Pope Francis

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.

NEXT: "The Increasingly Irrelevant Christian Primary" for the Republican Nomination

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  1. It would be tempting to chalk up the Pope’s thinking to the difficulty of logic for people of faith. But his thinking is in line with a good deal of the western world, where it is a criminal offense to insult religions, among other favored groups. The Pope feels that only a punch in the face is an appropriate response. In countries such as France they’ve decided that six months in prison is more like it. We in the U.S. often forget how unique is our concept, and defense, of freedom of speech.

    1. In no cases have these punishments for “offensive” speech actually stopped hatreds of other ethnic groups and religions, either. Ultranationalist and neo-Nazi groups are thriving and growing in the Europe of perpetual butthurt. Prisons in France are great places to learn how to be a good ISIS soldier. Ultranationalist candidates in France get a significant percentage of the vote. You simply can’t legislate thought; when you try, you galvanize the thinkers in their opinions, right or wrong.

      Accommodating the eternally offended does nothing, either. The UK bends over backwards to accommodate malcontent Muslim immigrants, going so far as to ban serving pork or sausage in schools, paint the windows of swimming pools black, remove banners honoring a UK soldier killed by a Muslim nutjob, and remove centuries-old pig signs from pubs. And yet, instead of assimilating or tolerating the culture of their host country, endlessly-bitching Muslim immigrants just demand more concessions.

      Why does no one ever examine the effectiveness of punishing or silencing free speech? It doesn’t work. It foments hostilities; it doesn’t dissipate them.

      1. I’m afraid I have to agree with you.
        As intelligent people we strive to rectify
        wrongs, an endless quest for solutions and compromises tailor-made to fit all. The radical extreme side of the Muslim population refuses to allow assimilation and integration. Ultimately, they are
        going to have to fight for their own rights- which side of the spectrum they want to live their lives.

  2. Perhaps the one good thing to come of this whole affair is making it clear once and for all who actually believes in freedom of expression and who does not.

    (Though, did anyone really expect better from Francis at this point?)

    1. It’s not accidental this is the “gay acceptance” pope either.

      This guy is selling the soul of the catholic faith in exchange for pop culture acceptance.

      It’s a smart branding move, since catholicism’s most numerous members are casual believers who are more concerned with how their faith affects their social life than how it affects their spiritual life.

      Real catholics are some of the best ppl around. I think its a pagan pseudo-brand of christianity (praying to saints is like eastern mysticism’s ancestor spirits), but it produces some amazing and wonderful ppl.

      Fake catholics are loving this pope, ppl like Carmela Saprano, latinos in prison, and Jon Kerry. He is their cultural mascot and he is playing all the right notes.

      There is another brand of catholics that use it as a convenient cultural tool. This includes ppl like Bill O’reilly and Sean Hannity. They set themselves up as officious arbiters of a tribalism. They don’t like catholicism for its faith, they like it for its social potential.

      1. Catholics are politically all over the place. American Catholics actually are generally accepting of homosexuals and even gay marriage.

        But, ultimately, in order to be a “real Catholic”, you must accept the authority of the institution of the Catholic church and you must believe that it has been holy and good throughout its entire history. Do you really stand by the Catholic church in that way?

        1. “American Catholics actually are generally accepting of homosexuals and even gay marriage.”


          Um, no.

          But, that said, this latest epistle from the Bishop of Rome does make one wonder if he really appreciates the Magisterium’s position on Free Will.

          1. Um, yes:


            One only wishes those people would actually take the logical step and leave the evil organization they are nominally a member of.

            (Mind you, Catholic intolerance towards homosexuality is not a big deal; its reprehensible view of human nature and intrinsically immoral theology are what makes Catholicism so evil.)

  3. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” said Francis.


    Pope Fuckface needs to read the NT – turn the other goddamned cheek.

    Worst pope ever? Or most ignorant?

    1. To be fair, the Bible doesn’t say “if someone hits your mother, don’t react,” it says “if someone hits you on *your* cheek, turn the other cheek.”

      That’s the difference between defending one’s own ego and pride, on the one hand, and defending innocent victims of aggression, on the other hand.

      As to the Pope’s anti-free-speech remarks, here are my comments:


      1. To be fair, the Bible doesn’t say “if someone hits your mother, don’t react,” it says “if someone hits you on *your* cheek, turn the other cheek.”

        Actually in some versions of the Bible it says “If a man strikes you upon your right cheek, offer him your left.” (or something like that) which opens it up to a different interpretation. In Biblical times, the right hand was always used in public and the left was reserved for “unclean” things. So in order for someone to strike you on your right cheek, they would have to backhand you with their right hand. A backhand, even back then was a very dissmissive and insulting gesture. So by offering your left cheek, it would force the other person to at least strike you with the palm of their right hand, thereby treating you as an equal.

        So it’s possible that Christ wasn’t telling people to just be meek and take it if someone hit you, but to at least force them to treat you with some level of respect.

        1. I think you’ve got the wrong cheeks.

          If a good Catholic finds someone who gives him/her one butt slap, ask him to do you on the other butt cheek, “please sir, can I have another?” As many times as you like.

          Then they give each other a Christian kiss and head off to the sacristy for devotions and a deeper religious experience.

    2. Worst pope ever? Or most ignorant?

      Far from the worst pope ever. This one is merely stupid. Other popes have committed massive forgery and corruption, blackmailed, murdered, raped, desecrated corpses, and committed numerous other crimes and mortal sins.

      1. Yeah…remember that one Pope that dug up another Pope’s corpse for not being Popey enough?

        Really, if the Pope’s not a Borgia that’s an improvement. Pope Alexander VI is generally considered the worst Pope, lots of nepotism, corruption, illegitimate children, etc. Hilariously, he’s the Pope you have a fist fight with in one of the Assassin’s Creed games.

        1. I don’t play video games, but if I did play one it’d have to be the Assassin’s Creed one about the American Revolution.

    3. “Worst pope ever? Or most ignorant?

      Both, and much more.

  4. What if Judge Napolitano hijacked David Horsanyi’s column?

  5. What did you expect from the commie Pope?

    People against the voluntary exchange of goods tend to be against the voluntary exchange of ideas.

    – Iowahawk

  6. The current poop is a real piece of work.

  7. “One cannot provoke. One cannot insult other people’s faith. One cannot make fun of faith.”

    “Pope Francis and his church are objectively disordered, exploit the poor and prey on the innocent. The Pope is not fully human. The Catholic church preaches a lifestyle that is contrary to the laws of nature. The Catholic church should return to true Christianity and not lead its adherents into eternal damnation. The Pope should abandon his misguided and erroneous faith and recognize that there is an absolute morality that his conduct and his theology are contravening.”

    Are those harsh words? You bet. They are also fairly recent quotes from high level Catholic church officials, I have simply replace “Catholic” and “Pope” wherever they were talking about others.

    That is how the Catholic church treats others today.

    (Ironically, these statements actually do make a lot more sense when applied to Catholicism and the Pope than applied to other beliefs.)

  8. “One cannot provoke. One cannot insult other people’s faith. One cannot make fun of faith.”

    Ok, deal. Refraining from ridicule can be the highest form of ridicule, though. I’m confuzzied.

  9. “To find out who rules over you simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.

    1. If only he could, the one who keeps a dummy as his underling, would make us all pay dearly for daring to to criticize.

  10. So, the highest mortal authority in a religion that is fundamentally heirarchical believes that people should be comstrained in what they say by higher authority.

    Why is anybody surprised?

  11. What fun is it to be a moral authority if you can’t rule over somebody?

    You people take all the joy out of oppression.

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  16. No popery; be the pope a man or a horse!

  17. We heathens can leave the theological debate to others Pope Francis has some ideas about laws governing the secular world.

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