In response to a question from a French journalist on the plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis said something that may sound shocking to those of us from liberal societies. I’m using the word “liberal” here in a classical sense; that is, not merely in reference to the political left, but to the over-arching social ideal of personal choice and autonomy as being among the highest goods, based on an implicit definition of freedom as essentially the right to do or say as one pleases.
“In freedom of expression there are limits.” That’s the potentially startling comment in soundbite form, if you will. As always, context matters, although in this case it doesn’t necessarily make it less startling to either French or American ears. The context was a question about possible tensions between religious freedom and freedom of expression, which the pope immediately heard – and unpacked – as a reference to recent deadly attack on the office of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo in revenge for its ridicule of the prophet Mohammed. In response, Pope Francis first of all reiterated what he has said several times before: killing in the name of God is never justified. And he went on to add that neither is insulting other people’s faith.
Somehow, because of a slightly odd but lighthearted illustration about hypothetically punching his friend and colleague next to him for insulting his mother, the response was read by some as justifying the attack. This led Fr. Thomas Rosica to issue the following clarification on behalf of the Vatican press office:
Pope Francis was asked by a French journalist about the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression. The Pope replied that both are “fundamental human rights” and stressed that killing in the name of God “is an aberration.” But he said there were limits to that freedom of expression. By way of example he referred to his close colleague and organizer of Papal trips, Dr. Alberto Gasparri, who was standing next to the Holy Father on the plane. The Pope said if “his good friend Dr Gasparri” says a curse word against his mother, he can “expect a punch”, and at that point he gestured with a pretend punch towards him, saying: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
The Pope’s expression is in no way intended to be interpreted as a justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week. The Pope’s words about Dr. Gasbarri were spoken colloquially and in a friendly, intimate matter among colleagues and friends on the journey. His words mean that there are limits to humor and satire particularly in the ways that we speak about matters of faith and belief. Pope Francis’ response might be similar to something each of us has felt when those dearest to us are insulted or harmed. The Pope’s free style of speech, especially in situations like the press conference must be taken a face value and not distorted or manipulated. The Pope has spoken out clearly against the terror and violence that occurred in Paris and in other parts of the world. Violence begets violence. Pope Francis has not advocated violence with his words on the flight.
The Coptic patriarch as well as another Coptic bishop agree with Pope Francis, saying that heaping up insults really doesn’t help and that freedom should come with responsibility. Also in agreement, remarkably, is Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who had said even earlier that Muslims were right to be offended by lewd images of their most cherished figure. There is no reason this should be construed as suggesting in any way, shape or form that killing people who produced them was an appropriate response.
This is actually underscored in a way by the obvious point to be made about disproportionality. Of course the killing was more gravely wrong than the original offense. A consequence of this that the attackers utterly failed to consider – maybe could not in their myopic rush to revenge – is that by responding so disproportionately, they have robbed their fellow Muslims of the ability to take any offense at such insults without it being heard as an endorsement of terrorism. (And before anyone comments that Muslims are fair game, it bears reminding that Charlie Hebdo has been known for equal-opportunity mockery of religion in general.)
It can justly be said that silence would be a victory for terrorism – though this would be more true of saying things that may need to be said, or simply reporting facts. There are wise and unwise ways to speak. Of course, speaking wisely does not mean avoiding anything that might upset people, but it does mean avoiding being gratuitously offensive, as the aforementioned Coptic bishop put it. That’s the difference – an enormous one in terms of maturity as well as morality – between substantial critique and crude mockery. The former is in fact necessary to any meaningful interreligious dialogue in the long run; the latter discredits its own qualification to dialogue. It’s good to defend freedom of speech, but better to do so without thinking it means everything that can be said should.
A publication like Charlie Hebdo may routinely invite polemic, and its attackers have returned the invitation and then some, pushing the world at large into an absurd polemic that assumes gross insults for their own sake and murderous responses to such cannot both be wrong. Acceptance of that absurdity would really be a victory for terrorism.