The foundation of a democratic constitutional state is the acknowledgment of fundamental and human rights. The use of these rights is limited by the fundamental and human rights of third parties. The boundary is established by law or by the decisions of the national constitutional court and—in Europe—by the European Tribunal for Human Rights. Both legislation and also decisions of the constitutional courts are subject to societal discussion, so that the boundaries may shift.
Of course, the developments described as “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are unusual, since they try to establish these boundaries apart from legislative procedures or court decisions. An ideological elite asserts what must be regarded as good or bad in order to pass muster before the self-appointed tribunal of ideology.
We intend to speak about this topic with the dogmatic theologian and historian of dogma, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Cardinal Müller.
Lothar C. Rilinger: The right to freedom of opinion is regarded as a human right. Can you envisage this human right being the inalienable foundation of a democratic constitutional state?
Gerhard Cardinal Müller: What the state is and what it can undertake with regard to its citizens is debated. After the negative experiences with the overreaching of a totalitarian state, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany takes as its starting point the inviolability of human dignity, which is the foundation and the limit of the exercise of all executive power.
Yet on account of our philosophical and religious differences about what a human being is, even here there is no general consensus about the subsequent fundamental rights. What we consider non-negotiable from the tradition of natural law and Christianity is viewed with contempt in many Islamic states or in Communist China as a cultural import from the “West”. I think, though, that there is no getting around the rational truth: the state exists for human beings, and not the human being for the state. The citizen is not the property of the rulers, but rather the people are the sovereign to whom the government owes an accounting. No man has the right to decide about another man’s life, bodily integrity or freedom of conscience and of belief. Nor should we talk about a restriction of fundamental human rights. Since they belong to us by nature or, as we understand it, are bestowed on us by our God and Creator, they cannot be abolished or restricted. But the misuse of them or the use of them to the detriment of others can be sanctioned by law. In the event of wars, catastrophes or pandemics, measures necessary for the common good should be taken by the legitimate authorities. However, the coronavirus crisis must not be the convenient occasion to pry democracy loose and to upend the freedom of the civil society in favor of the patronizing aspirations of a self-appointed elite which intends to teach the wider populace what is good for them. The state is a sort of teacher, but not a bad one that treats its citizens like “stupid schoolchildren” and leads them by the nose.
Rilinger: Isn’t the state obliged to grant to its citizens the human right to freedom of opinion, not just for legal reasons, but also in order to make it possible for them to develop personally?
Cdl. Müller: A state that is built on the principles of a parliamentary democracy has no right to grant something to free human beings. “Granting” and “withdrawing” come from the dictionary of autocratic dictatorships that intend to reeducate their citizens. In the name of their higher reason, opinion makers consider themselves justified and even morally obligated to exercise absolute control over the views and consciences of those under their care. In a constitutional state—as opposed to a monolithic ideological state—it is up to the three separate powers to protect and guarantee the exercise of the citizens’ natural rights. Nor do we need any politicians, judges or their spokesmen in the national media to treat us like underage children, sometimes strictly, other times on a long leash. It makes you wish that many propagandists of “happiness for humanity through government” would first complete their studies or gain some professional experience before pondering ever-new prohibitions or higher taxes and issuing their botched gender-sensitive language as “higher wisdom.”
Rilinger: Must the right to freedom of opinion be granted without any restriction whatsoever?
Cdl. Müller: An opinion is a mental construct that takes place in our head. Philosophical epistemology has labored, from Aristotle to Kant and down to modern linguistics, over the question about the origin and the criteria of thought. And now mere politicians, who cannot even report their additional income correctly, come in and want to limit and curtail intellectual freedom. If someone doesn’t know that thoughts are free by nature, he must be limited already. Whether we express our opinions in words and deeds depends on our free will. Within the limits of governmental authority, it is up to legislation and jurisdiction to decide whether a misdemeanor or even a crime has been committed here against a third party or the common good. I must tolerate a different opinion, philosophy, religion, just as others have to bear with my fundamental metaphysical and moral convictions, without boasting about the right to be able to terrorize me because they feel offended by them.
In many states there is a right to sue if I feel offended by someone else’s opinion, simply because I have no arguments against it. That, of course, is a dictatorship of sentiments, even if it is dressed up in formal law. Really, it is absurd that today, once again, we have to defend the limits of governmental authority as well as the freedom to state one’s opinion publicly and, in Europe, freedom of religion. The resistance fighter from the “Kreisau Circle”, Count Helmuth James von Moltke (1907-1945), according to the testimony of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., was sentenced to death by Roland Freisler in the [Nazi] People’s Court for “plans to rechristianize” against the monolithic state. (See Alfred Delp, Mit gefesselten Händen [Frankfurt am Main, 2007], 226.)
In a pluralistic civil society and in a democratic state, I as a Christian must tolerate the fact that a non-Christian does not share my faith in the Triune God or even considers it to be logically contradictory. He also has the right to communicate his opinion to me, if I ask him about it. But he makes himself morally or even legally culpable if for this reason he insults me personally, calls me a blockhead and tries to forbid me to instruct Christian children in a faith that he considers contradictory.
Indeed, there are two sides to freedom of speech: my conscience about the truth, and tolerance toward third parties. Currently, because of the aggressive agenda of dechristianization in the institutions of the European Union, in the Biden administration, in Islamist and atheist states, Christians’ freedom of belief and of worship is indisputably threatened in subtle or brutal ways. It is contrary to natural ethics and also to the Christian ethos to insult someone personally because of his homosexual feelings. But it is also a crime by the state to impose fines or imprisonment for proclaiming the biblical truth about the sinfulness of extramarital sexual acts, especially between persons of the same sex, as the so-called anti-discrimination laws declare “as a matter of policy and as right and proper.”
If the laws of a state remove natural fundamental rights, we can no longer speak about a democracy in the classical sense.
Rilinger: Even if the state may indicate limits to freedom of opinion, from what must these limits derive their justification?
Cdl. Müller: As I said, freedom of belief, of conscience and of opinion has no limits, because it is metaphysically founded on the nature of the human mind. By “opinions” here we do not mean taste; it is useless to argue about that. It is a matter of one’s foundational position to the meaning of existence and to the origin of our moral actions, which are founded on philosophy and religion—regardless of the particular school of thought that individual human beings follow. But even in everyday life we cannot say that a red light is a restriction of freedom of movement. Certainly the symbolism of the three colors used for traffic lights is positively established by the legitimate authority.
But civic obedience here is quite easy, because my moral reason forbids behavior that puts others in danger and myself, too. My freedom of movement serves the constructive purpose, for example, to travel to my family, to church, to my workplace or to a well-deserved vacation spot. But I do not travel in order to collide with others, to do them harm or to dispute their right to their legitimate place. All our fundamental rights are connected with consideration for others. A human being is a person, but also a social being. My right to self-preservation and self-fulfillment is intrinsically connected with respect for the life of others and, to use Christian language, with love of neighbor. A neighbor is not a competitor but a friend, too.
Thus there is even a bit of humor and empathy too in these grim battles over my right against your right, and our politicians resist somewhat their urge to regulate and their desire to patronize.
Rilinger: Because of the right to freedom of speech, must the state accept even statements which offend, shock or disturb the state or a segment of the population?
Cdl. Müller: As was said, crimes against another human being and society as a whole deserve moral condemnation and legal punishment. In the case of words, it is more difficult to decide. If you are talking about incitement to criminal acts, then the matter is clear. Or if the most serious crimes, such as Auschwitz, the murder of the Armenians, Katyn or genocides are shamelessly denied, there must be a criminal prosecution, too.
Of course, we must be careful in evaluating events in the distant past. Who is going to object morally or even take legal action against someone who describes Caesar’s bloody conquest of Gaul positively or critically? Against someone who defends or downplays Stalin’s prison camps, we should not call in the attorney, but rather the historian, and we should remind him that there is a final justice in the presence of God, which cannot be evaded with lies and propaganda.
Rilinger: Do you consider the right to express one’s opinion as the core content of an intellectual discussion?
Cdl. Müller: The mind and freedom are inseparable. To me it is unthinkable that the police and the district attorney’s office should be the ones chiefly responsible for academic debate. It is sheer decadence when professors are invited to speak and then are thrown out according to the intellectual standards of gender activists, Black Lives Matter zealots, and LGBT fanatics.
Still, Socrates was sentenced to death by mediocre power politicians, and Aristotle avoided democracy, which had degenerated into mob rule, “so as not to give the Athenians a second chance to sin against philosophy.”
Rilinger: The state can define the limits of freedom of opinion. Can you envisage an ideological elite defining what may be regarded as politically correct and therefore can be used, without these standards being either codified by law or established by judicial decisions?
Cdl. Müller: That is being attempted on a grand scale. The American super-billionaires, Big Tech Giants and the pharmaceutical industry are trying, by way of their foundations and the post-coronavirus opportunities for the “Great Reset”, to blanket the world with their impoverished view of man and their economically restricted worldview, in union with the Communist Chinese model. It is so nice to belong to a “community” in which all the members are alike, think and feel alike, are indignant about those who deviate from the party line and admire the brave heroes who follow the will of the powerful.
Rilinger: Do you think it is justified in the context of the phenomenon of cancel culture to expurgate works of world literature if an ideological elite thinks that certain passages are not in keeping with political correctness?
Cdl. Müller: That is simply barbaric: intellectual vandalism, an imitation of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century along the lines of Orwell’s nightmares. People should talk instead about “cancel vulture” or about “political respectless”.
Cancel culture is just another name for the brainwashing that the Communists in China and the Soviet Union developed to the utmost perfection. What happened in the end to those who threw books by renowned authors into the fire because of the “un-German” passages in them? Instead of brainwashing others, these terrorists should start thinking themselves for once and not underestimate the critical abilities of others. I do not need a Fouché, a Goebbels or a Lenin in order to read works of world literature without endangering my mental hygiene.
Rilinger: As a professor emeritus of dogmatic theology and the history of dogma, and as honorary professor of the University of Munich, do you think it is justifiable to bring in criteria such as political correctness or the use of non-official gender language in order to judge the value of academic studies?
Cdl. Müller: Gender language is not a scientific criterion but rather an instrument of domination for the mediocre, the intellectually less gifted and authoritarian leaders with a [Nazi] block-warden mentality. The vast majority of Germans reject the misuse of their language in order to terrorize people intellectually.
R. Do you see a danger that the ideological restriction of freedom of opinion will be detrimental to the way people relate to each other and to academic freedom, and that intellectual discussion will suffer as a result?
Cdl. Müller: This is the perpetual debate between the spirit of freedom and the narrow-mindedness of authority, between individuality and compulsory lockstep.
Rilinger: Thank you very much, Your Eminence.
(Editor’s note: Translated by Michael J. Miller. Published in English with the kind permission of the interviewer)
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