The ‘Regulatory Body’: The boot of authority reborn

Maria is a Catholic with degrees in theology from Australia and a particular interest in the medieval history of philosophy

I believe our country will take a retrograde step in the annals of history. I am not referring to the mythical spectre of medieval authoritarian control, for medieval thinkers so valued debating strange, new, inconvenient and challenging ideas that they created the university. What I mean by a retrograde step is the revitalisation of political control that impugned and criminalised unwelcome points of view, a feature of both the totalitarian left and the right in the 20th century.

Writing in the 19th century about the idea of the university, Cardinal Henry Newman alerted us to the danger of conceding our freedom to express ideas, however controversial, to some predatory authority.

He writes,

“Many a man has ideas, which he hopes are true, and useful for his day, but he is not confident about them, and wishes to have them discussed. He is willing, or rather would be thankful, to give them up, if they can be proved to be erroneous or dangerous, and by means of controversy he obtains his end. He is answered, and he yields; or on the contrary he is considered safe. He would not dare do this, if he knew an authority, which was supreme and final, was watching every word he said, and made signs of assent or dissent to each sentence, as he uttered it. Then indeed he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him.” end quote.

(Chapter V, Apologia Pro Vita Sua).

Clearly, such an authority would deny man the essential hallmark of his species, to which his faculty of speech exists to bear witness to his intellect and reason. Thence flows his naturally free desire to speak his own thoughts.

Granted, common sense and current laws tell us freedom of speech is not an absolute right, for there are reasonable limits. For example, we cannot shout “fire” in a theatre when there is no fire, threaten the life of another, gather a mob for violence, defame someone’s good name, vilify someone’s race. This is easy to follow; we do not really have to think about it and the banality of common discourse is not frustrated. Such limitations simply arise from common sense, and so the vast majority of ordinary people can enter the realm of controversy without fear.

However, likely new restrictions on criticisms of religion do not fit with our current commonsense limits on freedom of speech. For it is part and parcel of our western intellectual tradition, as a feature of the medieval era, that there is free criticism of the ideas of religion. It was hotly contested debates in the spirit of truth-seeking about divine and worldly matters, that our intellectual tradition developed onwards, all the way to the Enlightenment till today. Such restrictions on the free discussion of religion are alien to western intellectual freedom.

It is true that medieval religious debate was, for the most part, a clerical pastime, due to the high degree of literacy it demanded. Therefore, it seems a strange thing that, today, the free criticism of religious ideas must be denied the ordinary man, despite his high education and literacy. Moreover, his betters meet and determine that the ordinary man today cannot be trusted. Despite our centuries of intellectual freedom, the ordinary man’s ‘freely’ spoken word must now be scrutinized by the new Regulatory Body. It will guide his thoughts on the limits of religious criticism and punish him if he falls and does not recant. Sadly, he is now, unlike his medieval forebears, to be ‘under the lash’; with his freedom of intellect and speech ‘beaten out of him’.