A Matter of Principle?

How long do those who believe in freedom of speech try to stay in a conversation with those religiously committed to restricting freedom of speech?

A recent editorial by Frank Bruni tells of a Catholic Diocese now requiring teachers in its schools to sign a contract greatly restricting not only their sexual behavior, but their freedom to express their opinions about matters of sexuality. Indeed they must agree to forgo their freedom of speech and publicly adhere to current Catholic doctrine.


It will be interesting to see if this contract stands up in court. The Cincinnati diocese is seeking to define its teachers as “teacher-ministers.” It believes that this will exempt the church from constitutional protections against discrimination on the basis of public behavior and speech. Whether they can get away with this legally is still to be determined. Maybe Hobby Lobby can follow suit and call its employees “salesperson – ministers,” and Chick Filet rename its employees “fry-chef ministers.” The possibilities for keeping people from exercising the freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution are endless.

But whether or not the Cincinnati Diocese can get away with this contract legally, it is a reminder that regardless of its official doctrinal position, the Roman Catholic church remains committed in practice to restricting the free speech of not only its members and members of its religious orders, but as many people as it has on its payroll regardless of their religion, and not only in their official capacity, but as members of the public.

I say Roman Catholic. Persons in the diocese are publicly appealing to the ethos of the new Pope to oppose these contracts. The Catholic church is not monolithic on these issues.

But as yet there is no evidence thus far that Francis offers any substantive difference from his predecessors. Or at least it appears that he is impotent even as the plenipotentiary of the Roman Catholic church to effect any real change in behavior by his bishops and priests.

And that raises questions about inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue. How long do those of us with a commitment to human freedom, in this case freedom of speech, remain in conversation with a religious group that clearly does not believe in that freedom?

And it isn’t just Roman Catholics. The most widely agreed upon contemporary document on human rights in the Muslim world is the Cairo Declaration. And it is opposed to both gender equality and freedom of speech. Indian Hindus have sought restrictions on free speech that might denigrate their religion, or any religion they would say. And one would certainly find the same thing among some  Christian groups, Orthodox Jews, and where they have the power Buddhists as well.

Where they “have the power” being key phrase. When religious people have power, overtly political or within a legal framework that allows it, they almost always oppose human freedom of speech specifically. A horror of blaspheme, the verbal opposition to God and God’s laws, runs deep in the religious consciousness. And it is only amplified by the horror that men in hierarchical structures feel about losing their power to control sexual expression and relationships. And as the founders of modern democracy understood, control of speech is the key to all other forms of control.

With those founders I believe that freedom of not just thought, but self-expression and political speech paves the way for a relationship with God. These freedoms are the necessary pre-cursors to a relationship with Christ and the necessary conditions for maintaining that relationship. And they are thus the necessary pre-cursors and conditions for the human flourishing that God desires.

Meaning, to put it bluntly, that I believe that those religious groups that seek to restrict freedom of speech, and theological and political speech in particular, are actually destroying the human religious consciousness even as they fervently believe that they are trying to save us all.

So how long do I keep talking to people who seem adamantly opposed to freedom? How long do I seek dialogue with people whose fundamental religious convictions lead them to believe that restraining human inquiry, human self-expression, and human political behavior are the best path to a relationship with God?

It is tempting to say, “not much longer.” But a belief in dialogue and freedom of speech go hand in hand in a very difficult relationship. It is hard to give credence to those who are opposed to freedom of speech.
Yet my fundamental belief in freedom of speech demands that I listen even to those who are as deaf to me, and that I consider the views even of those who I find it hard to take seriously. So how long to remain engaged in dialogue? A long time.

First, because my conviction that I am right must be tempered by the knowledge that I am not omniscient. And secondly because dialogue is an act of faith that it is by listening to others they they can begin to hear what we have to say.

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  • Harmony

    I think that issue would fall under the discrimination of LGBT people, which is more about protection of a vulnerable minority population. When the most frequently repeated idea in decrying homophobic statements from celebrities or public figures is “The Constitution protects your right not to be arrested by the authorities for voicing your opinion, but does not protect you from the ramifications of your statement from your peers or employer,” I think their freedom of speech would hold up in court.
    I think a weakness in this argument is being gay or genderqueer is not an opinion that’s protected under free speech; it’s an innate part of identity and personality.