Civil Liberties

What Pope Francis Got Wrong About Free Expression

The right of people to be critical of religion-even their own-is a defense of the common good.


We heathens can leave the theological debate to others. But Pope Francis, the bishop of Rome and world leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has some ideas about laws governing the secular world. We expect Francis to defend the dignity of faith, to bring clarity to the Catholic position. Yet instead, the pope, while en route to the Philippines, offered a number of comments about freedom of expression, which ranged from the unclear to the contradictory. 

More than simply saying that poking fun at religion is ugly, he argued that there should be limits on freedom of expression and limits on mocking faith. (All this with the caveat that the pope's words were not misrepresented or taken out of context as they so often are by the media.) First, the pope claimed that "one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one's own religion—that is, in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration."

That is inaccurate. One absolutely can. I imagine most contemporary Catholics—and most others, for that matter—agree that murder in the name of God is a deviation from tenets of faith. Others, however, kill in the name of God every day. When gunmen make a concerted effort to yell "God is great!" before sweeping into a village to participate in a slaughter, they offer the world an incredibly precise explanation for their actions. I imagine many of them could provide you with a list of sacred justifications for why they do what they do. Not even the pope can liberate them from the purpose of their actions.

Then again, perhaps the pope, like many others, was alleging that those who "cite" Islam in their violence are engaged in something completely disconnected from religious belief (even though they are in no position to make that assertion). But then the rest of his comments make no sense.

"Every religion has its dignity" is Francis' arguable contention. "One cannot provoke. One cannot insult other people's faith. One cannot make fun of faith." If those who kill are not members of a religion, surely Francis is offering us a non sequitur. If you can be provoked to kill, you are not a person of faith, right?

But then the vicar of Christ went on to explain that those who mock faith should expect to be punched in the face. "If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch," said Francis.

The pope is unimpressed by provocateurs. He wants them barred. Someone should ask him whether provocateurs should expect an asymmetrical response. For instance, if Gasparri uttered a curse word against the pope's mother, should he expect to have his family blown up? That would be a more pertinent analogy.

But let's take it further. Where are the limits? Why does "mockery" hold a special distinction in our debate? And what constitutes contemptuous language or behavior toward another faith? For instance, can we intentionally criticize another person's faith without expecting to be punched? What if that faith is in direct conflict with our own set of beliefs—beliefs that deserve, according to the pope, the same respect as any other? Is it ever worth getting punched in the face?

What if one of these faiths is unable to live in free and open society because the principles of the faith conflict with those of others? What if one religion feels mocked by the things that other religions put up with in society—such as wearing skirts above the knees or eating pork sausages or failing to accept that Muhammad is God's prophet? What if those of a certain faith feel this is ridicule toward them? What if they believe it worthy of retaliation? Should the rest of us avoid these things so as not to upset anyone?

Obviously, I comprehend there's a distinction to be made between secular debates and the way people of faith conduct themselves. I get that there are religious reasons for not mocking others—and I also imagine people of faith avoid this because they do not want to be mocked themselves.

The pope himself defended free speech as a fundamental human right and claimed that Catholics have a duty to speak their minds for the sake of the common good. But then he also asserted that this fundamental right should not extend to faith. Any faith. Any government.

I'm not sure whether Charlie Hebdo has added to the common good (I had only heard of the magazine in passing before the terrorists struck), but the right of people to be critical of religion—even their own, if they feel it or its leadership has wandered from the principles that make it worthwhile—is a defense of the common good. The pope's contradictions do not make clear that he believes the same.