Pope Francis has said that there are limits to freedom of expression, that one cannot insult or make fun of faith, and that it would be normal to punch somebody who insulted his mother.
I debated this today on RTE Radio with Irish Catholic editor Michael Kelly, and you can listen to that here. But meanwhile, here are my thoughts on the Pope’s statement.
Pope Francis is missing a key distinction between people, who have rights, and their beliefs, which do not have rights. We should not cause harm to actual people by infringing on their human rights, but we should always be able to robustly criticise and to ridicule ideas. Indeed, the Catholic Church itself can be provocative and insulting, not only to other people’s beliefs but to other people themselves.
Also, I support the right of the Pope to joke about punching people who insult his mother, even though such jokes make fun of the pacifist religious beliefs of the Amish and Quakers, and even though supporters of actual violence could misinterpret the Pope’s joke as being supportive of their behaviour. It is clear that he is not actually promoting violence, and we should support his right to make fun of violence as much as we support Charlie Hebdo’s right to make fun of racism and religion.
Asked about the attack that killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo – targeted because it had printed depictions of the prophet Muhammad – Pope Francis said: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”
He gestured to Alberto Gasparri, who organises papal trips and was standing by his side, and added: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. 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.”
Cautioning against provocation he said the right to liberty of expression came with the obligation to speak for “the common good”.
The article also includes a video, which includes wider context that is not quoted in the article. For example, Pope Francis prefaced the comment about punching Alberto Gasparri by saying
“I believe that you cannot react violently, but…”
And he also said in the video, again not quoted in the article:
“Many people who speak badly about other religions, or religion, who make fun of them, make other people’s religion a joke, well, that is a provocation. And then things can happen, like if Mr Gasparri had insulted my mother. There is a limit, every religion has dignity, every religion that respects people…
What happened in Paris we find incredible, but let’s look at our own history. How many wars of religion have we had?.. This person gives their life, but they give it in a bad way. Many people who work, and I think of missionaries for example, they give their life but to construct. These people give their lives, killing and destroying. There is something here that is not right.”
“One cannot provoke.”
Pope Francis says that “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith.” But the Catholic Church is provocative and insulting not only to other people’s faith, as well as to other people’s nonreligious philosophical convictions, but also to the actual people who hold those beliefs. Here are three examples.
In the Christian Bible (John 8:44), while talking to Jews about their God, Jesus says: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” This is one of several chapters in the Christian Bible that can give a scriptural foundation to Christian anti-Semitism.
The Catholic Church considers homosexuality to be an objective disorder because it is ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.
Pope Francis leads a church whose Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor told the BBC that atheists are not fully human. He said: “Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact in my view something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent… we call it God… I think that if you leave that out you are not fully human.”
I have heard two Catholic theologians making this same argument, ironically at a conference on religious pluralism in education in Ireland. Prof Gavin D’Costa said that atheists are not fully human, and he defended this argument when I challenged him about it. And Dr Nick Van Nieuwenhove said that Catholic education enables a person to become fully human, and used a bizarre analogy of atheists seeing a photograph in two dimensions while Catholics see it in three dimensions.
How is it that the Catholic Church can be as provocative and insulting as it wishes, not only about people’s beliefs but about actual people themselves, and yet its own beliefs should not be insulted, even when those beliefs cause Catholics to insult others?
“One cannot make fun of faith.”
Pope Francis says “one cannot make fun of faith”. This is just silly. Of course we can make fun of faith. Faith is believing things disproportionately to the evidence. Religious faith is just one example of this folly. Making fun of silly beliefs is one important way of encouraging people to examine why they believe them, and of discouraging others from starting to believe them.
The reason that many religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous. If they could withstand scrutiny they would not need to be protected from mockery. Scientists don’t worry if somebody mocks the law of gravity, because they know that the law of gravity does not change based on whether people are laughing at it.
Is Pope Francis suggesting that we cannot make fun of David Icke’s belief that he is God and that Wang Yee Lee, a being who looked like a Chinese mandarin and had Socrates standing next to him, gave Icke a message that he had been sent to heal the Earth and to expose President George Bush of America as an alien space lizard?
Or is he only suggesting that we cannot make fun of mainstream religious beliefs, such as that the creator of the universe came to planet Earth, circling one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies, so that he could impregnate a virgin human in order to give birth to himself, then be tortured and die and return to life and dictate a book about it?
Can we make fun of other silly passages in the Christian Bible, which says that God will bring so much evil that it will make your ears tingle (Jer 19:3), that God will smite you with hemorrhoids, scabs and an unhealable itch (Deut 28:27), and that God will make you so fearful that you will flee even when nobody is chasing you (Lev 26:17)?
And what of nonreligious beliefs that some people hold dear? Can we make fun of the many investigators of unidentified flying objects who say that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell in 1947 and that successive US Governments since then have been hiding the aliens at a military base near Groom Lake in Nevada?
Can we make fun of the sincerely held beliefs of countless people that homeopathy is more useful than a heart transplant, that Uri Geller can bend spoons with his mind, that they are in danger from vampires or zombies or broken mirrors, or that they are protected by angels or leprechauns or horseshoes?
You have rights. Your beliefs do not.
We should not cause harm to actual people by infringing on their human rights, but we should always be able to robustly criticise and to ridicule ideas.
The Catholic Church itself can be provocative and insulting, not only to other people’s beliefs but to other people themselves.
Of course we can make fun of faith. The reason that many religious beliefs need protection from ridicule is that they are ridiculous.
I support the right of the Pope to joke about violence, just as I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to joke about racism and religion.