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Kyle Eller: On freedom of speech, its limits and its obligations

Pope Francis once encouraged young people at World Youth Day to go out and make a holy mess, and one gets the clear impression he likes to do this himself, too -- especially when he gets onto an airplane with journalists.

His recent trip to Asia created at least two such moments, with comments creating world headlines and a little confusion. The one that occupied my mind most was his remarks about freedom of expression, made in response to a question from a French journalist.

Kyle Eller

Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

"As for freedom of expression: each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation!" he said, citing the example of a legislator who would be failing in his duty if he didn't speak out.

Then he qualified it, saying there are "limits": "We have the obligation to say openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offense, because it is true, one cannot react violently. But if Dr. Gasbarri [the papal trip organizer who was standing beside him], a good friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him. But it's normal, it's normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith."

This leaves a lot of questions, especially for Americans who value free speech so highly. Who sets the limits or determines what's offensive: the government, the aggrieved, the individual speaking? Was he speaking practically, politically, morally?

I understand the angst. I'm what we used to call an "ink-stained wretch": a writer, a newspaperman. Some of the million-plus words I've put in print over my career have caused offense, usually unintentionally but often in a way that was foreseeable.

Among my biggest heroes are people I admire in part for boldly speaking unpopular and even "illegal" truths.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest and martyr, was sent to Auschwitz in part for his anti-Nazi writing. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great dissident, was ostracized, persecuted and exiled for speaking out in Soviet Russia against the gulag and communism and for God.

It is sobering to think that in our country and in much of the Western world expressing certain Catholic beliefs is often seen as offensive or even "hate speech" by those in power. In some countries people have been hauled before tribunals over it.

Yet in practice we all agree there are limits. People can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, libel someone in the newspaper, post your medical records online, incite people to riot. These are basically moral limits on free speech imposed by civil law, and we're glad for them. That's to say nothing of the limits placed by social pressures.

Yet I think all of this kind of misses Pope Francis' point. I think he's pointing to something deeper in how we think about freedom.

As with many subjects, the Catholic view of freedom proposes something deeper than the popular view. Popular culture sees freedom as lack of outside constraints. Freedom is the ability to do as I please. The church's vision roots freedom in the duty to do the good. In other words, freedom is a means to an end; it's for something. For instance I have religious freedom so that I can seek the truth about God and follow it. I have economic freedom so that I can support my family and contribute to society.

I think we cannot fully understand a particular freedom until we understand what it's for. To what duties is it connected? What good does it enable me to pursue? Understanding this also helps us see what, if any, limits there might be on this freedom.

So what is freedom of expression for? The pope pointed to the answer at the beginning of his response. He said we have an obligation to say what we think -- or, to put it another way, to bear witness to the true, the good and the beautiful -- as a way of serving the common good, of society.

I think this makes the matter a lot clearer.

Hundreds of thousands of people gather for the March for Life every year to propose to society a deep conviction that a good society protects the innocent and respects the dignity of the human person. We could not remain silent about such a thing without failing in a duty we have to our fellow citizens.

Much the same applies to the people who disagree with us. Their views contradict the common good profoundly, but they nevertheless have the duty to speak their genuine convictions, and they serve the good by doing so, at least opening a path for dialogue and pursuit of truth.

When we think about it this way, the limits become clearer too. Things like libeling people or inciting riots or yelling "fire" in a crowded room contradict what freedom of expression is for in a way that even being sincerely and profoundly wrong doesn't. I would say the kind of deliberate insult and mockery the pope was talking about often falls in a similar category.

That doesn't directly answer all of the thorny questions people have raised on the level of policies. But it does help us think about how we exercise our own freedom of expression, and what kinds of expression by others we want to support and consume -- or don't.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].