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Pope Francis: One Cannot Make Fun of Faith

Pope Francis has earned a reputation as a liberal in comparison to recent predecessors but he’s no liberal.

AP (“Pope on Charlie Hebdo: There are limits to free expression“):

Pope Francis said Thursday there are limits to freedom of speech, especially when it insults or ridicules someone’s faith.

Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good.

But he said there were limits.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasbarri, who organizes papal trips and was standing by his side aboard the papal plane.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasbarri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said half-jokingly, throwing a mock punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

His pretend punch aside, Francis by no means said the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo was justified. Quite the opposite: He said such horrific violence in God’s name couldn’t be justified and was an “aberration.” But he said a reaction of some sort was to be expected.

I got sidetracked by work matters in the middle of writing the post and at the time just had the CNN Breaking News version of events. They were worse:

Freedom of expression is a right, but there are limits when it comes to insulting faiths, Pope Francis told reporters today, referring to events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

“One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” Francis said. Likewise, he said, people have religious liberty, but “one can’t kill in the name of God.” He said this after a reporter asked him about religious liberty and freedom of expression.

Without the context of the insult to his mother—essentially, the old “fighting words” doctrine that was long ago announced (but since largely rescinded) by the US Supreme Court—the pontiff’s words are outrageous. In context, they’re merely poorly framed.

Of course one can make fund of the faith of others. Of course one can insult the faith of others. That’s the essence of freedom of expression. But, yes, doing so may be cruel and mean-spirited. And one who does so repeatedly and with sufficiently provocative language or imagery is likely to get punched in the nose. Mass murder is, of course, another thing altogether and Francis says so.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    I can make fun of anybody who chooses to believe fairy tales instead of the facts before them. Anybody who fights and kills and dies for their invisible friend in the sky is a bronze-age-intellect moron and deserves ridicule.

    Yeah, I’m angry that my parents indoctrinated me in this stuff and I spent my adulthood regaining my natural born atheism, you bet.

    Okay, resuming my normal moderate stance.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 6

  2. Gustopher says:

    From the AP story:

    Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks while en route to the Philippines, defending free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good.

    I would posit that mocking religion is in the common good. Being able to challenge authority — secular or sacred — is important for a functioning society. Granted, the Pope might have a different perspective on that, since that’s how Protestantism came about.

    That said, the hypothetical about an insult to his mother has another lesson. You can insult someone and inflame their passions and anger, but then you can’t be surprised when they are angry and react badly. Or, as the Dude said, “You’re right, but you’re an asshole.”

    I let my cat’s membership in the ACLU expire a few years ago, partly because of their support for Citizens United, but also because I realized that I don’t really want to defend the rights of folks like Nazis, the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church to spew their hatred. Sure, they have a right to spew their hatred, but on the list of rights that aren’t respected, that’s pretty far down my list of importance.

    (Although, if the hateful bigots were beaten, I would support prosecuting those who attacked them, and then smile quietly knowing that we might have taken care of some bigots and some hotheads all at once)

    (And, unless there are other cartoons that are so offensive we haven’t been shown them, I don’t think anything the Charlie Hebdo folks did merits more than a pile dog shit on their front step — radical Muslims have no sense of proportion)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  3. Gustopher says:

    @Tony W:

    I can make fun of anybody who chooses to believe fairy tales instead of the facts before them. Anybody who fights and kills and dies for their invisible friend in the sky is a bronze-age-intellect moron and deserves ridicule.

    I would not fight to the death for your right to say such things, but I might sign an internet petition… (well, no, not really, I don’t think I’ll ever sign an internet petition, but if I was going to sign internet petitions, then your right to say that somewhere on the list, below a spay and neuter program but above protesting some Republican who was speaking to white supremacists…)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. motopilot says:

    @Tony W: Amen, Tony! No religion deserves a break from mockery, least of all the Catholic church.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  5. repsac3 says:

    The usual folks are spewing the usual OUTRAGE!!!, but I’m pretty sure the man was speaking of morals and of responsibility for one’s speech –in the sense that free speech goes in all directions and your ability and “right” to say a thing does not protect you from the response of others to what you say (and, punch aside, he’s pretty clear about violence being an unacceptable reaction, no matter the speech.)– not the legal right to speak one’s mind.

    That’s not to say I agree with the man–I see the value of good religious satire and even lowbrow humor (and I’m learning that the “offense” of depicting Mohammad is not as universal among muslims as I’d read back in 2006, during the original cartoon scandal, either)–but I do believe one ought to weigh the value of what one has to say against the harm it might cause before speaking one’s mind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 2

  6. C. Clavin says:

    I get the sentiment…but he also said about climate change,

    I don’t know if it is all (man’s fault) but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature,”

    So I’ll stop picking on people for believing in myths if they stop pretending AGW is a myth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 4

  7. T says:

    “The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us. . . . What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.” – Mencken

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  8. JKB says:

    @C. Clavin: So I’ll stop picking on people for believing in myths if they stop pretending AGW is a myth.

    Ya just gotta have faith, Cliffy

    And don’t let the facts shake it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. grumpy realist says:

    It would seem to me that getting rid of mockery of religion would get rid of Mardi Gras itself, nicht wahr?

    (stupid Autocorrect DIE DIE DIE! )

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    In all things free speech I tend to draw the line at the personal level. I write an opinion piece in a magazine or on a blog that gets very wide latitude to say just about anything they want short of threatening individuals or groups with violence, or any call to action that my incite other to do violence.

    Personal interaction get a much shorter leash (a lot sorter). When I get in your face personally and harass you, picket your home, throw blood on you mink coat or an vandalism including looting your store). One is free speech in the public square, the other is just harassment and few people can take much in your face harassment before the just go off and hit the guy regardless of the subject.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wptn5RE2I-k

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  11. Scott says:

    There is a fine balance that people are struggling with here. Right now, folks are backing the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish anything they damn well please. And in the short term under current circumstances, that is exactly right. Longer term, those who feel that the extreme crudeness, insulting tone, and vile expressions are beyond the pale should be given the space to say so.

    I know there is a bit of strawman here but that is the reason freedom of expression (and freedom in general) is such a difficult subject. It contains the seeds of its own destruction and without some regulating (not state regulations or laws but societal disapproval) it will destruct.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Foolish Pope. Words achieve nothing.

    There is one way to keep people from making fun of your faith. And that is to kill people who make fun of your faith.

    It’s not guaranteed to work, but it works a hell of a lot better than any other way that’s been tried recently.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 15

  13. DrDaveT says:

    @Scott:

    Longer term, those who feel that the extreme crudeness, insulting tone, and vile expressions are beyond the pale should be given the space to say so.

    And they are.

    On a tangent, you’re the third or fourth person I’ve seen in discussions of these issues who has used the phrase “beyond the pale”. (Since I can go years without hearing that phrase in public discourse, I find that fascinating.) I know where the phrase comes from, and what it has meant in the past, but I can’t tell if it means something different to the people using it here. Can you unpack it for me? In particular, do you mean that the one who is “beyond the pale” is no longer a party to the social contract? That he or she has no call on society to protect or defend them?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Mikey says:

    @DrDaveT: “Beyond the pale” is generally used today to mean “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.” In this context, it is not the person who is “beyond the pale,” but their behavior.

    One can think of very many instances in which a person’s behavior is “beyond the pale” but the person is certainly still subject to both the protections of, and penalties imposed by, society.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: Download the Deutsch dictionary to your device. It’s worked wonders for my wife, who was constantly wrestling with autocorrect’s mangling of her messages to her family in Germany.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Scott says:

    @DrDaveT: Yea, I understand the original derivation going back to the English Pale in Ireland. Nowadays, the term has mutated to mean something unacceptable or beyond some societal norm. At least that is the way I used it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. KM says:

    I have never understood the concept of “insulting” a higher power. The very notion implies that puny human beings are capable of doing some sort of harm, even if it’s emotional or theoretical in nature, to an all-powerful entity that created stars and whales and uranium and all the glories around us with nothing more then their will. It give mankind the ability to inflict negative effects on the source of all things. The Created can push around the Creator.

    Friggin’ egotistical arrogance. If God exists, They are not some weak fragile flower who will fall weeping at a harsh word. They’re not some emo whiner who needs to be protected from the terrible reality They created. If They are real, They’re tougher then you, bub, since They’ll outlast the ages and don’t really give a shit what you say. It’s projection, nothing more – they can’t take criticism of their faith because they can’t stand how that criticism reflects on themselves.

    Harsh fact of life, religious nuts: you are not important enough to hurt God’s feelings. Get over yourselves.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @Scott:

    “outside the bounds of acceptable behavior.”
    “unacceptable or beyond some societal norm”

    Yes, but how far outside? How unacceptable? Is it just a synonym for ‘tacky’ or ‘uncouth’, or is it something more than that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” — Matthew 5:38-41

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  20. Joe says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:
    So I think this is exactly the problem with the Pope’s example (though I don’t want to overstate the point). Words achieve a lot. Words and other expressions are the very core of culture and cultural conflicts.

    But if the Pope’s friend insults his mother (or the BVM for that matter), the Pope’s response should not be a punch. It should be more words, as in a response defending his mother or explaining to the friend what an asshole he is; or perhaps less words, as in why am I even friends with you. But to say a small punch is an appropriate response to a personal insult, I don’t know how you don’t quickly get to an assassination being an appropriate response to a huge cultural insult. That is just a matter of proportion and that proportion is very subjective.

    I ignore people like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists because I find much more of their speech to be offensive than to be funny or enlightening. Yet I would not lift a finger, let alone a fist to stop them. They are free to offend me and I it is an exercise in personal judgment to be offended. While nearly all speech should be protected (usual 1st Amendment limitations apply), not all speech is good.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  21. PJ says:

    @Joe:

    But to say a small punch is an appropriate response to a personal insult, I don’t know how you don’t quickly get to an assassination being an appropriate response to a huge cultural insult.

    But he didn’t say that it was an appropriate response, he said that that was what his friend could expect. (Not sure that the pope would do actually do that though.)

    I can walk around and randomly tell couples that the woman is really ugly, I’m free to do that. But the expected outcome from it over time would be that I would get punched, and the longer I do it, the more likely it gets. (With the obviously caveat being who I am. if I’m Mike Tyson, then the probability is a lot lower.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  22. gVOR08 says:

    For me, this is like the case of flying a Confederate flag. One ought to have the sense and the courtesy to not do so, as it is offensive to some of one’s neighbors. But it ought not to be illegal. There is often a large gap between what we CAN do and what we SHOULD do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  23. Franklin says:

    I do not agree with the Pope in this instance. I can most certainly state some FACTS that are insulting to his religion and many others. No limits on free speech should disallow the stating of facts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Anonne says:

    Pope Francis’ position is one that originates from love: love thy neighbor, however flawed they are or how you think they are. That means, be respectful even if you don’t agree. He is not saying that it should be illegal to be insulting, but that one should use judgment to not provoke your neighbor. That’s all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A white man walks into an East St Louis bar. He says, “I HATE NI**ERS!!!!”*** You are sitting at the bar James. Are you going to stand up and defend his “free speech” rights? Or are you going to hunker down into your beer and say, “Dumb fvckin’ Jefferson Co redneck cracker… Ain’t no way I am dying for his stupidity!”

    Which is it James? Yeah, he’s got his rights, but I long ago decided that I don’t give a rats a$$ about HIS “rights”. I ain’t dying for anybody’s stupidity.

    *** Not far off some situations I have been put in. Stupid fvckin’ white boys!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: There is a difference between what a gov’t does, and what a private citizen does.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And for the record, I think a$$ whoopin’s should be legal. I know that isn’t going to be real popular, but I have spent a considerable amount of my life trying to avoid both receiving one and giving one (it hurts punching someone in the head). Consider for a moment, if a$$ whoopin’s was legal, George Zimmerman (if any one ever needed an a$$ whoopin’ it was George) would be in prison, or Trayvon Martin would still be alive.

    That alone would justify a$$ whoopin’s.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  28. Grewgills says:

    @PJ:

    But he didn’t say that it was an appropriate response, he said that that was what his friend could expect.

    If that’s what we should expect from the pope, what should we expect from average people?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. “Without the context of the insult to his mother—essentially, the old “fighting words” doctrine that was long ago announced (but since largely rescinded) by the US Supreme Court—the pontiff’s words are outrageous. In context, they’re merely poorly framed.”

    The “Fighting words” doctrine only applied to whether the GOVERNMENT could censor free speech on the grounds that the speech was “fighting words.”

    It is entirely inapplicable to Charlie Hebdo or Pope Punch-in-the-Face’s “Yo’ Momma” scenarios.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. James Joyner says:

    @Robert Platt Bell: Right. But the point of the doctrine is that certain forms of speech—those likely to incite violent response—could be abridged:

    -In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 95 the Court unanimously sustained a conviction under a statute proscribing ”any offensive, derisive, or annoying word” addressed to any person in a public place under the state court’s interpretation of the statute as being limited to ”fighting words”– i.e., to ”words . . . [which] have a direct tendency to cause acts of violence by the person to whom, individually, the remark is addressed.” The statute was sustained as ”narrowly drawn and limited to define and punish specific conduct lying within the domain of state power, the use in a public place of words likely to cause a breach of the peace.” 96 The case is best known for Justice Murphy’s famous dictum. ”[I]t is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words–those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” 97

    Chaplinsky still remains viable for the principle that ”the States are free to ban the simple use, without a demonstration of additional justifying circumstances, of so-called ‘fighting words,’ those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.” 98 But, in actuality, the Court has closely scrutinized statutes on vagueness and overbreadth grounds and set aside convictions as not being within the doctrine. Chaplinsky thus remains formally alive but of little vitality. 99

    On the obverse side, the ”hostile audience” situation, the Court once sustained a conviction for disorderly conduct of one who refused police demands to cease speaking after his speech seemingly stirred numbers of his listeners to mutterings and threatened disorders. 100 But this case has been significantly limited by cases which hold protected the peaceful expression of views which stirs people to anger because of the content of the expression, or perhaps because of the manner in which it is conveyed, and that breach of the peace and disorderly conduct statutes may not be used to curb such expression.

    The cases are not clear to what extent the police must go in protecting the speaker against hostile audience reaction or whether only actual disorder or a clear and present danger of disorder will entitle the authorities to terminate the speech or other expressive conduct. 101 Neither, in the absence of incitement to illegal action, may government punish mere expression or proscribe ideas, 102 regardless of the trifling or annoying caliber of the expression. 103

    The pontiff is relying on the same common sense understanding of human nature.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. js4strings says:

    @Tony W:

    I’m with you, People of faith need to grow a pair of nuts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: surprisingly enough, it was the “Mardi Gras” that it coughed up a hairball over….

    (I always used to give my MS Word hysterics when I was typing a Latin document. It would underline everything with red and then crash about two pages in.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0