In Defense of the Index: On Rights to Publication and Public Discourse

Last month on February 18th, prominent layman Robert George, professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, posted a defense on Twitter of viewpoint diversity. This, he claims, is the antidote to the Left-wing indoctrination that dominates university classrooms.

“Politicians and others are right to object to Woke indoctrination in state (and other) universities,” he said. “[B]ut banning the teaching of things in higher ed is a bad idea. The answer is not bans. It’s viewpoint diversity – ensuring that students hear critical perspectives on all ideas.”

“The right principle for universities,” he argued, “[is that] no perspective is banned; no perspective is given a monopoly. Students are presented with the best arguments on competing sides of the vast range of questions on which reasonable people disagree.”

On its face, Dr. George’s argument, abbreviated here, may seem harmless enough. “The freedom of speech,” as we say to in the United States, “it’s one of the great freedoms in our Constitution!” Indeed, lawyers, academics, and journalists on the Right responded with endorsements such as, “Brilliantly argued!” and “If [we] could just accept that we disagree about important things, our public institutions have a chance.”

But this constitutes a basic point of social doctrine on which Catholics must diverge from their neoconservative peers. The Church has long rejected Liberalism’s “marketplace of ideas” model concerning rights to publication and public discourse, especially in the context of education. This theory, advanced by George, says that the truth necessarily emerges from open competition against false ideas. And the veracity of a claim is proven by its power to attain widespread acceptance. It concludes that society should liberally permit the proclamation of falsehood, immorality, and base speech, trusting that most will distinguish the good from the bad, the true from false.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Its Historical Development

This idea has its origin in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In his influential 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, English writer John Milton defended a set of radical propositions that would form the basis of the freedom of speech.

Frustrated by his inability to publish an essay defending legal divorce, Milton attacked a law of Parliament which forbade publication in the absence of a license. He contended, among other things, that prepublication licensure inhibited man’s pursuit of truth, which he claimed is assisted by exposure to error, and that such licensure had its roots in the practice of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Holy Office) – now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Milton thus defended broad freedom to publish error and immorality. But as was characteristic of other writers of the era, the toleration he advocated specifically excluded Catholics.[1]

This line of argument was intensified in the mid-nineteenth century by Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty, another tremendously influential essay, Mill argues that no opinion or publication should be suppressed by law in view of the benefits that accrue to political society as a result of unregulated discourse.

He claims that, by suppressing certain opinions, governments suppress ideas with at least a kernel of truth, even if largely erroneous. And this is mistaken, he says, because error benefits society when proclaimed out in the open. For in professing error, Mill says one is either met with truth, which Mill presumes the person will then accept, or the error will fortify the convictions of those already holding to truth.

Mill specifically concerns himself with the freedom to attack Christian orthodoxy, arguing in favor of publication rights for atheists and opponents of traditional moral norms.[2] He claims that the Church is especially despicable for its aversion to public error, at one point expressing horror at the supposed myopia of religious: “An individual Jesuit is to the utmost degree of abasement a slave of his order,” he states. (Let the irony of criticizing the intellectual capaciousness of pre-20th century Jesuits not be lost.)

Both of these essays were seminal influences in the historical trajectory of speech law, which today is substantially more Liberal than it was in centuries past. Traditional blasphemy laws, defamation laws, and publication laws have all been repealed or overruled, with the theories of Mill and Milton underlying the departures every step.

As Liberal individualism ascended in the economic sphere, an analogy developed in the political sphere. The concept of an unregulated “free trade” in ideas developed alongside advocacy for unregulated markets. US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with legitimating this theory in his Abrams v. U.S. dissent.[3] There, he criticized a 7-justice majority for upholding the conviction of an anti-war protestor under the Espionage Act of 1917, arguing for “free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”[4]

Thus the marketplace of ideas became part of the furniture of American life, leading many well-intentioned, if profoundly mistaken, Catholics to defend the notion.

The Church’s Position on Rights to Press and Public Discourse

Despite all one hears about “dialogue” today, the Church’s traditional posture toward rights of publication (or “press”) and public discourse was discerning. She’s never accepted the proposition that truth is determined by a majority vote.[5] Rather, she’s been judicious, desirous of building the social order upon the immutable truths of the Faith.

Convinced that “the death of the soul is worse than freedom of error” and that right corresponds to the good, the Church was historically careful not to push her sons and daughters overboard into a sea of competing visions.[6]

Rather, with due temperance, she’s never hesitated to suppress works posing public danger to faith and morals.

From her earliest days, the Church opposed the publication of error and heresy. Already in the Acts of the Apostles we find heathens at Ephesus burning their religious scrolls upon conversion to the true religion (Acts 19:19). Indeed, throughout the New Testament, Christians are exhorted to shun heretics.[7]

Index depicting Acts 19:19

We find various early councils condemning the proliferation of erroneous texts. The First General Council of Nicaea in 325 forbade publication of the Thalia, in which Arius had exposited his Christological heresy, for example. The Decretum Gelasianum is considered an early progenitor of the Index Librorum Prohibotorum. It was a list of forbidden apocryphal and heretical texts, compiled in the 6th century.

As universities were established in the High Medieval Period, the Church began reviewing works of theology prior to publication. Statutes were adopted requiring lectures to be examined by theology professors before their transcription by booksellers, for instance.[8] Furthermore, the rise of typology coincided with the intellectual decadence which marked the Renaissance period, prompting the hierarchy to put tighter restraints on texts dangerous to public order. Thus, Pope Leo X issued the bull Inter sollicitudines in 1515 during the Fifth Lateran Council, providing bishops plenary power to suppress heretical books circulating under their jurisdiction.[9]

As Protestant heresies spread across Europe in the 16th century, the Holy Office promulgated indices of forbidden texts alongside prepublication rules governing works of theology. This Index Librorum Prohibotorum (Index), taking definitive shape with the Tridentine Index of 1564, would remain in force and effect until June of 1966, when it was abolished by Pope Paul VI.[10]

Pope Leo XIII rejected liberty of speech and press for its decoupling of freedom from right in his 1888 encyclical Libertas.[11] And even today, under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, bishops are vested with the power to adjudge writings authored by their subjects, possessing “the duty and the right to condemn writings which harm true faith or good morals.”[12]

But the Church’s judicious posture toward public discourse hasn’t been limited to the rights of publication. Rather, through the ages, she has been mindful to regulate spoken transgressions as well, as one sees in, say, the severe treatment of public blasphemers.[13]

Analysis of the Church’s Position
vis-à-vis that of Liberal Speech Theory

Now, this history may be harsh on modern ears. But as we sit here in the 21st century, besieged by pornography, mendacious propaganda, and lurid media on all sides – all of which protected by free speech doctrine – who can doubt the wisdom of Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical Mirari vos (1832), wherein he linked “immoderate freedom of opinion [and] license of speech” with the corruption of minds and destruction of political community?

Set aside, for the moment, the violent and lascivious music broadcast daily or the Orwellian doublespeak characterizing mainstream news coverage, the social destruction wrought by the right to publish pornography is colossal. To merely scratch the surface: among the reasons that young people aren’t marrying and having children today is the fact that, well, they don’t desire to. And when I say they have no desire, I mean it.

Study after study suggests that young men have never before been so impotent, owing to widespread pornography consumption.[14] Their procreative nature has been stifled, causing large numbers to prefer polluting themselves to actual encounters with women.[15] This unnatural phenomenon is coupled with a sky-high divorce rate in marriages where at least one spouse has a porn habit.[16] Therefore, it is plain that porn has caused immense damage to the nuclear family – the basic unit of political society.

Now one may object here, saying: “Sure, free speech is destructive inasmuch as it has devolved, furnishing rights to publish porn, or rap music, or provocative advertisements. But doesn’t it also foster the nobler good of high discourse about matters such as politics and theology?”

I would argue against this thesis.

First, I point out that it is no aberration for this doctrine to protect content totally averse to Christian morality, as is the case with the evils aforementioned. For as we saw with both Milton and Mill, the rejection of Christian doctrine was specifically contemplated in both of their seminal essays. The freedom of speech was aimed at undermining Christian orthodoxy from the outset. We shouldn’t treat it as an unintended consequence when it does just that.

Furthermore, the notion that true ideas necessarily emerge from open competition against false ideas is naïve, as is Mill’s claim that the open proclamation of error results in the net aggregation of truth. One genuinely convicted about the need to proliferate truth shouldn’t plunge society into an ocean of competing claims. He should opt, rather, for truth to be jealously guarded. For, as Pope Gregory said, “Is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available, and those who use it may be snatched from death again and again?”[17]

Finally, there is a myth of neutrality upon which these Liberal ideas rest, which is illusory in both theory and practice. Proponents of viewpoint diversity or the marketplace of ideas conceive of a “neutral space” devoid of substantive ideology, where competing views step in and speak their piece so that each hearer may determine the truth for himself. They profess the freedom for all to express their views, independent of environments laden with preexisting philosophical commitments. In actuality, however, this conception of public discourse already presupposes a particular epistemology, indeed anthropology, which, in practice, tends to get imparted onto “marketplace” participants.

At the level of theory, this model conveys an image of man as a tabula rasa, shorn of inherited culture and tradition – a being who arrives at truth by use of his autonomous reason alone. Sola ratio, if you will. But in practice, theories like the marketplace of ideas and viewpoint diversity assert that there is no truth. The “neutral space” is governed by resolute skepticism, allowing many views a hearing, while disallowing the vindication of any particular one. And thereby, when adopted at scale, this model systematically tends to impart a certain agnosticism or even nihilism.[18]

It is my opinion that this model of public discourse weakens Catholic faith, especially on college campuses.[19] For the Church makes objective claims. And if objectively true, then they bind the intellect, determining the behavior of those who assent along with the institutions they populate. Conversely, to approach public discourse with a view of Catholicism as merely one in a vast array of valid viewpoints tends, in practice, to throw in the white towel. It tends toward the relativism we see besetting the Church.

It’s established, then, that Catholics cannot accept theoretical or practical implications connected to free speech. But does it follow that the Church shuts herself off from the world in a fideistic refusal to see or hear evil? Of course not. Such a caricature is refuted by the Church’s vast tradition of apologetics. Rather, the Church exercises prudence, furnishing freedom to study harmful materials in proportion to the degree that one’s station and competence so merits. It wouldn’t be appropriate to assign freshmen at Georgetown Nietzsche before they’ve even cracked the Summa, for example.

Modern theory presumes everyone, everywhere to be mature and independent reasoners with intellectual powers sufficient to acquire all truth human and divine. The Church, by contrast, appreciates the gravity of the questions at stake. She recognizes that to some it’s been given to hear, to others it’s been given to teach. To some it’s been given to study, to others it’s been given to work. To some it’s been given to review false doctrines, to others it’s been given not to be pestered by them.

Consequently, with all due respect to Professor George, I disagree with his claim that, “The right principle for universities [is that] no perspective is banned.” On the contrary, what is needed, especially in the context of Catholic education, is a new, perhaps quite different, Index.


[1] John Milton (1644), Areopagitica (“[It is] doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian that many be tolerated, rather than all compelled, I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate”). See also John Locke (1689), A Letter Concerning Toleration (defending religious toleration, but specifically excluding Catholics from its ambit).

[2] John Stuart Mill (1869), On Liberty (“Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality”)

[3] 250 U.S. 616 (1919).

[4] Id. at 630 (Holmes, J., dissenting).

[5] See, e.g., Pope Benedict XVI, Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI Westminster Hall – Westminster, (Sept. 17, 2010) (observing the precariousness of political community where “the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus”).

[6] Pope Gregory XVI (1832), Mirari vos, § 14.

[7] See, e.g., Titus 3:10 (“A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid”).

[8] New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, Censorship of Books.

[9] Id. Leo X also promulgated Exsurge Domine, forbidding the circulation of Martin Luther’s writings under pain of excommunication.

[10] Richard Upsher, “How Paul VI Abolished the Index of Prohibited Books, 50 Years Ago Today,” Catholic Herald (Jun. 14, 2016).

[11] Pope Leo XIII, Libertas, § 23.

[12] Code of Canon Law, Can. 823 § 1.

[13] New Advent, Blasphemy (“By a decree of the thirteenth century one convicted of blasphemy was compelled to stand at the door of the church during the solemnities of the Mass for seven Sundays, and on the last of these days, divested of cloak and shoes, he was to appear with a rope about his neck”).

[14] Belinda Luscombe, “Porn and the Threat to Virility,” TIME Magazine (April 11, 2016) (cataloguing the findings of various studies).

[15] Bryan Park, Gary Wilson, et al. “Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports.” Behavioral Sciences, (Aug. 5, 2016) (concluding that pornography consumption is the best explanation of the unprecedented rise in sexual dysfunctions and low sexual desire in men under 40.) See also Dennis Thompson, “Study Sees Link Between Porn, Sexual Dysfunction in Men,” Chicago Tribune (May 12, 2017).

[16] David Shultz, “Divorce Rate Doubles When People Start Watching Porn,”, (Aug. 26 2016) (summarizing the findings of a study published by the American Sociological Association).

[17] Mirari vos, § 15.

[18] For excellent discussion of the illusion of liberal neutrality, see David Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church Part One: Catholic Liberalism (1st ed. 1996).

[19] Everett Fritz, “Our Youth Are Leaving the Church,” Catholic Exchange (Mar. 6, 2018) (claiming that 85% of Catholics have stopped practicing by the time they leave college).

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