While travelling to the Philippines, Pope Francis held his usual round of questions and answers with the journalists accompanying him. One of them asked whether freedom of speech, which is a fundamental right, includes the right to ridicule someone else’s religion. His answer was rather unlike what one would have expected:
[Question:] Yesterday morning, during mass, you spoke of religious liberty as a fundamental human right. With respect to the different religions, up to what point can we go in terms of freedom of speech, that also is a fundamental human right?
[Pope:] Thank you for this intelligent question! I believe that they are both fundamental human rights: religious freedom and freedom of speech. We cannot…you are French, right? Well, then, let’s go Paris, let’s speak clearly. We cannot hide a truth today: each one has the right to practice his religion, without causing offense, freely, and we all wish to do this.
Secondly, we cannot offend, make war, kill, in the name of religion, that is, in the name of God.
That which is happening today surprises us, but let us always think of our history: how many wars of religion have we known! Think only of the Night of Saint Bartholomew [St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre]! How can we understand that. We also have had our sinners regarding this, but we cannot murder in the name of God, it’s an aberration. To murder in the name of God is an aberration. I believe that is the main thing on religious liberty: we must practice it in liberty, without causing offense, but without imposing or murdering.
Freedom of speech…Each person has not only the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what he thinks to aid the common good: the obligation! If we think that what a member of parliament or a Senator says – and not only they, but so many others – is not the good path, that he does not collaborate wirh the common good, we have the obligation of saying it openly. This freedom is necessary, but without offending. Because it is true that one should not react violently, but if Mr. Gasbarri [note: voyage planner, standing beside the pope], who is a great friend, says a swear word about my mother, he can expect to receive a punch! It’s normal… We cannot provoke, we cannot insult the faith of others, we cannot mock faith.
Pope Benedict, in an address I cannot recall well [note: the Regensburg address] had spoken of this post-positivist mindset, of this post-positivist metaphysics that led, in the end, to believe that all religions, or all religious expressions, are a kind of sub-culture: they are tolerated, but they are irrelevant, they are not in the culture of the Enlightenment. This is a legacy of the Enlightenment.
There are so many people who speak ill of religions, who mock them, who play with the religion of others. They provoke…and it can happen that which could happen to Mr. Gasbarri if he said anything about my mother. There is a limit! Each religion has dignity, each religion that respects human life and man, and I cannot mock it…it’s a limit. I take the example of the limit to say that, in the matter of the freedom of speech, there are limits, as in the case of my mother.”
Not quite clear what he meant. Is it normal and understandable that people react angrily or even violently when one insults their mothers? Certainly it is. But is it right to react in that way? Is it legitimate to give someone who insults us a punch on the nose? Is it even possible to go further and kill the person that provokes us, like the Islamist gunmen did with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists? It is hard to imagine that this is what the Pope wanted to say.
The truth is that if we want to live together peacefully, we should avoid insulting each other gratuitously. The issue of Religion is particularly sensitive; anyone criticizing another person’s deeply held religious faith should therefore use the greatest possible politeness and sensitivity.
Gratuitously mocking another man’s religion as Charlie Hebdo does means to insult him personally. And if the law of the land affords him no protection against such insults, it means that he is without any defence against what is a public humiliation. It is impossible to retaliate in kind against persons who take pride in having no similar sensitivity. This meant that ultimately Muslims had the choice of either meekly accepting whatever insult the makers of Charlie Hebdo chose to impart on them, or to react with violence. This does not provide any legitimacy to last week’s terror attack, but it makes them to some extent understandable.
A great deal of responsibility for the heinous incident goes therefore to the French judiciary system and liberal-leftist politicians who for many years did nothing to protect religious believers in France against the provocations of Charlie Hebdo and similarly irresponsible persons. This created a completely uneven situation in which one specific group within society could feel free to insult and provoke other groups with absolute impunity. And quite obviously, once Charlie Hebdo had realized that they had absolutely no santions to fear, they became ever more “courageous”…
It is one of the great cultural achievements of the modern State that it claims and effectively possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. But that monopoly can itself only be legitimate if equal protection is given to all groups in society. A situation in which one small group of persons effectively enjoys the privilege of humiliating others with impunity was bound to lead to the outburst of violence we have seen. The only way to prevent further damage is for the French state to adopt a new law that gives equal protection to all against this kind of humiliations. The true purpose of an anti-blasphemy law is not to protect God (who might take care of that himself, if He wants to) but to protect social peace.