Pope Francis vs. Free Speech?

Pope Francis vs. Free Speech?
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Following his famous off-the-cuff remarks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pope Francis has taken much criticism for what seemed to be an endorsement of limitations on freedom of expression.

But a closer reading of the most authoritative statements of relevant Catholic doctrine reveals that Francis adhered to the mainstream of Catholic social teaching. In fact, the teaching of the Church offers little direct support for any of the civil liberties -- other than freedom of religion -- and much of the support it provides is contingent and therefore tepid.

Catholic doctrinal statements do include strong endorsements of freedom. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church asserts: "Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person...The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person."

Such statements might create a misleading impression of the priority of freedom in the Church's social teaching.

First, two quite different conceptions of freedom are in play. One is freedom in the moral realm and is equivalent to free will. The other is freedom in the human community and is equivalent to civil liberties. I will call the first, moral freedom and the second, civil freedom. The Church's support for moral freedom is more fundamental and less conditional than is its support for civil freedom. It considers neither type of freedom to be absolute.

The endorsement for moral freedom is hedged by the distinction between authentic and inauthentic freedom. Properly understood, freedom does not mean the absence of external constraints. Rather, it means being able to behave according to one's fundamental nature. That which impedes such behavior reduces freedom. An analogy might be in order: A dog by nature lives in a hierarchically-ordered pack of dogs, wanders a territory, and hunts for food, in particular prey. To chain or cage a dog restricts its freedom. But so does domestication, which trains a dog not to act as a dog.

Similarly for humans: Our basic inclination is to seek God, and freedom must be understood in that light. If we exercise our free will to obey the moral law and grow closer to God, then we are free; if we exercise our free will to sin, then we are not free. As from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to 'the slavery of sin.'"

Catholic teaching about civil freedom likewise distinguishes between true and false freedom. According to the Compendium, "The meaning of freedom must not be restricted, considering it from a purely individualistic perspective and reducing it to the arbitrary and uncontrolled exercise of one's own personal autonomy: ‘Far from being achieved in total self-sufficiency and the absence of relationships, freedom only truly exists where reciprocal bonds, governed by truth and justice, link people to one another.'"

In other words, freedom can exist only in a properly ordered society and as a means to building up that proper ordering. Absent such proper ordering, freedom is illusory. Freedom contrary to proper social ordering is not freedom at all. True freedom is a characteristic of social organization, not an attribute of individuals. But of course, what the Church considers false civil freedom -- an exercise on one's autonomy -- is exactly what most Westerners mean by freedom.

The Church's distinctive take on freedom can also be seen in the broad structure of Catholic social doctrine. That doctrine has four foundational principles: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. It also has four basic values: truth, justice, freedom, and love. Freedom enters the picture first as a component of human rights, which are necessitated by the dignity of the human person, and second as one of the basic values. In the development of those ideas, however, the weight given to civil freedom is substantially lessened.

The Church's treatment of human rights effectively minimizes any emphasis on civil freedom. The Church is, indeed, a vigorous advocate of human rights, which derive from "the inviolable dignity of the human person" and which are "universal, inviolable, inalienable." The problem comes when the Church works out the details.

Consider its inventory of human rights: "the right to life...; the right to live in a united family...; the right to develop one's intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to...work; ...the right freely to establish a family" and a right to religious freedom. Rights to freedom of speech and association do not make the list. One might argue that a right to develop one's intelligence and know the truth implies a freedom of speech, but it could also be invoked to justify restricting untruthful expression. The Church does endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which does list the basic civil liberties. The flaw in that document is that it also enumerates other "rights" at the same level of priority and thus trivializes basic civil liberties.

Significant limitations exist with regard to freedom as a value. As one of four values, and lacking the status of being a basic principle, it is liable to be eroded when, as often happens, there is a trade-off between freedom and the other values. That sets the stage for a repetition of the pattern of elevating the importance of freedom and then restricting it, which can be seen in a key passage in the Compendium. First the Church magnifies the value of freedom: "The value of freedom...is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfil his personal vocation; to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state of life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature."

This statement is important in that it is the only explicit naming of civil liberties. Immediately, though, it pulls back by acknowledging limits to freedom. The manifestations of freedom just listed "must take place within a 'strong juridical framework,' within the limits imposed by the common good and public order, and, in every case, in a manner characterized by responsibility."

So one ought not to have been surprised when Pope Francis said that freedom must be exercised so as to promote "the common good" and in particular that insults to religion should be eschewed lest they provoke a violent response. That position is entirely consistent with the foundations of Catholic thinking about freedom.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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