As many on this blog know, I am a great fan of Pope Francis who has brought an inspiring leadership to the Church that has drawn millions back to the faith. Given that admiration, I was disheartened to read the Pope’s comment on free speech today. I ran a column last weekend on how world leaders are failing over themselves to “Stand With Charlie” after the massacre of editors and staff at Charlie Hebdo magazine. However, the West has been rolling back on free speech rights, including some of these very leaders. Pope Francis added his view this week to those insisting that free speech must have limits when it comes to insulting people about their religion. It is a disappointing observation, particularly when coupled with a rather poor analogy.
On the papal plane, Pope Francis spoke beside Alberto Gasparri, who organizes papal trips. He used his aide in this analogy: “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri 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.”
Of course, people can insult the faith of others. It is called free speech and you are not allowed to punch someone (or in the most recent case, massacre people) out of a sense of legitimate outrage. Clearly, Pope Francis was not condoning the massacre. He remains a leading voice for Peace and tolerance. However, the discussion of limits on free speech in the West has spawned a trend toward greater criminalization and prosecution for unpopular writers and speakers, including a crackdown in France after the march in support of free speech.
Pope Francis added that people who make fun of religion “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.” Presumably, the victims are Charlie Hebdo would be considered such “provocateurs,” precisely the image advanced by Muslim extremists insisting that they were incited to violence.
I still admire the Pope but he is less inspirational on free speech, particularly anti-religious speech, in making these comments. Ironically, free speech is the greatest protection of the free exercise of religion. It is the right that allows people of faith (as well as people who are agnostic and atheist) to speak out about their values and beliefs. That freedom comes with a certain covenant of faith in free speech: that we all can speak our mind without fear of prosecution or retaliation.