Pope Francis has been bestowed almost mythical status as a champion of liberal values since being appointed leader of the Catholic Church. But his most recent comments are disturbing, and they express an ideology that is still rooted in a rigid, institutional religion.
In speaking about the terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo that killed 17 people in total, Francis made these comments which I will address below:
“Everyone has not only the freedom and the right but the obligation to say what he thinks for the common good,” Francis said. “We have the right to have this freedom openly without offending.”
“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
“There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others,” he said. “They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”
Some of those statements are quite shocking.
There is a fundamental difference between the legal and moral right to free expression and the possibility that a violent person will assault you for exercising that right. It is possible that such an assault can occur as a result of what you say, but that is very different from saying that there is a “limit” on free speech.
By declaring a limit on free speech, you are declaring that certain acts of expression are unacceptable which in turn implies that a person who is attacked over speech of that sort would be considered the one morally culpable for that violence. To in any way imply that you are the one morally at fault for the attack, would be to say that the violence was justified because the cause of the violence was the victim rather than not the attacker.
And remember that we are not discussing an issue where a person was detained for making comments that clearly indicated that they were going to physically attack anyone. That sort of speech receives a response due to it indicating an imminent threat, not because the speech itself is a problem. But the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were not assaulting anyone or threatening to do so (and even if someone did do such a thing, a preemptive mass murder would not be the appropriate response). They ridicule politicians, war-mongers, religions, and social injustice alike as a way to criticize, as well as for providing a laugh.
Declaring that a person simply “cannot” insult or make fun of a faith that someone else believes in is a very broad description of unacceptable speech. It is very easy for religious believers to take offense, so anything they dislike or that is critical of their beliefs can can “offend”. Under such rules society could not challenge established ideas and delusions or try to demystify them and expose their absurdity through humor. This is why free speech must include the freedom to offend.
To be clear however, Francis also condemned the terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and said that religion can never be used to justify violence. Yet by declaring a severe limit to free speech and implying that a person is justified in physically harming another over what they choose to express, he indeed opens an obvious way by which violence can be morally justified. His comments were the equivalent of saying “It was wrong of Lee Harvey Oswald to murder Mr. Kennedy. But Mr. Kennedy asked for it because he said something that offended Mr. Oswald.” Is such a statement genuinely condemning the actions of the murderer, or would people be right to interpret it as justifying those actions? It seems as though Pope Francis wants to have it both ways.
Furthermore, it was certainly odd to hear the peace-loving Pope Francis say that a person who insults his mother can “expect a punch”. One would certainly think that a person who has dedicated their life to the teachings of Jesus – which disallow violence even when physical violence is used against yourself – would not say that they would become violent over a mere insult.
Francis may have said that light-heartedly and may not actually hit a person over an insult like that, but apparently the point he intended by the example was very serious.
After mentioning that there are people who “speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others”, he likens it to the hypothetical example of him punching his friend Dr. Gasparri if the man insulted his mother; and regarding people who “speak badly about religions” Pope Francis declares that “what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother.”
Stop for a moment and consider what Francis is saying there.
This is not a meaningless joke. He was using it to make a point about insults to religion: a plain statement that violence is morally justifiable because of insults. That is not a moral proposition what should be taken lightly. And how severe is this violence? Francis jokes that he would punch a man for speaking an insult about his mother. So then what manner of violence is justified by a person who insults the Apostle Muhammad, the greatest and most perfectly moral prophet of your Lord, your GOD, who created you and to whom you shall return in the end?
The implications are scary, and I think we have seen those implications manifested in the events in Paris last week.
When speaking of his hypothetical violent reaction to the insult against his mother, the Pope said that his decision to punch the man would be “normal”.
Normal? Perhaps. But it shouldn’t be. Regardless of how “normal” such reactions may be from the view of a particular ideological stance, it is not morally right, because no one, from Pope Francis to myself to cartoonists in Paris deserve to have our voices cut down by the gunfire that asserts “limits” on our speech.