Freedom of Speech (In Church Teaching)

views updated


The right of the individual to express or communicate in a more or less public way his views without interference from other individuals or groups or from social authority. It is distinguished from freedom of the press insofar as it is the freedom to disseminate one's views by word of mouth (including right of access to radio and television) rather than by the printed word. Insofar as speech implies an overt external activity, the freedom here considered is one over and above intellectual freedom, which strictly taken is a freedom within the unindictable confines of the person himself. Because the communication of views, ideas, and theories may have and generally does have social repercussions, this right and its limitations present problems that perennially vex the minds of philosophers, theologians, and political scientists.

Men differ in assigning limits or denying limits to this freedom accordingly as they differ on the nature of the society or community within which the right is claimed; on the effectiveness or power of words to influence or determine action; on the likelihood of truth triumphing over error by its own sheer weight; on the existence and importance of basic principles for well-ordered community life and the right and duty of protecting such principles from irresponsible and inflammatory attack; and on the practical possibility of limiting or containing something as volatile as expression of opinion. Thus, one who questions whether men have as yet acquired any clear and unchanging truths, whether there are truths whose denial would jeopardize social life, and whether verbal attacks can do any real or demonstrable harm will naturally be at odds with one who is convinced that there are at least some basic truths permanently valid, that among these are some whose denial will undermine the structure of social life, that normal people can reach the reasonable judgment that certain forms of attack upon these principles will ordinarily corrode or destroy them in the minds of the immature and the unbalanced, that while truth will eventually prevail it may do so too late to avert serious and irreparable harm.

General Catholic Attitude. In the past the Church in her general teaching and Catholic theologians in their writings, while acknowledging a right (and even an inalienable one) of the individual to express his mind, have tended to emphasize strongly the limits of this right. The Church's attitude would appear to flow from its conviction that both reason and revelation do declare at least some immutable principles, that among these principles are those on which peace and public order hinge, that society is vested with power to oppose and restrain attacks upon public order, even though the attack at a given moment be mounted only by words and speech.

More recently this attitude, or this emphasis, has been questioned by some Catholic theologians, who share a regard for the individual person and his rightful autonomy, an understandable fear based on experience of excesses perpetrated in the name of public order by entrenched groups in control of public power, and a belief that in modern lifegiven the proliferation of means of communication that level all barriers to movement of thought and exchange of viewsit is impractical and unrealistic to attempt to dam the flow of opinion. These thinkers would prefer to discard the negative and repressive forms of reaction; to accentuate the positive by confronting the false, the unwholesome, and the dangerous with an ever more effective presentation and defense of truth and objective values; and trust to the maturity and responsibility of intelligent and educated public opinion to select and hold fast that which is good.

Specific Areas of Freedom and Limitations. It is inevitable that the Catholic Church, which considers itself divinely founded and preserved, which claims to be entrusted with a doctrine divinely revealed and to be equipped with effective divine assistance in maintaining this revealed message, will admit freedom in more restricted areas than societies that make no such claim. To the extent, however, that the divine message is coupled with human modes of presentation or with arrangements, directions, and discipline consistent with but not in all ages or in all situations demanded by the revealed message, the Church appears ready to recognize more explicitly and sympathetically freedom of speech within the household.

The areas in which freedom may be claimed may be divided into four, the first of which is that of doctrine definitively fixed by the supreme doctrinal authority of the Church. The second is likewise one of doctrine and teaching, but in which the teaching has never been clearly fixed. The third is one in which the divine message is not immediately involved, where consequently the role of the Church has been rather the pastoral one of practical guidance (setting up norms for worship; approving forms of monastic and religious life; conceding indulgences; establishing rules for fast, abstinence, etc.). The fourth is the area of current administrative decisions, contemporary planning, and policy either by the supreme authority or by lower authority, e.g., by local bishops or by the heads of religious orders and congregations (especially in the administration of schools, hospitals, and social institutions directed by religious congregations).

In regard to the first area, if the Church takes seriously its claim to be able to define the sense of divine revelation it cannot tolerate within the Church a freedom that would in effect contain a denial of its infallible teaching authority.

In the second area, one in which there is still room for modification of the Church's position, voiced dissent would not involve a denial of the Church's right; nevertheless, the one invoking freedom should realize that the Church will generally regard the traditional viewpoint as enjoying a strong presumption of truth, and that a pastoral concern for the faithful will urge the Church to exact from the one claiming freedom patience, sobriety in expression of a newer viewpoint, and circumspection in propounding his views. Certainly in more recent times (e.g., Pius XII's encyclical divino afflante spiritu and the "Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels" emanating from the pontifical biblical commission (April 1964) ecclesiastical authorities have tried to safeguard a legitimate freedom for scholars, even when they voice views at variance with positions long held within the Church, and at the same time to protect the children of the Church from hasty acceptance of theories that may ultimately prove unsatisfactory or of theories that when not fully understood may lead the uninformed or the poorly informed to question related truths that belong to the unchangeable doctrine of the Church. Pastors in the Church may, then, at times act to restrain public expression or discussion, while allowing private discussion in circles competent to understand and sift the issues involved.

The same restrictions of freedom will prevail in the area of long-standing discipline and Catholic life. One who invokes freedom to challenge and adversely criticize arrangements incorporated in the constitutions and rules of religious congregations, centuries-old practices of Catholic life, and historic usages in public worship may be expected to present his views in a manner that displays the courtesy of charity toward Catholics and the Catholicism of the past and avoids so far as possible disruption of Catholic life and unlovely factions within the people of God. Those in authority, out of concern for the continuity of Christian life and worship, may be expected to manifest reserve at times in dealing with those who advocate sudden and violent changes, or to modulate the stridency that at times marks and mars free speech.

In the fourth area, freedom of speech presents the special difficulty that it usually involves an attack upon (or at least a pointed criticism of) living men and women here and now vested with authority ultimately derived from Christ. Within the Church some account must be taken of this circumstance, and the one choosing to exercise freedom may be held to manifest his acknowledgment of the authority, even as he decries its unfortunate exercise. It does not seem that freedom here will be unduly hampered if it be exercised by respectful and private remonstrance to the ones whose official action is considered imprudent or unfair or pointlessly rigorous and then (if no redress is secured) by quiet recourse to higher authority before the aggrieved parties carry their case to the public.

The tensions generated by the exercise of free speech in this sector may be substantially reduced if the directive of Vatican Council II is wholeheartedly accepted and the grounds for later criticism removed or diminished by affording those who are subject to authority a chance to be heard before decisions are made or actions taken. Toward the end of the chapter on the laity (37) in the Constitution on the Church, the council states that

they [the laity] should openly reveal to them [their pastors] their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence that is fitting in children of God and brothers in Christ. By reason of their knowledge, competence, achievements, they may express and sometimes have even the duty of expressing their opinions in regard to things that concern the good of the Church. Let this be done, when the occasion arises, through channels established for this purpose by the Church. Let it always be done in truth, with courage and prudence, with reverence and love for those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ. Let them [pastors] willingly availthemselves of the prudent counsel of the laity. Let them thoughtfully in Christ weighwith paternal love the projects, suggestions and desires of the laity.

Although freedom of speech within the Church and the limits of that freedom will never be established to the satisfaction of all, the problems it raises will be notably reduced if those who must "guard the deposit" concede freedom to those who labor to relate that deposit to the needs of the time and to contemporary development, and if these in turn honestly and sympathetically assess the responsibility that weighs upon those in authority in the Church to turn over to future generations whole and unimpaired the message and patrimony received from Christ and his Apostles.

See Also: authority, ecclesiastical

Bibliography: leo xiii, "Immortale Dei" (Encyclical Nov. 1, 1885) Acta Sanctorum (Antwerp 1643; Venice 1734; Paris 1893) 18 (1885) 16180; Eng., Catholic Mind 34 (Nov. 8, 1936) 42529; "Libertas" (Encyclical letter, June 20, 1888) Acta Sanctorum 20 (1888) 593613; Eng. Tablet 72 (July 14, 1888) 4146. john xxiii, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 55 (1963) 257304, encyclical. j. leclercq, La Liberté d'opinion et les Catholiques (Paris 1963). y.m. j. congar, Vraie et fausse réforme dans l'Église (2d ed. Paris 1953). a. hartmann, Toleranz und christlicher Glaube (Frankfurt 1955). j. leclerq, Toleration and the Reformation, tr. t. l. westow, 2 v. (New York 1960). j. maritain, The Person and the Common Good, tr. j. j. fitzgerald (New York 1947). j. c. murray, We Hold These Truths (New York 1960). d. a. o'connell, Christian Liberty (Westminster, Md. 1953). k. rahner, Free Speech in the Church (New York 1959). Liberté et verité (Louvain 1954), collection of essays by professors of the Catholic University of Louvain on occasion of the bicentennial of Columbia University.

[s. e. donlon]

About this article

Freedom of Speech (In Church Teaching)

Updated About content Print Article