On Liberty of Teaching

by Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara, OP

Translated by Timothy Wilson

Today we continue our series of original translations of important texts relating to Catholic political philosophy. Tommaso Maria Cardinal Zigliara was a prominent Thomist philosopher and theologian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Among many other accomplishments, he was closely involved with the preparation of the Leonine edition of the Angelic Doctor’s Opera Omnia (the first volume of which contains his synopses and annotations on St. Thomas’ Organon commentaries), and assisted in preparing the encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum.

The chapter translated here is taken from book two of the third part of Zigliara’s widely circulated Summa philosophica (14th ed., 1910). Having treated of domestic, civil, and religious society in their principles and particulars in the preceding books and chapters of this part, he now sets himself the task of treating in brief the relations which should obtain between those two perfect societies, the Church and the State. The original text can be found here.

This is the fourth of the five articles of the chapter, treating of liberty of teaching. The final article, on the subordination of the State to the Church, will be posted in the course of the next few days.


On liberty of teaching¹

I. Question. Simultaneously one with liberty of conscience and of cult, there is proclaimed by the more recent liberalism a liberty of teaching, particularly with respect to the means with which it is principally exercised, namely, with respect to liberty of the press (la libertá della stampa). We ask, therefore, whether this liberty is upright, and to be approved by the civil authority. Here again I caution that the discussion is concerned, not with tolerance, but with approbation: evils indeed are able to be tolerated, yet naught but goods ought to be approved.

II. First preliminary note. It has been said more than once by us, that man is born for society, and cannot have the helps for perfecting himself except in society and from society. But the perfection of man chiefly is found in the intellective part of him, to which it is proper to know and to love: to know the truth, and to love the good. Thence it is, that to impede man from the acquiring of truth and the virtues, is in a certain way to kill him intellectually.

III. Second preliminary note. However, there is a certain doctrine which does not instruct minds but perverts them, insinuating error under the guise of truth. On account of which, seeing that man by his nature is drawn to the truth and has the right of seeking it and the duty of shunning error, he has the right that others not induce him into error under the guise of truth. Therefore just as the liberty of truth is honorable, so the liberty of error is the death of the soul, as St. Augustine days, and does not merit the name of liberty, but of license.

IV. Point of the question. Therefore the entire question concerning the liberty of teaching does not touch upon the true liberty of teaching the truth, but the liberty of teaching as it encompasses the instruction both of truth and of error. Is this liberty able to be permitted by the civil authority? To this question, defined in this fashion, I respond with the following conclusion:

V. Liberty of teaching, whether spoken or written, is intrinsically absurd and disgraceful. For it is intrinsically absurd and shameful to concede the same rights to truth and to error; it is intrinsically absurd and shameful that the civil authority should not preserve voluntarily the citizens from the corruption of mind and heart; it is intrinsically absurd and shameful that the civil authority should permit that which it is itself compelled to condemn and punish. But liberty of teaching is of this sort. Therefore it is intrinsically absurd and shameful. — The minor is proved.

Liberty of teaching concedes the same rights to truth and to error. This is included in the very nature of liberty of teaching, as it is understood by liberalism. For it includes in its scope the right of striking down things pertaining so much to the world, as to God, and to religion, morals, individual life, and social life. Now it is not necessary to prove, that men may err in the gravest of matters, which matters natural reason itself commands to be altogether defended and most firmly held. The faculty of teaching therefore having been granted, the same right is conceded to error which is conceded to the truth, that it might propagate itself, to the detriment of truth: no indeed, error would enjoy a greater right than truth. For the truth cannot but employ those means which are honest and worthy, while on the contrary error holds all means as licit. No one of sound mind does not see how absurd and disgraceful are all of these things: for the right is truth; therefore just as error is the lack of truth, so is it the lack of right.

Liberty of teaching works to the corruption of the mind and heart. I assume two things for demonstrating this: 1° that men, from the corruption of nature, are wont to accept theories which favor their passions; 2° that the greater part of mankind is per se incapable of freeing itself from the pursuit of knowledge, and of extricating itself from false reasoning and the sophisms of error. He who would deny these two things, would deny a fact which is at once constant and manifest to all. But: 1° from the liberty of teaching there arises the liberty of error, as has been said above, through which the passions are favored and excited against the intellective part—and, the intellective part erring, it cannot happen that the whole man be not corrupted; 2° on account of the liberty of teaching, men are exposed daily to the danger of erring in those things which they are held to know and about which they are held to think truly—such as the matters which have to do with God, the human soul, morals, and religion—when through false teachers, truths of this sort are assailed with impudent license, and which the greater part of humanity is not able to defend from sophisms. Wherefore, a proclivity toward evil being supposed on one hand, and an impotence for reasoning scientifically on the other, it cannot happen that the liberty, or more truly the license, of teaching does not entirely and efficaciously work to the corruption of the minds and hearts of the citizens. — But it is the right of the citizens that the civil authority defend them from so great a calamity, nor is this authority able to abandon this duty without thereby committing a crime. How much more shameful and absurd it is, then, that the civil authority should proclaim this deformity in its laws, which through an intolerable abuse of words is called the liberty of teaching?

Liberty of teaching is simultaneously approved and punished by the civil authority. On the one hand, liberty of teaching is established, and on the other, they are punished who abuse the press in order to circulate things which in fact are, or are judged to be, opposed to the civil authority. But, either the liberty of teaching in word or writing is to be proclaimed in its whole extension; or on the contrary, it is to be confined within limits lest it lead to evil. But if it ought to be admitted in its full extension, why therefore are they who use and abuse it punished? If it ought to be constrained within certain limits, lest it devolve into license, then: firstly, it is able to be limited so that it does not work evil (la revisione preventiva), just as it is punished after evil has been perpetrated; no indeed, it would be more prudent to obstruct it, for most often the evil is irreparable; secondly, these limits are to be defined only according to truth and integrity; wherefore, just as liberty of teaching is condemned and punished by the civil authority when it inclines to the detriment of the same authority, so a fortiori it is to be condemned and punished whenever the same liberty sallies forth against God, religion, morals, and the true liberty of citizens: because the civil authority is not superior to God, religion, morals, and truth, nor is it more serious to disparage the Rulers of cities and kingdoms, than to disparage God and religion and truth, without which no authority commands and no society consists.

VI. Note. Difficulties are resolved. First objection. There is in man an innate desire of communicating to other men the discoveries of his own talent. But this natural desire is not satisfied, except by means of liberty of teaching. Therefore liberty of teaching corresponds to natural human desire.

I respond. I distinguish the major: there is in man an innate desire of communicating the discoveries of his own talent within the limits of truth, I concede; outside the limits of truth, I deny. — I distinguish also the minor: this natural desire is not satisfied except by means of liberty of teaching rightly understood, that is, through true liberty which is not contrary to truth, I concede; it is not satisfied except through liberty badly understood, that is, through license which is contrary to truth, I deny. — Nature does not give an inclination to error, just as it does not give inclination to evil; wherefore, just as the inclination to evil, which is from the corruption of nature, ought to be checked, so also the perverse inclination to error. — But the liberty of error is not true liberty, but the abuse of liberty, and is license, to be detested and curbed.

Second objection. By reason of liberty of teaching, whether in word or writing, opinions are considered and the truth is more and more made clear. But that which is of this sort not only contains nothing of evil, but indeed confers to itself the greatest good. Therefore liberty of teaching ought very much to be supported.

I respond. In the first place, the adversary concludes, from the fact that there may be some good had from liberty of teaching, to the goodness of this liberty; which conclusion we have proved is not able to be had from this aforementioned good alone, in no. IV of the preceding article. I respond secondly, by distinguishing the minor: Something of this sort contains nothing evil if, through liberty of teaching, only opinions are considered, and errors are not defended, I concede; if error is defended against truth, I deny. — It has been said that error lacks right, and indeed is the lack of right. Where the liberty of teaching is conceded to error, therefore, there is no right, but manifest injustice against truth, which in this case is not elucidated, but is denied.

Third objection. Liberty of teaching having been denied, the State is constituted as the judge of teaching, and additionally, there is conceded to it a monopoly on teaching. But the State is not the judge of teaching, and is not able to arrogate to itself the monopoly on teaching without the greatest tyranny. Therefore liberty of teaching is entirely to be permitted.

I respond. I deny the major, I concede the minor, and I deny the consequence, liberty having been accepted as it is at once a right of truth and error, as it is taken by the adversaries. — I concede that there belongs to the civil State no authority concerning teachings: but it is not necessary that one be endowed with this governance of teaching, or magisterium, in order to discern those things which are manifestly evil, so much in themselves as in relation to civil society, so that the former might be able to be inculcated and the latter prohibited; just as, if one were to defend an innocent from a manifest unjust aggressor, he would not thereby be constituted judge between the two; but the innocent has a manifest right, and in order to defend him from an unjust attacker in the act of aggression, one is able to seek out the help of another. But in the order of teaching, there are certain vices, that is, manifest errors, which indeed the State is able and ought to know and punish, just as other vices, without seizing for itself the teaching magisterium. — But in fact there exists, above the State, a teaching magisterium in the Catholic Church and in the Supreme Pontiff. Therefore the errors which the Catholic Church condemns, the State also ought to condemn, and it ought to accept the teaching magisterium of the Church.

Fourth objection. The right of the citizens, for whom it is easy to reject erroneous doctrines, is not harmed by liberty of teaching. But that which harms the rights of no one, ought to be permitted. Therefore liberty of teaching ought to be permitted.

I respond. I deny the major. For proof of this, I respond in the first place that, even granting that each and every person were able to detect the insidious devices of sophists or those who err, a right to this aggression would not thereby be something to be admitted; just as there ought not to be admitted a right in an unjust aggressor, even if there were the means for repelling his violence in the innocent, whose power to repel injury does not diminish the injustice of the aggressor. — I respond secondly, that it is false that it is easy for all to avoid the tricks of sophists, particularly when the sophisms favor the passions: in fact, we see that men—I speak not only of coarse folk, but of clever men as well—are every day entangled in false doctrines.

Fifth objection. The Church herself desires liberty of teaching, and demands that it be conceded to her from the State by right. Therefore liberty of teaching, which is good in the religious order, is not able not to be good in the civil order.

I respond. I distinguish the antecedent: The Church desires true liberty of teaching, I concede; she desires false liberty of teaching, about which our whole question is concerned, I deny. The Church has never opposed herself to the liberty of truth, but rightly opposes herself to the liberty, or more correctly the license, of error. But justly does she claim absolutely for herself the liberty of teaching, because she is the mistress of truth, whatever be the desire or aversion of her adversaries.

But concerning the liberty of teaching taken in the sense of the adversaries, the Church desires it in the same manner in which she desires the liberty of cult: namely, insofar as it is most unjust that the magisterium of the Church, which is the instrument of truth, is excluded from that liberty which is conceded to error through civil laws. Concerning this matter, let us hear our most holy lord Pope Pius IX, in his Letter of 19 July 1875 to Felice Dupanloup, bishop of Órleans, about the liberty of teaching which the Catholics in France had sought and received in the year 1875 from the French government:

«Although it is to the disadvantage of the eternal laws of justice and of right reason itself, that true and false be had in the same condition, and equal rights be granted to both, yet since the iniquity of the times has transferred right (which is proper by its very nature to the true alone) to the false; and, the word liberty being sufficiently unsuitable, has granted to it the power of proposing, publishing, and teaching its fictions; We judge you, Venerable Brother, to have made an effort, altogether skillfully and advantageously, to adapt this venom forced upon civil society into a remedy for it. Indeed, if it is lawful for anyone of unsound mind to advance fantasies upon the public by means of the laws, and to avail himself of the same also to defend and relate the dogmas of science; there plainly is no reason at hand, why it ought not to be lawful for the truth: nor is there a reason why any person whatever, although he be a follower of fables and a hater of truth—unless he were entirely mad—would be able to deny to it the perspicuity of this right. To this ineluctable strength of argument there accedes no small degree of firmness, whether from the reproach proposed by You with respect to the impediment—to the detriment of science—cast upon so many talented minds, of setting forth their ideas; or from the facts attested to by experience, of the inclination—begotten by the captivity of truth—of letters and the higher disciplines; and also of the impudence, with which principles most pernicious not only to religion, but also to the human community, are even now published. These losses, if they are to be lamented in the license by which error everywhere is proposed to the people, certainly are to be considered deadly things in the instruction of youth and young men, in which the very root of human society is so corrupted, that it is capable only of poisoned fruits, which at length lead it, already ill, ruined, and prostrated, to dissolution.»


[1] Cf. Leo XIII, encyclical Libertas præstantissimum §§24-25:

«A like judgment must be passed upon what is called liberty of teaching. There can be no doubt that truth alone should imbue the minds of men, for in it are found the well-being, the end, and the perfection of every intelligent nature; and therefore nothing but truth should be taught both to the ignorant and to the educated, so as to bring knowledge to those who have it not, and to preserve it in those who possess it. For this reason it is plainly the duty of all who teach to banish error from the mind, and by sure safeguards to close the entry to all false convictions. From this it follows, as is evident, that the liberty of which We have been speaking is greatly opposed to reason, and tends absolutely to pervert men’s minds, in as much as it claims for itself the right of teaching whatever it pleases – a liberty which the State cannot grant without failing in its duty. And the more so because the authority of teachers has great weight with their hearers, who can rarely decide for themselves as to the truth or falsehood of the instruction given to them.

Wherefore, this liberty, also, in order that it may deserve the name, must be kept within certain limits, lest the office of teaching be turned with impunity into an instrument of corruption. Now, truth, which should be the only subject matter of those who teach, is of two kinds: natural and supernatural. Of natural truths, such as the principles of nature and whatever is derived from them immediately by our reason, there is a kind of common patrimony in the human race. On this, as on a firm basis, morality, justice, religion, and the very bonds of human society rest: and to allow people to go unharmed who violate or destroy it would be most impious, most foolish, and most inhuman.»

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