Is Freedom of Speech a Catholic Principle?

This is a point someone raised in a thread recently and it has gotten me thinking since. I have been, for a long time, of the opinion that freedom of speech is a good thing, and that all speech, with the limited exceptions of incitement to violence/crime, should be allowed. However the poster in the aforementioned thread said “unrestrained freedom of speech is a Masonic principle”, which I had never heard before.
So how should Catholics view this issue? Is the kind of freedom of speech in the American Constitution a good thing?
Should laws exist to prohibit blasphemy?
Where does this notion of “freedom of speech” originate? Did freedom of speech exist, for example, in Catholic monarchies of the middle ages?
Lots of questions there, feel free to share your thoughts!

The United States doesn’t practice “unrestrained” freedom of speech. There are reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech.

If some local government chooses not to enforce reasonable restrictions and just lets people loot, destroy, riot, block highways etc then they get what they get, as violence begets violence and it will all end in tears eventually, but they aren’t upholding the Constitution in permitting this garbage.

Also, freedom of speech refers to the right to speak without civil (government) punishment. Given that the Church upholds the dignity of the individual in the face of oppressive government, then yes, freedom of speech is a Catholic principle.

What the Masons think of it is of no importance. The Masons also often support children’s hospitals. The Catholics don’t say, “oh look, supporting health care for children is Masonic and we mustn’t do it.”

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I was involved in the thread to which the OP refers.

I did endorse “unrestrained freedom of speech”, but my intent was to address a secular, pluralistic social order. My thinking is more “unrestrained freedom of speech, when compared with whatever alternatives that might arise in such a social order”.

I always say “we do not have the right to believe (and thus speak) error, rather, we have the obligation to pursue truth”, even if, due to a broken, apostate social order, good people are going to “get it wrong” and follow error thinking it is truth. For instance, some people get hold of those little Jack Chick comic books and swallow them whole. Simple message, in a neat, often humorous little package, with an equally simple solution — just get saved in Jesus, and you’re all set for life and eternity. Talk about scratching people where it itches!

I also always tell my son “Our Lord didn’t give you the power of speech to talk trash and speak error, rather, He gave it to you, to speak goodness and truth, and to give glory to His Name”. No, untrammeled freedom of speech isn’t a God-given right. But in our social order, in our circumstances, it is the least-bad alternative where a good one doesn’t exist.

Now, as to a Catholic social order, such as existed in the Middle Ages. Obviously freedom of speech was curtailed where it veered into heresy, error, or blasphemy. That is good. But I have to wonder — what if, just if, there had been a widespread clerical sexual abuse crisis such as we’ve witnessed in the past half-century (because it goes that far back, even if it wasn’t acknowledged until years later)? Would it have been a crime to speak of it publicly? To use whatever methods of communication that existed, to “get the word out” and expose what was happening? To cast priests and even bishops in a bad light, when they basically ran society at the time? And what if the same things were happening in the royal courts — think a medieval Jeffrey Epstein scenario? Would it then be a good thing, or would it be a bad thing, to have something less than the “freedom of speech” we have as Americans under the Constitution? Or would it have been just “the way things are” in such a Catholic social order, while the innocent suffer in silence under the rubric of “protecting the reputation of Holy Mother the Church”?

Even if it does savor of Freemasonry, still, I’m thankful that we have the freedom of speech that we have. Again, better than any of the alternatives. I would draw the limits of free speech very, very wide — child victimization, possibly incitement to riot (but are not people free agents who can choose either to be incited or not be incited?), that’s about it.

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We do not believe in the freedom of speech in a moral sense, a relativist sense, nor civilly in the liberal sense. We believe in a freedom of speech within the limits of the objective moral order and the common good (and the common good must include man’s objective good, including his supernatural good).

St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris:

12…[Man] has a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and—within the limits of the moral order and the common good—to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose.

57.In this connection, We would draw the attention of Our own sons to the fact that the common good is something which affects the needs of the whole man, body and soul. That, then, is the sort of good which rulers of States must take suitable measure to ensure. They must respect the hierarchy of values, and aim at achieving the spiritual as well as the material prosperity of their subjects.(42)

58.These principles are clearly contained in that passage in Our encyclical Mater et Magistra where We emphasized that the common good "must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality.(43)

59.Consisting, as he does, of body and immortal soul, man cannot in this mortal life satisfy his needs or attain perfect happiness. Thus, the measures that are taken to implement the common good must not jeopardize his eternal salvation; indeed, they must even help him to obtain it.(44)

The CCC doesn’t really address speech specifically, but it does address religion, which is analogous:

2109 The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a “public order” conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner.39 The “due limits” which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with "legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order."40

Note, the the conception of the common good cannot be “positivist” (it must be based on the objective truth) and it can’t be “naturalist” (it must take into account man’s supernatural end in God).


Freedom comes from God. God does not give us freedom to blaspheme or spread heresy. He gives us free will to do those things. Freedom and free will are very different. So American freedom of speech is false.

In philosophical principle, yes, but like any acts of public authority with relation to the common good, the appropriate measures are related to the concrete circumstances. One can certainly in good conscience support measures of freedom of speech compatible with the US First Amendment if one thinks it best for the common good in our circumstances (the same for religious freedom). I would guess most of our bishops support it in these circumstances.

As Pope Pius XII noted in the address CI Riesce: “in certain circumstances [God] would not give men any mandate, would not impose any duty, and would not even communicate the right to impede or to repress what is erroneous and false” and that “[t]he duty of repressing moral and religious error cannot therefore be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinate to higher and more general norms, which in some circumstances permit, and even perhaps seem to indicate as the better policy, toleration of error in order to promote a greater good.”

In the temporal, yes it can be good. As Catholics, we always have our sights on the heavenly.

We are not allowed to bear false witness or to spread gossip or reveal other people’s business without serious reason, even if it’s true.

We are not allowed to entice or egg somebody else on to sin.

We are not allowed to blaspheme, or to use our words to hurt other people .

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You don’t have to “what if”. The church has LOOOONG been plagued by scandals of all sorts, sexual, financial and political, and corruption was rampant and, as you put it, just “the way things are” in such a Catholic social order, while the innocent suffer in silence under the rubric of “protecting the reputation of Holy Mother the Church”?

Speaking out against it was likely to end up with you being burned at the stake, like Jan Hus or Savoranola, or anathemized at best, like Martin Luther.

People had very little “freedom” in the Middle Ages. This was true even for nobles. Peasants had essentially none at all. They were effectively slaves. They could not own property, they dare not utter a word that displeased their betters, they had no freedom of religion, assembly or movement. They could not “choose a career”. They could not touch, never mind own, gold or silver. They could not hunt or fish on their master’s land. They even couldn’t pick cow patties off the pasture to fertilize their tiny allotments. As far as “opinions” went, they didn’t have one. Or else.

And as far as religious matters go, it was “pray, pay and obey”. Or else. And “or else” was invariably gruesome even by the standards of the day.

You have absolutely zero understanding of actual church history if you believe this to be true.

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No, but the civil right of “freedom of speech” allows these things. We may not testify falsely in court, nor may we inflict emotional distress that could end up as a tort in a civil proceeding (not a criminal one). But we are free to speak as we see fit, even if such speech entices other people to violate the moral code of this religion or that, or even if it tramples upon their theology or the deity that they worship. I am not saying this is right, I am just saying that this is really the only way a secular civil society can operate.

I don’t dispute this one bit. In fact, when I read your words, my first thought was "no wonder there was a ‘reformation’ ".

I was well aware of everything you say (didn’t know that part about not touching gold or cow patties :slightly_smiling_face:), I was just trying to confine the argument to that of a deeply flawed, and deeply embedded ecclesiastical culture — and that’s precisely what it was — that covered for, and possibly even enabled, sex abuse by morally bereft clergy. Put another way, bishops and chancellors didn’t pick up the phone and call the police when one of their clerics was “caught in the act”, or accused of such a thing — the more common thing, was to move him to the far end of the diocese, or to transfer him to another diocese, and hope it didn’t happen again. In a medieval social order where Church and Crown were basically one, there was no “press” about which questions of “freedom” could arise in the first place, and where “speaking out” wouldn’t even have been believed (or acknowledged), the possibilities for untrammeled shenanigans were endless, hindered only by the moral sense of those who weren’t willing to “go along with it”.

Again, to reiterate, “freedom of speech” may be a Masonic-tinged concept, but along with its handmaiden, “freedom of the press”, far greater evils are averted by their free exercise. Would you want to adhere to a Church whose only publications were diocesan house organs where raising uncomfortable questions (such as we do right here on CAF) couldn’t happen in the first place? I do have to believe that there are ecclesiastics here and there who murmur along the lines of “if it weren’t for all this ‘free speech’, ‘free press’, Internet business, and those cursed Anglo-Saxons who speak their minds and have no sense of romanitas, the lid would never have blown off all this, and we could have kept ‘the problem’ under control without calling attention to anything”.

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If I recall correctly, your kid’s mother is from Poland, and I think you have visited the country, too. I lived there for twelve years (2002 to 2004) myself. The Polish church is in a heightened state of denial and deflection about its sexual and financial scandals, using the excuses that you just listed. By doing so, and by becoming politically entangled with to the far right, they have lost just about everyone under forty in the country. There is not going to be any demographic replacement, and when the end comes, it will come swift like in Quebec, Spain or Ireland.

Every right comes with an implied responsibility - to use that right for the good not the bad. Freedom of speech should not be restricted by law but by personal responsibility to act appropriately. The problem is that people generally are not educated to understand that concept.

An example of this is the pursuit of happiness. I was educated by Schoolhouse Rock, and understood this as a very practical right. It wasn’t until I took a philosophy course as an adult that the pursuit of happiness was describe as seeking to live the way God wants me to (My heavy paraphrasing here).

I think that the Canticle of Zechariah says it best:
“Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight.”

You recall quite correctly.

I remember, in the 1970s and 1980s, that the more conservative Catholic press in this country kind of “tut-tutted” American readers, to the effect of “now, you naughty little American dissenters, why can’t you be good Catholics like the Poles are, they don’t worry about things like birth control or women’s rights, they’re just trying to survive”. Then I went over there myself, saw the aftermath of the Wall having just fallen, and got the vibe of “we’re the best Catholics, you have to admit, don’t you?”. I said to my wife “yes, and you pump just a little more money into this place, and a little more freedom into this place, and wait and see what happens”. And sure enough…

I was never particularly well-liked by some people over there, because they expect Americans just to flatter them over their hospitality, their good food, and their beautiful women — all of which they have in spades — with their Polish, if they speak it, limited to stock salutations and expressions of gratitude. They’re not used to having foreigners tell them “you’re not all that”. Guess I make my own trouble sometimes…

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I would argue that freedom of speech is not a Christian principle, from the perspective of the individual. As a Christian we are called to submit to Christ. We are not free to exercise our speech however we might will. We are called to be temperate of speech, not given to course jesting, exhorting people toward good and not evil, we are not free to lie or slander, curse others or blaspheme, etc. So from the standpoint of individual autonomy, I would say no. From the civil perspective, that is another matter. I know you are going for the civil perspective, and from that standpoint, it is an idea born out of the Enlightenment, not Christianity per se.

On that note, we all fail in this regard, frequently. So I guess we should all take this moment to repent of sin through our speech and ask for the Holy Spirit’s help to be as charitable as possible where speech is concerned.

At the very least we ought to be able to subscribe to the principle of freedom from compelled speech.

No one, and certainly not the state, ought to have the power to compel anyone to say or do what they do not truly believe is true or right. Ergo, the right of conscience.

Even in submitting to God, that “submission” is not a compelled submission. Christ said, “MY WILL is to do the will of the Father.” He did not say, “I have no will of my own.”

The entire Christian premise is that as individual human beings we have been dispossessed of our real personhood and have lost our true sense of integrity and identity because of sin. Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin, but if the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” And also, “What good does it do a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his very self?”

While it is true that we ought to be responsible with our speech, I believe the idea of freedom of speech is that we ought never to be compelled to say or think what we do not truly believe.

We can, legitimately be stopped from saying certain harmful things, but we should never be compelled to mouth things even when they are true.

At that point the autonomy of the person - that which is integral to personhood - has been taken from them.

This, as an aside, is why there is a categorical difference between peaceful protests and rioting. Protests respect the rights of others to disagree, while rioting and intimidation does not but seeks to terrorize others into submission.

Freedom of Speech is a HUMAN principle, a right every being that can form a thought deserves. I like that saying “I may not like what you are saying but I will always defend your right to say it.” Thus freedom of speech should always be protected. The biggest caveat being that free speech as CONSEQUENES for that speech which is why so many are getting fired for saying hateful, racist, things etc…But as far as the right to speak them, everyone should be able to say what’s on their mind.

Would definitely agree with that sentiment.

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