Taking the lead from the text of the weekend Gospel, let us take a moment to reflect on and celebrate the precious gift of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘freedom of speech’, an important symbol of our dignity and liberty as children of God.
St Mark tells the story of the healing of a man “with an impediment in his speech”. After Jesus touches the man’s ear and tongue, “the ligament of his tongue was loosened and he spoke clearly”.
Clear unimpeded speech can be an important source of healing and catharsis for people, including members of the Church. Those of us following the international news media may be somewhat shocked at the torrent of abuse being directed at the leaders of the Church, who, as Pope Francis says, “showed no care for the little ones” and allowed sexual abuse to occur. Here we find not simply wild excessive anger. We have arrived at a moment when, for the victims of abuse and their families, “the ligament of their tongue is being loosened and they now speak clearly.”
In the world outside the Church, here at home, we have heard the heated recriminations made by the majority union as several hundred employees of the Petrotrin Refinery at Pointe-à-Pierre are at the point of losing their jobs.
We have also had the recent Pride March in Port of Spain by members of the local LGBT+ community in support of their basic rights, a march hailed by the Archbishop of Port of Spain as evidence that our democracy in Trinidad and Tobago is alive and well.
Unfortunately, not all citizens are capable of articulate self-expression. Not all of us can easily or successfully stand up for our rights. A recent newspaper story of a 65-year-old-man hauled before a San Fernando magistrate bears testimony to this fact. He was charged with the use of obscene language and brandishing a weapon in a confrontation with guards at the General Hospital.
These guards, he complained, judged him because of how he was dressed and therefore disrespected him, one threatening to beat him with a baton. All he was trying to do was to be with his ailing sister at the Accident and Emergency Department.
It was later pointed out that he was denied entry due to their ‘one-visitor-to-a-bed’ policy. Clearly this man was not able to plead his case clearly. Resorting to obscene language and brandishing of a weapon points to the fact of having “an impediment in his speech”.
In the Church’s social teaching tradition, beginning with the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, freedom of expression has always been seen as a necessary corollary to one of the most basic and important freedoms we have as human beings—the right to religious freedom.
The document asserts that people have a God-given duty to search for the truth and embrace that truth once it is found (2, DH). It asserts that truth is to be sought publicly in free dialogue with others (3, DH) and that religious bodies, have an inherent right, not simply to come together around a common faith but to proclaim and recommend that faith to others (4, DH). Perhaps the time has come for the local Church to see the creation of truly free speech as an essential part of its Pastoral Priorities.
Our Trinbagonian society has been known in the past for deep fractiousness and divisiveness around important social issues. Perhaps our parishes can assist somewhat by helping parishioners and other citizens find effective ways of speaking to state institutions and revendicating their rights.
Perhaps the time has come for the Church to view the encouragement of meaningful, respectful social protest as something as important as its catechetical ministry.