Freedom of speech? We have a right to spread the truth, not error – LifeSite

(LifeSiteNews) — The following essay will discuss the topic of freedom of speech from the true Catholic perspective, while examining the harm inflicted upon society when this right is misunderstood.

Freedom to speak the truth is essential

The freedom to speak freely about moral principles and religious truths has never been under greater threat than it is today, yet never has it been so important that we do so bravely and boldly.

The events of the last few years, especially the COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates, have shown us how fragile our grasp on basic freedoms is, and how determined our enemies are to strip us of the last vestige of them.

In order to be able to combat the moral evils which afflict our society, and inflict incalculable harm on souls, especially the most innocent and vulnerable, we need to be able to speak out freely against political corruption and dangerous ideologies without censorship or persecution.

Freedom to speak error is a root cause of our present catastrophe

Yet on the other hand, great evil has also been done in the name of freedom of speech. The very ideologies that are at the root of our modern evils were spread under the banner of freedom of speech. It was in the name of this freedom that books were published, newspapers disseminated, pamphlets distributed, and a deluge of errors spread throughout the world.

The untrammeled spread of erroneous political ideologies has brought our societies to ruin, and has, over the past century, caused the deaths of well over a billion innocents, mostly unborn children, and has caused the eternal loss of countless souls.

A major factor in the spread of these evils has been the progressive abandonment by the state of its duty to protect citizens from dangerous errors. Under the influence of liberal ideology, they permitted the unrestricted propagation of false religious doctrines and pernicious political ideologies. Finally, in the last century, they stopped prohibiting material contrary to the moral order, so that today pornography is freely available almost everywhere.

The popes saw this danger in advance and warned us incessantly about this false kind of freedom. In his 1832 Encyclical Letter Mirari Vos, “On Liberalism and Indifferentism,” Pope Gregory XVI warned:

When all restraints are removed by which men are kept on the narrow path of truth, their nature, which is already inclined to evil, propels them to ruin… Thence comes transformation of minds, corruption of youths, contempt of sacred things and holy laws — in other words, a pestilence more deadly to the state than any other. Experience shows, even from earliest times, that cities renowned for wealth, dominion, and glory perished as a result of this single evil, namely immoderate freedom of opinion, license of free speech, and desire for novelty.[1]

Therefore, he wrote:

We must include [in our condemnation] that harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatever and disseminate them to the people, which some dare to demand and promote with so great a clamor. We are horrified to see what monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors are disseminated far and wide in countless books, pamphlets, and other writings which, though small in weight, are very great in malice. We are in tears at the abuse which proceeds from them over the face of the earth.[2]

What Pope Gregory XVI foresaw in 1832 has now, most certainly, come to pass.

Error dangerous because man’s nature is fallen

Sometimes we may hear it said that unlimited freedom of speech is not dangerous because, when the truth is also freely propagated, it will always prevail over error. This is misguided because it fails to take into account the effects of original sin, which Gregory XVI alludes to the first of the passages quoted above, and as Pope Leo XIII warned:

[B]y far the greater part of the community is either absolutely unable, or able only with great difficulty, to escape from illusions and deceitful subtleties, especially such as flatter the passions.[3]

Gregory XVI notes that the evil caused by a harmful publication, is not necessarily countered by the positive consequences of a good one:

Some are so carried away that they contentiously assert that the flock of errors arising from [dangerous books] is sufficiently compensated by the publication of some book which defends religion and truth.[4]


Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?[5]

For example, is it credible that the circulation of books about why abortion is wrong, is sufficient, in and of itself, to counter all of the pro-abortion propaganda? Or is the publication of books on the dangers of pornography enough to ensure its availability is no longer dangerous?

We find ourselves in a position which requires some very precise definitions. On the one hand we rightly defend freedom of speech, when it comes to spreading moral values, religious truth, and defending legitimate civil and political rights. And yet we know also that there are forms of speech that are dangerous, and which we wish to see restricted or prohibited altogether.

But how do we determine where freedom of speech must be preserved and defended, and where it can be limited and even suppressed?

The solution: true human liberty to ordered towards the good

The solution to the paradox is provided clearly by Pope Leo XIII, who makes the correct and necessary distinctions in his encyclical letter Libertas, “On Human Liberty.”

In this encyclical the Supreme Pontiff repeated the condemnation of his predecessors of false forms of freedom of speech. He states:

We must now consider briefly liberty of speech, and liberty of the press. It is hardly necessary to say that there can be no such right as this, if it be not used in moderation, and if it pass beyond the bounds and end of all true liberty.[6]

Therefore, there is no right to freedom of speech if that speech is:

  1. immoderate and
  2. “passes beyond the bounds and end of all true liberty.”

This means that there is a legitimate form of free of speech which is:

  1. moderate and
  2. in accordance with, and limited by, the end of all true liberty.

Pope Leo XIII clearly teaches that man does possess certain rights of free speech:

Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them.[7]

And he teaches that:

In regard… to all matter of opinion which God leaves to man’s free discussion, full liberty of thought and of speech is naturally within the right of everyone; for such liberty never leads men to suppress the truth, but often to discover it and make it known.[8]

But there are other things which man has no right to publish or promote:

[L]ying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State.[9]

Indeed, he foresaw exactly what has happened in our times:

The excesses of an unbridled intellect… unfailingly end in the oppression of the untutored multitude.[10]

He continued:

If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint.[11]

Therefore, we can identify a true and false form of freedom of speech: one must be preserved and cultivated by the state; and the other must be diligently repressed. The distinction between them is that one serves the true end of liberty, and that the other does not.

What is the true end of liberty?

Liberty, the pope teaches, is “the highest of natural endowments” and belongs only to rational beings. It “confers on man this dignity – that he is ‘in the hand of his counsel’ and has power over his actions.”[12]

Man is a rational creature. His intellect knows the good and his will is able to choose it freely.

Pope Leo XIII explains:

Liberty, then, as We have said, belongs only to those who have the gift of reason or intelligence. Considered as to its nature, it is the faculty of choosing means fitted for the end proposed, for he is master of his actions who can choose one thing out of many.[13]

Man is free to choose from a range of possible actions. In this he differs from other animals:

[W]hile other animate creatures follow their senses, seeking good and avoiding evil only by instinct, man has reason to guide him in each and every act of his life.[14]

This power to choose is man’s “natural liberty.” However, the capacity to choose one thing out of many means that man has the natural ability to choose lesser goods in place of greater goods. He may also choose something which has the appearance of good, but which is in fact contrary to the moral order.

As Leo XIII taught:

[I]t is possible, as is often seen, that the reason should propose something which is not really good, but which has the appearance of good, and that the will should choose accordingly.[15]

Man is able – that is, he has the power – to choose evil under the appearance of good. In this particular sense, he is free to sin.

Let’s consider the example of the thief, whose reason proposes the good of possessing the car that belongs to someone else. In stealing the car, the will chooses something which has the appearance of good, but which is not truly good, because to take the property of another is in fact contrary to the order of reason.

The Supreme Pontiff teaches:

Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end. Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things; and, in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen.[16]

But this latter fate is not the end for which man was created. The end for which man was created is to enjoy forever the beatific vision of God.

Moral liberty

We must now consider the distinction between “natural liberty” and “moral liberty.”

God directs all things to their proper ends by his eternal law. By this law, says St. Thomas Aquinas, God governs “the whole community of the universe” by His “Divine Reason” and His “Divine Providence.” All creation is subject to the eternal law: “all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.”[17]

Human beings too, are subject this eternal law. The “participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law.”[18]

By the natural law, imprinted on every human being, we are directed towards our proper natural ends: “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light.”[19]

If man acts in a way that does not accord with the light of natural reason, he is acting in a way that is contrary to his nature.

As Pope Leo XIII taught, quoting St. Thomas:

When, therefore, [a thing] acts through a power outside itself, it does not act of itself, but through another, that is, as a slave. But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions. Therefore, `Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin.’[20]

When man acts contrary to reason, he is acting contrary to his own nature, and is a slave of something outside of himself.

True liberty is not merely the exercise of our “natural liberty,” that is, our natural ability to choose one from many actions, but rather to exercise true “moral liberty” and to choose to act in accordance with reason. To act against reason is not liberty but slavery.

Two kinds of freedom of speech

Having identified the difference between “natural liberty” and “moral liberty” we can draw the proper distinction between the two forms of freedom of speech:

  • The “freedom of speech” of liberalism, is based on “natural liberty” alone, and proposes that man should be free to exercises this natural liberty in saying whatever he has the power to say, and to spread whatever ideas he wishes to spread, even if they be false or harmful.

Its proponents may sometimes propose limits to avoid harm to others – for example against libel, or incitement to crime – but these limits are generally arbitrary and either fall short of the whole moral order which must be protected, or they are excessive, in that they seek to limit speech which is actually true.

  • The authentic freedom of speech, always upheld by the Catholic Church, is founded on man’s “moral liberty” and is the use of speech and writing, as Pope Leo XIII taught, to “propagate” the truth or “discover it and make it known.”[21]

The first form of freedom of speech is condemned by the Church and its exercise may, if the common good requires it, be restricted by the state. This is because, as St. Thomas Aquinas explains, while the natural law directs us in “a general and indeterminate” way, it is often necessary for legitimate authorities to make “more particular determination of certain matters” in order to assist men in attaining their final end of union with God.[22]

For example, the natural law dictates that men should not expose themselves to pornography. The state may assist citizens in following the natural law by prohibiting the circulation of pornography.

Similarly, the state may prevent or restrict circulation of other publications that threaten the well-being of citizens, for example dangerous political ideologies, materials that promote violence, or works that are blasphemous or heretical.

Fundamentally it comes down to this: We do not have the right to propagate error. We do have the right to propagate truth.

Reason and Revelation

Truths fall into two categories: natural and supernatural.

Pope Leo XIII explains what is meant by natural truths:

Of natural truths, such as the principles of nature and whatever is derived from them immediately by our reason, there is a kind of common patrimony in the human race.

On this, as on a firm basis, morality, justice, religion, and the very bonds of human society rest: and to allow people to go unharmed who violate or destroy it would be most impious, most foolish, and most inhuman.[23]

And of supernatural truths he writes:

But with no less religious care must we preserve that great and sacred treasure of the truths which God Himself has taught us.

By many and convincing arguments, often used by defenders of Christianity, certain leading truths have been laid down: namely, that some things have been revealed by God; that the only-begotten Son of God was made flesh, to bear witness to the truth; that a perfect society was founded by Him – the Church, namely, of which He is the head, and with which He has promised to abide till the end of the world.

To this society He entrusted all the truths which He had taught, in order that it might keep and guard them and with lawful authority explain them; and at the same time He commanded all nations to hear the voice of the Church, as if it were His own, threatening those who would nor hear it with everlasting perdition.

Thus, it is manifest that man’s best and surest teacher is God, the Source and Principle of all truth; and the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the true Light which enlightens every man, and to whose teaching all must submit: ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’[24]

As individuals we have a moral obligation to speak the truth and propagate the truth. The state has right and the duty to assist us by promoting truth and suppressing that which is erroneous and harmful when the common good requires it. The determining factor is not the arbitrary use of state power, but the use of natural reason, and proper submission to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

We may conclude with this clear and profound statement of Pope Leo XIII, from his Encyclical Letter Immortale Dei, “On the Christian Constitution of States”:

Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object. But the character of goodness and truth cannot be changed at option. These remain ever one and the same, and are no less unchangeable than nature itself. If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption. Whatever, therefore, is opposed to virtue and truth may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the favor and protection of the law.

A well-spent life is the only way to heaven, whither all are bound, and on this account the State is acting against the laws and dictates of nature whenever it permits the license of opinion and of action to lead minds astray from truth and souls away from the practice of virtue. To exclude the Church, founded by God Himself, from life, from laws, from the education of youth, from domestic society is a grave and fatal error. A State from which religion is banished can never be well regulated; and already perhaps more than is desirable is known of the nature and tendency of the so-called civil philosophy of life and morals.

The Church of Christ is the true and sole teacher of virtue and guardian of morals. She it is who preserves in their purity the principles from which duties flow, and, by setting forth most urgent reasons for virtuous life, bids us not only to turn away from wicked deeds, but even to curb all movements of the mind that are opposed to reason, even though they be not carried out in action.[25]

God gave us natural liberty that we might freely choose our final end of union with Him. Let us use our freedom of speaking and writing wisely, so that it leads us closer to this great end.

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