Pope Francis stirred controversy today in remarks on the papal plane from Colombo to Manila by telling journalists that it was “normal” for an insult to provoke a strong reaction, and that there are “limits” to freedom of expression, adding: “You cannot make fun of the faith of others”. Some commentators have interpreted what he said as giving succour to the notion that those who give gratuitous offense should expect retaliation.
Yet his words, printed in full below (H/T Gerry O’Connell at America magazine), make clear that he believes free speech cannot be understood as purely a question of license: its purpose is to build the common good of society. When it is used to insult and mock, it produces a reaction (the Pope jokingly used the example of a man punching someone who insults his mother). That does not justify, as he makes abundantly clear, a reaction of violence; but nor is it enough to declare that freedom of speech is unlimited (and in practice, in the law of most nations, it is not).
His statements can be summarized as follows:
- Everyone has the right to practice their faith in freedom.
- It is wrong to commit violence in the name of God and religion.
- Freedom of expression is necessary to build the common good of society.
- But it is important not to use this freedom to offend and insult.
- When this happens, it is “normal” for those insulted to react.
- Some things are sacred, and it is wrong to insult and mock religion, contrary to what many in post-Enlightenment societies believe.
In these statements, Francis has nailed a truth which has been lacking in the discussions following the appalling massacres in Paris, namely that freedom of expression is an inadequate basis for building society. Without respect for the beliefs of others and self-restraint in the exercise of freedom of expression, there can be no peace.
What, then, are the limits that the law should impose? When does self-restraint turn into censorship? Francis does not enter these questions; he leaves that debate to others. His concern is to name some essential truths which should guide our discussion in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.
Pope Francis’s words on the papal plane:
Maillard: Holy Father, yesterday at mass you spoke about religious freedom as a fundamental human right. But in the respect for the different religions, up to what point can one go in freedom of expression? That too is a fundamental human right.
Pope. Thanks for the question, it’s an intelligent one. I believe that both are fundamental human rights, religious liberty and liberty of expression. One cannot — but let’s think — you are French? Let’s go to Paris, let’s speak clearly. One cannot hide a truth: everyone has the right to practice one’s religion, one’s own religion without giving offense. Freely. That’s how we do it, we want everyone to do that. Second: One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God. To us, that which happens now, it stuns us. But let’s think about our own history: how many wars of religion have we had? You may think of the night of St. Bartholomew; how can this be understood? We too were sinners in this. But one cannot kill in the name of God. This is an aberration. To kill in the name of God is an aberration. I believe that this is the principal point in terms of religious liberty. One has freedom in this, but without imposing or killing in the name of religion.
As for freedom of expression: each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation! Let’s think, if a member of parliament or a senator doesn’t say what he thinks is the right path then he does not collaborate for the common good. Not only these, but many others too. We have the obligation to say openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offense, because it is true, one cannot react violently. But if Dr. Gasbarri (the papal trip organizer who was standing beside him), a great friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him. But it’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. Pope Benedict in a speech, I don’t remember exactly where, he spoke of this post-positivist mentality, of post-positivist metaphysics, that led to the belief that in the end religions, religious expressions, are a kind of subculture, which are tolerated but are of little value, are not on the Enlightenment culture. And this is part of the heritage of the Enlightenment. And so many people who speak badly about other religions, or religions [in general], they make fun of, let’s say toy with [make into toys] other people’s religions, these people provoke and there can occur what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother. That is, there is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects life, human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit and I have taken this sense of limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that in regard to my mom. I don’t know if I have managed to answer the question.
On the plane back from Manila to Rome, Francis was asked to clarify his position.
Valentina Alazraki Crastich (Televisa): On the flight from Sri Lanka you used the image of the response that this poor man (Alberto Gasbarri, organizer of papal trips) might have merited if he insulted your mother. Your words were not well understood by everyone in the world and seemed to justify in some way the use of violence in the face of provocation. Could you explain a little better what you meant to say?
Pope: In theory we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation, in theory yes, it is not a good thing, one shouldn’t do it. In theory we can say what the Gospel says, that we should turn the other cheek. In theory we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. But in theory we all agree. But we are human and there’s prudence which is a virtue of human coexistence. I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously because I risk making him/her angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just. But that’s human. For this reason I say that freedom of expression must take account of the human reality and for this reason one must be prudent. It’s a way of saying that one must be educated, prudent. Prudence is the virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here, I can go up to there, and there, beyond that no. What I wanted to say is that in theory we all agree: there is freed of expression, a violent aggression is not good, it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice let us stop a little because we are human and we risk to provoke others. For this reason freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.