Barely a week since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the additional murders that followed, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, has made some remarks on the broader issue of free speech and the appropriate response to insults to one’s religion. According to the Associated Press, he spoke in an interview aboard the papal airplane and opined that there should indeed be limits to free speech, which he illustrated with this example:
If my good friend Dr. Gasparri [an aide to the Pope] says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. 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. 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.
It may be surprising to many to hear Pope Francis speak uncritically of punching someone for merely delivering an insult or curse. What happened to turning the other cheek? That was, after all, kind of a big theme with the gentleman who started this whole Christianity racket (in which—full disclosure—yours truly endeavors to sometimes participate). What was his name again?
In fairness, one has to presume a certain amount of levity in the example that the Vicar of Christ is providing here, but that doesn’t necessarily make things better, overall. In the past eight days 17 innocent people were murdered by jihadists in France in response to a perceived religious insult. That’s not terribly funny. Even less amusing to the pope would surely be the fact that countless Christians in the Islamic world (from Pakistan to Egypt and beyond) are regularly set upon and murdered on the pretext that they have insulted or blasphemed against Islam in some way. I say “pretext,” but potentially on occasion it’s not a pretext: sometimes someone may indeed have damaged a Qur’an, intentionally or unintentionally, or crossed some other line of “disrespect” to Islam (e.g. talking about Jesus to the wrong person). My position would be that they do not deserve to be killed for this, whether they are guilty of it or not. I also don’t think they should be thrown into prison for such things. Pope Francis on the other hand seems to be leaving fellow Christians somewhat unclear as to where he stands on the subject.
In addition to that, with the example he gives of punching Dr. Gasparri for cursing his mother, I would suggest that Pope Francis is guilty of some rather clumsy and muddy thinking, because given the context of the Charlie Hebdo situation he is conflating two quite different things.
If someone you know personally comes up to you and starts directing insults or curses directly to your face, then there is no question but that you are being very deliberately provoked. It is hard to avoid reacting badly to such a provocation (though notwithstanding this there is a sizable body of thought in Christian tradition that would say you really ought to try, and in any case the law in our Western tradition also calls you the aggressor if you, like Pope Francis, are quick to throw the first punch).
However, this is a very different quality of insult to that which is delivered by a cartoonist in a satirical periodical that you are under no obligation to read. Riots and violence have also been “provoked” in the Muslim world on occasion by random insults delivered by individuals on the other side of the globe, individuals that the supposedly aggrieved parties will never have to meet, talk to or deal with in any way. Does any of this make any sense? Does it conform to Pope Francis’ notion of how people ought to behave? Even on a practical level, which approach is easier? That is, to police everyone’s publications and statements for possible insults to Islam (or other religions) or to simply and strongly state that violence is always completely unacceptable as a response to such perceived insults?
If Pope Francis, in his position, was to make that latter statement, and call upon Islamic leaders across the world to publicly endorse it and promulgate it, then at least he would have the moral high ground, and, if he made any progress, it would be to the benefit of Christians in Muslim-dominated lands.
Instead, he is apparently (like quite a few others) endeavoring to ply a middle ground in some kind of appeasement to those who either are doing or might be contemplating violence in response to religious insults. This will not succeed in helping those who are falling victim to that kind of violence.
On another score, Pope Francis may be feeling that he can even find some common ground with Muslims in opposition to the dominant secularism and often aggressive atheism of modern Western Europe. However, on this too he is going in exactly the wrong direction. By associating the Roman Catholic Church even vaguely with the same intolerance of free expression that is being seen in the Muslim community, he only adds fuel to the fire of those who say that the problem is religion in general, that it is anachronistic or barbaric or just past its sell-by date, and that it’s time to leave it all behind. Christians would benefit more, surely, by making clear through words and example that this is not how believers in God need to behave.
If one’s beliefs are mocked, one can respond with words if the accusations rise to the level of deserving a response, or, if the mockeries are boorish, they can best be ignored, as boors in the end expose themselves as such to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. You can go right to the Bible, and to the Book of Proverbs, for advice to deal with such things in exactly this way.
And wouldn’t that be the kind of advice and example that it would behoove Pope Francis to give?
The image instead of this Bergoglio imbroglio, of Pope Francis punching out Dr. Gasparri for cursing his mother, has made for plenty of headlines today, but it will not help anyone. Least of all will it help those very real people dying on this very day for allegedly insulting or offending someone’s religion.