A recent video insulting the prophet Muhammad has led to deadly violence in different parts of the world. That violence has led to the deaths of a number of people at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three staff members, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, and Sean Smith. The murder of these individuals is rightly condemned by people from all walks of life across the globe.
The video that many attribute to triggering the violence has led to renewed conversation about the meaning and significance of the freedom of speech, which has been enshrined by many nations in their respective constitutions. This conversation is not new but, in light of current events, certainly warrants renewed attention.
Almost 125 years ago, in 1888, Leo XIII issued the encyclical Libertas, in which he addressed questions concerning human freedom. True freedom, he explained, arises in conformity with the eternal law and, ideally, finds expression in individual behavior and in civil law governing both citizens individually and civil society as a whole.
In paragraph twenty-three of this encyclical, Leo XIII addressed several “freedoms” that were relatively new at the time, including freedom of speech and the press. In practicing this freedom, he encouraged prudence and respect for truth. In a world where “license of speech and of writing” is unchecked, he warned, “nothing will remain sacred and inviolate.” Further, he predicted, “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.”
The recent video that insults the prophet Muhammad and practicing Muslims everywhere is certainly an example of the type of abuse of “freedom of speech” that Leo XIII described.
The pope encouraged freedom of speech on the grounds that, properly pursued, it will lead to further dissemination of the truth.
In regard, however, 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 [or women] to suppress the truth, but often to discover it and make it known (#23).
Later in the same encyclical, Leo XIII proposed that freedom of speech ought to be employed “in doing good” and that it should be considered “legitimate in so far only as it affords greater facility for doing good, but no farther” (#42).
“Rights and Responsibilities,” one of the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching as identified by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is especially pertinent in this case. John XXIII identified free speech as a “right” in paragraph twelve of his landmark 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris: People, he wrote, “have 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,” among many other rights.
The Catholic social teaching tradition is clear: The right to freedom of speech (like any other right) entails certain duties. The practice of any particular right must be undertaken with respect for basic human dignity and in pursuit of the common good.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies