The British prime minister, David Cameron, has been widely reported as disagreeing with Pope Francis’s remarks over freedom of expression and the right to mock to religion. Asked about the Pope’s remarks (see CV Comment here) on the US TV channel CBS, Cameron said:
I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian; if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak vengeance on them. We have to accept that newspapers, magazines, can publish things that are offensive to some, as long as it’s within the law. That is what we should defend.
The newspapers seem unanimous. “David Cameron disagrees with the Pope”, says the Guardian; “David Cameron says the Pope is wrong”, says the Mail. The Independent‘s headline even spells it out: “Pope Francis is wrong to endorse revenge in wake of Paris attacks, says David Cameron”.
Yet Pope Francis in his remarks never “endorsed” any such thing — indeed, he expressly deplored any kind of violence, especially in the name of religion, and made clear there was no justification for it under any pretext whatsoever. The headlines start from assumptions which are completely false.
Even if the Pope’s remarks could be misinterpreted, his spokesman could not be. “Obviously he wasn’t justifying violence,” Fr Federico Lombardi said Friday. “He spoke about a spontaneous reaction that you can have when you feel profoundly offended. In this sense, your right to be respected has been put in question.”
What the Pope did have the courage to say was that freedom of speech has limits, that to build a society at peace with itself we need to respect what others hold dear, and that the reverse of this respect — a mocking, sneering, jeering humour allied to a post-Enlightenment contempt for religious belief as minority eccentricity — tends to provoke furious reactions which make it harder to build the common good.
He was not, in other words, entering into a debate about the legal limits of free speech but, as church leaders tend to do, was making an ethical point about how to promote human flourishing.
The distinction was spectacularly missed over the weekend by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Observer, who mischievously assumed that Francis was making an excuse for violence, then spent their columns solemnly pontificating on how wrong he was.
“The Pope came as near as dammit to suggesting that Charlie Hebdo had it coming”, wrote Toynbee, her “near as dammit” conceding that he did not suggest anything like it. After solemnly invoking Jesus (something she only does when criticizing Christians) she added: “Verbal provocation is never an excuse for violence – that’s the wife-beater’s defence.” Toynbee somehow manages to turn the Pope, who was illustrating a point about how people react when they are insulted, into a wife-beater.
Cohen similarly claims that Francis was “in effect” saying “the Parisian satirists had it coming” before invoking the memory of free-speech victims of religious power down the ages: “Do I need to remind you that insulting the gods, the pope or the synagogue were the charges the faithful levelled against Socrates, Galileo and Spinoza?” he asks.
Both columnists concede that there are, in practice and in theory, limits to free speech, but seem to think these should not apply to religion. Why? “Religion is a form of power,” writes Cohen. “We do not have absolute freedom of speech, but we must protect our limited freedom to criticise power.”
But this is not the age of Spinoza and Galileo, when religious authority had temporal power, and when the state sought to absorb the Church. Neither religion nor religious institutions have any more privilege in British society than non-religious institutions, and in the case of France rather less: religion is expressly excluded from the public square.
So why should those who mock religion and religious believers be cheered and applauded, but not, say, those who mock LGBT people?
As the gay lobby Stonewall has demonstrated in pushing Parliament to agree same-sex marriage without it ever being put to the electorate, the LGBT lobby has far more political muscle than any Church in Britain. Yet if someone were to advocate the pillorying of homosexuals on the grounds that it was necessary for free speech, or because Stonewall is powerful, there would be a public outcry (and our Churches would be among the most passionate in raising their voices). So why is it alright to make fun of the sensitivities and feelings of religious believers, but not of gay people?
In a classic secularist-humanist misreading of religion, Toynbee claims that Francis was demanding “a special, anti-Voltairean status of protection for religious ideas – a respect never given to political or other ideas just as passionately held.”
But for people of Christian faith, being children of a loving God is core to their identity; it is key t0 who they are. It not “religious ideas” that they would like to be respected, or even religious institutions, but God, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. In that sense, Pope Francis’s analogy of a man reacting to his own mother being insulted was a good one. Believers are in a relationship; and like all relationships, theirs involves memory and feeling, which are the fruit of the experience of prayer over time. Similarly, for Muslims, Prophet Mohammed is revered and respected; their attachment to him is far more like a personal bond than an intellectual conviction.
To say that religious believers deserve, like anyone else (gay people, for example, or racial minorities) in society, to have their feelings and identity respected, is not per se to propose further legal limits on free speech. Those limits are a matter of constant debate in Parliament, which must weigh up other goods in tension with it: the right not to be defamed, for example, or the right to be protected from harassment and hate speech. Our legislators must make prudential judgements about how to balance those conflicting goods in law.
But in order to build a genuinely pluralistic, tolerant society, in which people can in freedom seek and debate the common good, and in which different groups holding strong convictions can live in peace with each other, we need to assert far more than the legal right to cause offence. We need to assert the ethical obligation of respect.
David Cameron, as the elected leader entrusted with safeguarding the British common good, should know that, and should be fearless in stating it.
Instead, he affirmed a crowd-pleasing banal truth.
He may not, contrary to reports, have disagreed with the Pope. But he missed a terrific opportunity to agree with him.