Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Cardinal Mercier and the Natural Law, Part 16: Individual Right to Opinion and Expression

FREEDOM OF OPINION AND OF EXPRESSION OF THAT OPINION is Mercier's next topic under the category of individual right. Mercier distinguishes between the holding of an opinion, and the free choice and liberty relating to that, and the external expression of that opinion, through speech, writing, or action. Moderns appear to hold to a law of anarchy in the area of opinion (Mercier calls his age an "age of intellectual anarchy"), holding as sacrosanct the right to anyone to hold whatever opinion he wants on any matter.

In a manner of speaking, of course, there is absolute ability to think whatever we "Man does not escape the law which binds every thinking being of searching for the truth."
--Cardinal Mercier
wish free of physical restraint. Since thought takes place in the inner consciousness of man, it is hidden from others, and so generally free of external compulsion. But it would be error to believe that one is free to think whatever thoughts he wishes with impunity, as if the faculty of thought is not subject to the moral order.
Man does not escape the law which binds every thinking being of searching for the truth. His fancies, his interests, his passions have no claim where there is a question of the higher rights of truth. . . . Freedom of opinion, then does not mean the right to be indifferent to religious and moral questions. As in other fields, so even more emphatically here, eagerness for the truth must be the ruling principle in the whole of man's mental progress.
[275-76(80)] Thus the inner freedom of thought is given us, not for whim, but to allow the untrammeled search for truth. Freedom of thought is ordered to acquisition or pursuit of truth.

Given the intellectual anarchy of the modern age, we must exercise prudence and tolerance informed by charity in the treatment of others, without thereby lapsing into indifferentism, or losing sight of our obligation, in charity, to exercise the spiritual works of mercy of instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing the sinner.
We say that it is undoubtedly the duty of every intelligent being to assent to the truth according to his opportunities of knowing it. But it is quite possible that under the prejudices of education or by other influences a man may in good faith adopt what is false. The assent of the mind to doctrine is not always determined by mere evidence. It is generally the highly complex resultant of subjective conditions that entirely escape the observation of others. The tribunal of a man's conscience is a sanctuary into which no one may enter. To form an estimate of the sincerity of another's opinion is matter of the utmost delicacy. God alone searches the reins and the heart. We have no right, therefore, to condemn anyone as soon as he thinks differently from ourselves. Still less may be we use coercive measures. To resort to persecution would be not only odious but absurd. Not by force but by persuasion are ideas propagated. Christ did not send His disciples to conquer the world by the sword, as did Mohammed; His only injunction to them was to go and teach.
[276-77(80)] Thus, Mercier recommends that we presume good faith on the part of one in error, and reject any temptation at using constraints to force a man to repudiate what he believes to be true, or to accept that which he believes to be false. Nevertheless, such respect for another's erroneous opinion does not in any way translate to accepting that error and truth have the same metaphysical value, or that truth and error are to be regarded as in the eye of the beholder, and therefore a matter of indifference. The duty to search for truth is absolutely and unequivocally moral. It is between the individual conscience and God. It is not a matter of competency for the secular or public authority.

The liberty given to thought or opinion is therefore to be free of interference by the law of civil authorities. However, the freedom of expression of thought or opinion, from a moral perspective, may be considered to be less broad. In his constitutional jurisprudence, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was an absolutist in the right of free speech. Whether the U.S. Constitution guarantees an absolute right to free speech or not, in Mercier's mind there are both moral as well as legitimate legal grounds for controlling speech, "but only in the measure that this is necessary for the public good." [277(80)] The State is limited in its authority to restrain speech.

First of all, unlike the Church, the State is not the repository of truth. "As it is not the depositary of absolute truth, it has not the sovereign power of silencing discussion. The supreme direction of man's mind does not belong to the State." [277(80)] Because the right of teaching the young is another form of expressing one's ideas, it follows that the State "cannot claim a monopoly of teaching." [278(80)]
The State has no right to mould all its citizens in one type, or to oblige them all to think alike, on the pretext of bringing about perfect unity in the body politic. . . . The right of teaching, like that of thinking, is derive from human personality and has no direct connexion to the mission of the State.

Secondly, true and even doubtful opinion ought to be allowed free expression. Attempting to influence expression invariably leads to an effort to control thought. Moreover, allowing the free expression of even erroneous opinions allows such views to be criticized, checked, and corrected by others. "Private enterprise is a great factor in progress, alike in the intellectual as in the economic sphere." [278(80)]

Nevertheless, the State does have some authority to limit or restrict the right of diffusing one's opinions.
In the public Authority, which is the interpreter of the natural law and the guardian of social order, must be recognized the right to repress the diffusion of opinions which are clearly inimical to the general peace. Intervention in the matters of opinions has been allowed as a final resource by even the most liberal legislation. Examples of abuse are not wanting; but this only means that liberty requires serious safeguards. However, between a [secular] dogmatism or a sectarianism that is intolerant and persecuting, and a liberalism that authorizes the diffusion of the most subversive ideas, there is surely a just mean.

The last liberty right that Mercier addresses is liberty of conscience. "By liberty of conscience we mean the right every man possesses of acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience." [278(81)] The right to freedom of conscience may be infringed in three ways:
  • By inciting or persuading another to do wrong by example, by counsel, or by threat;
  • By forcing another to do something which he believes is forbidden;
  • By preventing another from doing what he believes is required to be done.
The right to act in accordance with one's conscience is an absolute right if the voice of conscience is "clear and right." However, a "false" conscience may be interfered with to the limited extent that public authority may "oppose any of its manifestations which would damage lawful rights and interests or would be directly subversive of public order." [278-79(81)] Hence, the public authorities could prevent an anti-abortionist zealot from acting in accordance with his conscience which (falsely) directs him that he has a duty to murder abortionists to prevent the slaughter of innocents. Such activity, however sincerely held as required by conscience, is manifestly subversive of public order. Similarly, in spite of liberty of conscience, the State could obviously interfere to proscribe human sacrifices or other immoral practices even if sincerely held by the religious believers of some errant sect. Manifestly, "liberty of conscience may be restricted in the case of a false conscience." [279(81)] (emphasis added). However, this negative and limited power upon public authority to prevent someone from acting in accord with a false conscience should be distinguished from public authority compelling someone to act against his conscience as, for example, requiring him to externally adhere to a doctrine to which internally does not assent or to abjure a belief which his conscience bids him to hold as true.*

*Mercier has a footnote that merits mention. "When it is said that St. Thomas Aquinas maintains the repression of heresy to be lawful, it must be added that he looked upon the heretic as a rebel not only against God but also against society, based as it was at that time entirely on Christianity. To him the heretic was one who committed a sin which had anti-social effects. In this fact alone lies his reason for justifying civil measures of repression; for he expressly recognizes that some of our obligations are matters for the individual conscience alone, notably such as duties to God. Moreover, he proscribes every measure of constraint of those who are strangers to the truth faith, on the ground that no one is bound to give an enforced assent to dogma." [279 n. 38] In this regard, it may also be mentioned that the Inquisition had no jurisdiction over Jew or Muslim, but its jurisdiction was only over the baptized, that is to say, the Catholic Christian.

No comments:

Post a Comment