Some years back, a representative of the Holy See spoke out in a United Nations General Assembly session about the importance of freedom of the press:
the right to freedom of thought and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to exchange ideas and information and the consequent freedom of the press: the observance of this right is necessary for the fulfillment of each person, for the respect of cultures and for the progress of science.
These comments in support of press freedom were in step with various church documents of the post-Vatican II era. But with the Vatican’s decision to indict two Italian journalists -- Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi – for using leaked documents in two books that evidently embarrassed and angered powerful people in the Holy See, we take a step back in time.
To 1832, for example, when Pope Gregory XVI assailed the “harmful and never sufficiently denounced freedom to publish any writings whatsoever.” Or to Pope Piux IX’s Syllabus of Errors, which faulted “openly and publicly manifesting whatsoever opinions and thoughts.”
Simply put, this indictment is an attempt at censorship. It won’t work: It will multiply the sales of the books in question, for starters. It will invigorate other journalists to probe further. And it undermines the church’s effort to champion human rights, including the right to freedom of religion.
David E. DeCosse makes the connection between these two rights in his excellent 2007 article in Theological Studies, “Freedom of the Press and Catholic Social Thought: Reflections on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States.” Writing on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, he notes that
the declaration’s powerful justification of the right to religious freedom on the basis of human dignity as known by reason and revelation provided a general theoretical basis for a deeper Catholic affirmation of other modern constitutional rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Moreover, the declaration established freedom as a condition for the human person to find truth and placed this search for truth in the context of the person’s social nature.”
He adds that John XXIII’s Pacem in terris affirmed a “right to be informed truthfully about public events.”
The criminal charges against the two Italian journalists boil down to this: they practiced journalism. They found sources and persuaded them to give up confidential documents. That allowed them to report, in a more precise way, on important matters of public interest. A good portion of the reporters I know would have criminal records if this were a crime.
Criticism of what’s happened here seems curiously muffled – perhaps because Pope Francis has inspired so much hope. I’ve shared that excitement, and still do.
And I hope that Pope Francis will come to recognize this indictment for what it is: An attempt to interfere with the fundamental human right "to exchange information and ideas" -- and a step backward for the church.