Friday, March 20, 2009

The Catholic Church and Free Speech

Q - Can you please let me know what the Catholic take on Free Speech is and perhaps lead me to what the Pope has said about it.We had an incident at one of our Universities. Jews, Muslims and Evangelicals were approached and asked for an opinion but no Catholics.

A - Thanks for the question. The quick answer is that the Church would support the political right to free speech, rightly understood. Free speech protects the right of persons to express their ideas and beliefs free from compulsion or fear of punishment for their ideas. There are natural limits, the most common example is the screaming of "fire" in a crowded theater in order to incite a stampede. Another example is threatening another person with physical harm.

Within this proper understanding, the Church highly values free speech, especially in regards to religious beliefs, because the two are intimately tied together. When limitations are placed on religious groups, there will be limits on free speech - think Saudi Arabia.

When addressing the US Bishops last year, Pope Benedict XVI said this:

As preachers of the Gospel and leaders of the Catholic community, you are also called to participate in the exchange of ideas in the public square, helping to shape cultural attitudes. In a context where free speech is valued, and where vigorous and honest debate is encouraged, yours is a respected voice that has much to offer to the discussion of the pressing social and moral questions of the day. By ensuring that the Gospel is clearly heard, you not only form the people of your own community, but in view of the global reach of mass communication, you help to spread the message of Christian hope throughout the world.

Clearly, the Church’s influence on public debate takes place on many different levels. In the United States, as elsewhere, there is much current and proposed legislation that gives cause for concern from the point of view of morality, and the Catholic community, under your guidance, needs to offer a clear and united witness on such matters. Even more important, though, is the gradual opening of the minds and hearts of the wider community to moral truth. Here much remains to be done. Crucial in this regard is the role of the lay faithful to act as a “leaven” in society. Yet it cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions. Once again, it falls to you to ensure that the moral formation provided at every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the Gospel of life.

For more on the Church's idea of freedom (both true human freedom found in God and political freedom), then I recommend these two documents:

*Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation.
*Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life.

With this being said, without knowing more details about your particular situation, I don't think that the right of free speech means that you have to be queried about your opinion just because others were.

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