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What do Catholics believe about free speech?

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Is the right of free speech among the human rights recognized by the Catholic Church? If so, then wouldn’t it mean the Church condones harmful and offensive forms of speech, including “hate speech”?

Human beings are made for truth. Indeed, it is the highest expression of our human dignity that we seek, discover and contemplate truth. But our pursuit of truth cannot be genuine or successful if it is either coerced or obstructed, whether by the state or some individual or group. Truth requires that it be approached in freedom, including the freedom to speak our minds on what is, or at least what we understand to be, the truth. This freedom of speech, being essential to human dignity, is recognized by the Church as a fundamental human right. However, this does not mean that it's morally acceptable to cling to error or speak sinful words that harm others. The right of free speech protects us from interference from others as we pursue truth; it does not imply moral approval of all speech.

In his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus (One Hundred Years), Pope John Paul II argues that the democratic ideal–now the predominant ideal among the nation-states of the West–needs to be given “an authentic and solid foundation” through the explicit recognition of human rights. Among the most important of these rights, says Pope John Paul, is “the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth” (no. 47). Surely a right to freedom of speech is implicit in this formulation, for the faculty of speech, which is responsible for both the oral and the written word, as well as, more subtly, the “word” based solely on images, is the faculty by which we exercise our intelligence and freedom in seeking, knowing and communicating truth (see also the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 200).

In Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II adds: the source and synthesis of all human rights “is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person” (no. 47). Here the Holy Father references the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae (Of Human Dignity). This Declaration proclaims: “All are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and the church, and to embrace it and hold on to it as they come to know it” (no. 1). But why is this right to religious freedom “the source and synthesis” of all other human rights? Because, again, we are made for truth, and ultimately for that truth about God that transcends the temporal order (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2106). The right worship of God is the point and purpose of our humanity. Accordingly, our human rights, including the right to free speech, flow from, and direct us toward, the right to free religious exercise. Freedom of speech should always be seen as the precondition of our coming to know the truth about God and the right worship of the God we come to know.

The Declaration on Religious Liberty continues: “Truth can impose itself on the human mind by the force of its own truth, which wins over the mind by both gentleness and power” (no. 1). In the pursuit of truth, the only thing that has genuine authority to bind our conscience is truth itself. In the pursuit and enjoyment of truth, therefore, our conscience must be free from the non-authoritative coercive power of the state or any individual or group. This is of supreme importance when it comes to the exercise of religion. But it is also important when it comes to exercises of speech. Without the freedom of speech, truth would not be given sufficient “room” to exercise its rightful authority over our minds and hearts.

But in giving truth sufficient “room” to exercise its gentleness and power over us, we also leave plenty of room for error. Our most sincere efforts in pursuit of truth often lead our mind’s astray, and our misguided, partial, sometimes even prejudiced conclusions are reflected in our speech. Yet this is part of the glory of the right to free speech. Freedom is certainly ordered to truth, but it wouldn’t be freedom if it were not able to fail in its task. Thus in the political sphere we respect the rights of others to speak their minds freely even when we disagree with them. We do this because we respect their dignity as free inquirers after truth.

Yet isn’t this for the Church to sanction sinful speech, speech that harms and offends others? The right of free speech is meant to protect us from coercion, so that we may seek out and enjoy the truth without hindrance. But the right does not sanction, as morally legitimate, any speech content whatsoever. Here again is the Declaration on Religious Liberty: “In availing of any freedom people must respect the moral principle of personal and social responsibility: in exercising their rights individuals and social groups are bound by the moral law to have regard for the rights of others, their own duties to others and the common good of all. Everybody must be treated with justice and humanity” (no. 7).

Freedom and moral obligation are not opposed in the exercise of any right. About the right of free religious exercise the Declaration on Religious Liberty states: “So, while the religious freedom which human beings demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional catholic teaching on the moral obligation of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one church of Christ” (no 1). There is no paradox in affirming that human beings enjoy a right of religious liberty, even while they are obliged to offer God genuine worship according to the Catholic faith. And there is no paradox in affirming that human beings enjoy a right of free speech, even while they are obliged to speak the genuine truth in charity. Just as with the right to religious liberty, the right of free speech “is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to [a] civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint…by political authorities” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2108).

What, specifically, are the “just limits” that accrue to the right of free speech in the political sphere? What speech acts can the state condemn? This is a matter of political prudence (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2109). Civil authorities must decide, in light of their duty to protect and nurture the common good of the political community, and in accordance with “legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order” (Declaration on Religious Liberty, no. 7, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2109), when certain acts of speech should be forbidden. We don’t falsely cry “fire” in a crowded movie theater because such a lie causes real harm to public order. So too, speech that defames or libels others is unlawful both morally and legally.

At the same time, the Church recognizes that political prudence sometimes calls for restraint in limiting speech, even when the speech is harmful or offensive to others. Just because speech is sinful doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be outlawed. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the civil law should not attempt to repress all sinful behavior, because the law is made for a great many people, not all of whom will be perfect in virtue. To impose, therefore, strict conditions of virtue on every citizen would overburden those still on the way toward moral maturity (Summa theologiae, I-II, question 96, article 2). In the same spirit the 1987 Instruction by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) affirms: “[The civil law] must sometimes tolerate, for the sake of public order, things which it cannot forbid without a greater evil resulting” (Part III).

Civil lawmakers must therefore exercise wise political deliberation in limiting the right of free speech. Throughout the world there is currently much debate about how strict civil limitations on free speech should be–debates which take on a different character depending on their cultural context. In Muslim nations, for example, there is absolutely no toleration of blasphemy. In the West, blasphemy is not so big an issue as “hate speech,” that is, speech that expresses hatred for some group, especially when the speech is likely to provoke violence (definition from uslegal.com). Though the cultural terrain and debate over free speech is rather fluid, the West has for the most part adopted a civil-liberation approach to limitations on free speech. Pornography, for example, is tolerated in the West not so much for the kind of reason St. Thomas Aquinas gives, that outlawing pornography would overburden people, but because the West has a more libertarian view of the connection of free speech to the individual’s right to pursue his own conception of happiness. The thought is also more prevalent in the West that the state cannot be trusted to police the “marketplace of ideas.” In many ways the West’s civil-libertarian approach has worked well in limiting violent confrontations over speech. Toleration is now more or less the norm. But this does not mean there are not grave problems. In the United States, to take just one instance, addiction to pornography has reached pandemic proportions. So while the U.S. approach to free speech has gained much in terms of peaceful coexistence, it has also lost much in terms of the moral formation of its citizens. Debates over just where to draw the line in limiting free speech will and must continue.