Pope Francis: Free Expression is a Fundamental Right, But “You Cannot Insult the Faith of Others” January 15, 2015

Pope Francis: Free Expression is a Fundamental Right, But “You Cannot Insult the Faith of Others”

You’ll be thrilled to learn that he Vatican is totally in favor of free speech.

There are, however, two notable exceptions: faith, and the pope’s mom.

Calling freedom of expression a “fundamental” human right, the pope outlined why he believes there are limits to that right. If someone “says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” he joked, according to an Associated Press translation. “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

That’s cute. We can, we have, and we will.

Despite joking about his mother, Francis also condemned violent retaliation. “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion — that is, in the name of God,” the pope said. “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”

This “mock everything but faith” attitude was on full display from Francis’ predecessor, too. Joseph Ratzinger saw freedom as a false idol, and in 2006, his press office released a statement saying that the right to freedom of thought and expression, sanctioned by the Declaration of the Rights of Man,

cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers. This principle applies obviously for any religion. In addition, coexistence calls for a climate of mutual respect to favor peace among men and nations. Moreover, these forms of exasperated criticism or derision of others manifest a lack of human sensitivity and may constitute in some cases an inadmissible provocation.

At the time, UCLA law professor and free-speech advocate Eugene Volokh had this to say in response:

This is not just an admonition about what’s right, decent, productive, or in good taste — rather, it’s a claim that the law ought to have a relatively free hand in restricting speech that “offend[s] religious feelings of the faithful,” which apparently includes some unstated amount of “excessive criticism or derision of others” that “denotes a lack of human sensitivity.” May we still publish the works of Martin Luther? How about of Christopher Hitchens? The Last Temptation of Christ? The religious works of the Jehovah’s Witnesses? A historical film in which some actor plays Mohammed? How about linking to the cartoons themselves (as I’ve done before)? …

This is not a marginal issue; it is at the core of the rights of free speech and religious freedom.

As for Pope Francis, since he made his remarks in the context of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, I can see his predicament, if that’s what it is. He is responsible for millions of clergy and Catholic lay workers all over the world, many of whom work in countries where quick-to-inflame Muslims, who haven’t the foggiest how free speech works, wield real power (sometimes imposed through the barrel of a gun). That could spur him toward extreme caution. I call it pandering, but he might think of it as diplomacy.

Then again, if he’s the standup, progressive-minded leader his fans believe he is, he could publicly insist that, in his view, the Charlie cartoons are in poor taste and still put up a sturdy defense of free speech.

I guess that’s asking too much.

(Image via giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com)

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