1.3.5 Protection of human freedom

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Unit 1 Contents


Justice requires the protection of human freedom.  The Catholic Catechism says this:

Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority… (#1738, italics in original)

Two documents of CST, both from the 1960s, especially show Catholic commitment to protection of freedom.  One was mentioned on the last screen: Pacem in Terris.  Among the various human rights affirmed in that document were basic ‘freedom rights’:

    • the right to bodily integrity (which means freedom from physical assault) (#11)
    • the right to freedom in searching for truth and in expressing opinions (#12)
    • the right to choose freely to marry or not to marry (that is, not to be coerced either way), and therefore the right to set up a family (#15)
    • the right of assembly and association (#23)

The second document was Dignitatis Humanae (1965), which affirmed, for the first time in Catholic teaching, that there is a human right to religious freedom.  This means freedom not just of belief but of religious practice, including freedom to worship with others and to manifest one’s religion in public.  This statement makes clear that it is not just Catholics or Christians but people of all faiths who have this right.  As its title implies, it argued that a proper understanding of human dignity gives good reason for affirming this human right.

As mentioned on the last screen, the topic of human rights is addressed more fully in Module A, including the specific issue of religious freedom (see Unit 7).

In these ways, CST affirms that justice requires the protection of human freedom.

At the same time, CST insists that the freedoms which must be protected for human beings are not just arbitrary or random.  Rather, they are those which we really need if we are going to be properly human.  I pointed out earlier, that justice depends on recognizing what is true about human beings (1.3.1).  It is the same with freedom.

Here is a simple illustration of this point.  If you go into a large supermarket, not only is there a very wide range of products, but there is often a large quantity of each particular product (e.g. tins of beans, oranges, 500-gram packets of spaghetti, etc.).  The bigger the quantity of, say, oranges, the more freedom you have – because you have complete freedom to choose any of the 2000 oranges on display.  If there were only 1000 oranges, you would have only half as much freedom.

In fact, of course, this is ridiculous – because, if you only want three oranges, it makes no difference to you if there are 1000 or 2000 oranges.  It is completely trivial, in relation to what really matters to you as a human being, or what will contribute to your human fulfilment, that you can choose from 2000 rather than 1000 oranges.

What this shows is that whether you or I have freedoms that are worth protecting cannot be worked out simply by adding together the things we can choose to do – because a lot of these, such as choosing among basically identical oranges, are trivial in relation to real human fulfilment.

Beyond this, some freedoms are to do things that are appallingly unjust or deeply destructive in other ways.  Rather than protect all these freedoms, what matters is that the law safeguards people’s freedoms to do things that really are important for human beings – such as to worship, to speak our minds, to bear children, to join with others in working for justice, to make art, and to dissent from what a government is doing.

But to say what is really important for human beings, we need to know what is true about human beings.  This is why, in CST, there is strong emphasis that affirmations about the freedoms that must be protected are inseparable from the truth about the human person.  Pope John Paul II, who came from Poland, was especially insistent on this point. This was in light, no doubt, of the experience of Communism in Poland, where very significant human freedoms were in fact suppressed during most of his adult life.



I said above that, compared with freedom to choose from among 2000 rather than 1000 oranges, some of the freedoms that really are important for human beings are:

  • freedom to worship
  • freedom to speak our minds
  • freedom to bear children
  • freedom to join with others in working for justice
  • freedom to make art
  • freedom to dissent from what a government is doing.

These are just a few examples.  Try to make two lists, of some freedoms that don’t matter much for human persons, and of some freedoms which you think are really important for us.

Can you think of possible human actions which people could have freedom in law to do, but which are very controversial, in that some people think the law should protect the freedom to do them and others think the opposite?

One example is use of recreational drugs.  In fact the law on these in Britain is ambiguous because it allows use of alcohol and nicotine (although both can be addictive) but not cannabis or cocaine.  Do you think freedom to use such drugs is an important one for human persons that the law should protect?


We shall return to this really important topic of freedom and its inherent connection with truth in Unit 4.  At this point, however, it will be helpful to do the following reading, in order to consolidate and build on what you have just read on this screen.

The two sections in this reading have the headings ‘The Value and Limits of Freedom’, and ‘The Bond Uniting Freedom with Truth…’  (The second brings in also the concept of ‘natural law’.  You are familiar with what Catholic teaching means by this from screen 1.2.4, on the sources of CST.)


Reading (4pp)

Compendium, ##135-143 (Chap. 3, sec. III C)




End of 1.3.5

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Module B outline

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