Free Speech and the Media


On his way to Manila for a visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis said that that killing in the name of religion is an “aberration.” He defended freedom of expression following last week’s attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – but also stressed its limits. He added that there were limits, especially when people mocked religion: “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

So what is the limit on what the media can publish? Should the press poke fun at religion?

The Church teaches that ‘information provided by the media is at the service of the common good’[1] and says that news communicated ‘should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent.’[2]

So what is this “common good”? The common good often serves as a yard-stick against which can be measured the moral value of certain acts. The Church has long held that ‘that which is beneficial to the common good must be paramount, indeed it is the very end of civic society to exist for the common good.’[3]

The common good should not be seen as what benefits most of the people most of the time, as this would mean the common good would always be changing (and, as such, society would be in a perpetual state of moral flux).

No, the common good may be understood to be those good decisions, motives and aspirations which, in conformity with the way God created his world, allows all the people of the world to flourish and fully realise their human potential. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the common good thus:

‘The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.’ [4]

So how is this applied to the media, and the difficulties journalists, broadcasters, and media moguls face? Well, here’s what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has to say:[5]

In the world of the media the intrinsic difficulties of communications are often exacerbated by ideology, the desire for profit and political control, rivalry and conflicts between groups, and other social evils. Moral values and principles apply also to the media. “The ethical dimension relates not just to the content of communication (the message) and the process of communication (how the communicating is done) but to fundamental structural and systemic issues, often involving large questions of policy bearing upon the distribution of sophisticated technology and product (who shall be information rich and who shall be information poor?)”.a

In all three areas — the message, the process and structural issues — one fundamental moral principle always applies: the human person and the human community are the end and measure of the use of the media. A second principle is complementary to the first: the good of human beings cannot be attained independently of the common good of the community to which they belong.b It is necessary that citizens participate in the decision-making process concerning media policies. This participation, which is to be public, has to be genuinely representative and not skewed in favour of special interest groups when the media are a money-making venture.c

The question me must all ask ourselves then is this: is what we publish and what we read in conformity with the way God created his world, and does it allow people, either as groups or individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily? If not, then maybe we should question why we allow such publications and read them? It is right that we should have the principle of freedom of speech, the Pope himself has today defended this right – but that freedom comes with  responsibility to build up, not to destroy. What we publish needs to be within the bounds of justice and charity.

Notes: [1] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Vatican City, 2004) 415.

[2] Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Decree on the Media of Social Communications Inter Mirifica, 5: AAS 56(1964), 147.

[3] Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum, 37§2: Acta Leonis XIII, 11 (1892) 97-144.

[4] Catchism of the Catholic Church 1906; cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 26§1: AAS 58 (1966), 1046-1047.

[5] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Vatican City, 2004), 416.

a Pontifical Council for Social communications, Ethics in Communications, 20, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (Vatican City, 2000) p. 22.

b Cf. Ibid., 22, p. 23-25.

c Cf. Ibid., 24, p. 26-28.