs, such as, land, machinery, and the instruments of production generally, is not directly and immediately necessary for the individual; but the institution of private property in such goods is essential to human welfare, inasmuch as no other arrangement is adequate. All the foregoing natural rights belong to the individual as such, and consequently are valid against the State.

The rights of the American citizen, as such, are set forth in the Constitution of the United States, and in the constitutions of the various commonwealths. They are substantially tbe same in all these documents. The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads thus:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." While the language of this amendment seems to guarantee unlimited freedom of speech and of the press, it has never been so interpreted by the lawmakers or the courts. Rather has it been construed as that reasonable degree of liberty of speech and writing which had prevailed in the American colonies and in England for generations. During the recent war, therefore, Congress and many State legislatures enacted laws forbidding men to speak or write anything tending to hinder effective prosecution of the war. These laws were enacted under the authority of the war making and war legislating powers contained in Section 8 of Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States.

That form of liberty which consists in immunity from invasion of one's home is secured in the fourth amendment to the national Constitution:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath of affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

This means that no private individual, nor any officer of the law, may enter a man's house without permission, unless a formal warrant has been obtained from court. Overzealous or malicious officers may not enter a house against the wish of the occupier on mere suspicion.

Security against unjust or abitrary prosecution by officers of the law is guaranteed in the sixth amendment:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

This civil right is of the highest importance. Its principal effects are to protect the citizen against a prison sentence until he has had a fair trial; to assure him a trial as soon as possible after his arrest; to allow him witnesses on his behalf, and the assistance of a lawyer; to give, him liberty on bail until his trial begins, unless the crime with which he is charged is very serious; and to enable him to appeal to the higher courts against an unfavorable sentence. To be sure, these guarantees are occasionally disregarded by the officials, but the number of such violations of civil right is not large. They become considerable only in time of war, or in a period immediately following war, when the calm judgment of the law officers is disturbed by fear or some other passion.

One of the most important individual guarantees is contained in the fifth amendment to the Constitution, which declares that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." The phrase "due process of law" has, in the course of time, acquired a very wide and rather indefinite comprehension, but its elementary and traditional meaning is fairly definite. At the least, it means that a man's life, or liberty, or property may not be taken from him without a regular trial.

It should be noted that the foregoing amendments and provisions are binding only upon the Congress of the United States. With the exception of the prohibition against depriving the citizen of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, all these individual guarantees could be disregarded by the several states. For example, if the State of Georgia were to pass a law forbidding Catholics to assemble publicly for purposes of worship, or denying trial by jury to any of its citizens, it would not violate any of these provisions of the Constitution of the United States. The prohibitions contained in these provisions are addressed to Congress, not to the several States. Nevertheless, practically all, if not literally all, of the State constitutions contain similar guarantees of individual rights and similar prohibitions to their respective legislatures regarding interference with these rights. The provision of the fifth amendment forbidding Congress to deprive the citizen of life, liberty, and property, without due process of law, is repeated in the fourteenth amendment, and is there addressed to the States. In the latter amendment the guarantee reads as follows: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Such are the principal civil rights conferred upon and assured to the citizen by the organic laws of our country. They include all the liberty that anyone can reasonably claim, whether as a human being, or as a citizen. Inasmuch as they are matters of constitutional rather than statute law, they cannot be abolished through a temporary whim of the electors or by a simple act of the national or state legislatures. They can be repealed only by amending the constitutions, which is always a sufficiently slow process to give time for the better judgment of men to reassert itself.

The political rights of the citizen are sometimes distinguished from his civil rights. The most important difference between them is that the former are intended primarily for a public purpose, while the latter have as their immediate end the welfare of the individual. The chief political rights of the citizen are those of voting and holding office. According to the fifteenth amendment to the National Constitution, the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or by any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." It is true that this right has been denied to colored voters in several of the states, through various devices evading the fifteenth amendment. However, it should be noted that these evasions do not amount to a violation of the natural rights of the negro. The elective franchise is not among the natural rights of the individual. It is created by the State for a civil purpose. Inasmuch as this purpose might conceivably be fulfilled, and in several States has been fulfilled with the suffrage restricted to males and even to certain classes of males, it is clear that the power to vote is not a natural right inherent in every individual. It is a political privilege.

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