Beliefs Brian Pellot: On Freedom Culture Ethics Institutions Opinion

‘Friendly’ Pope Francis proves he’s no friend to free speech

(RNS1-july29) Pope Francis addresses journalists on his flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 29. The pope spent 80 minutes answering questions from 21 journalists on the plane. Fpr use with RNS-POPE-FLIGHT, transmitted on July 28, 2013, Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.
Pope Francis

Not cool, Frank.

“Friendly Francis” just threw free speech under the popemobile.

“You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” he told reporters — and in effect more than a billion Catholics — en route to the Philippines.

The Pope was responding to last week’s Charlie Hebdo attacks, the violence of which he condemned, while at the same time condoning physical violence as a response to offense. Seriously. Even if in jest.

“If he says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose,” Francis said, throwing an air jab at his friend and aide Alberto Gasparri. “But that’s normal. That’s normal.”

Thuggishly throwing punches might be “normal” if you’re a former bouncer, but most free speech advocates favor more speech, better speech, counterspeech as the best recourse to offense.

It goes without saying that Pope Francis is not a free speech advocate.

After affirming it as a fundamental human right, Francis added, “In freedom of expression there are limits.”

That’s correct. There are legal limits to freedom of expression, and they vary by country. In the U.S. it’s illegal to incite imminent lawless action. In Thailand it’s illegal to insult the king. In France it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust. And in nearly 100 countries, defamation of religion, blasphemy and apostasy are illegal.

If Pope Francis’ remarks were literal and in reference to one of those countries, I’d look the other way. You cannot provoke, insult or make fun of faith in those places unless you’re willing to pay a hefty fine, serve some jail time or even face the death penalty. That’s true.

But Francis’ remarks were not literal statements of legal fact, they were prescriptive pleas.

If #JeSuisCharlie and the magazine’s unprecedented print run taught us anything this week, it’s that people do not take kindly to being silenced.

Religion, just like everything else, is fair game for satirists. In suggesting that faith be protected from public scrutiny just because some consider it sacred or sensitive, Pope Francis negates the very essence and definition of free speech.

If you go after freedom of expression, satirists will come after your religion. Free speech advocates are sure to take Pope Francis’ remarks against “provoking” faith as provocation. At least they’ll strike back with pens rather than punches.

About the author

Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

13 Comments

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  • Whilst I can see your contention just think that there is controversial topics the Church speaks on and is hounded down for it. Where is the free speech there? You cannot have it both ways?

  • As long as the inherent degenerate nature of atheistic worldviews are never ignored, than why should anyone care what the degenerates say about religion? Picking up the pieces of the shattered lives of those impacted by the always prevalent spread of porn, date rape and sex slavery that follows the debauchery of godless-secularism, we should just be fair to free speech as a human right. As long as all get to chime in on what’s really going on and avoid exaggeration.

  • Whatever happened to St. Paul’s “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable….”?

  • I wonder if Paul knew how profitable porn and sex slavery was going to be in godless-secularized society? He certainly seemed to know about (and criticize) what gay life is all about. It’s fascinating to see atheism held in some kind of respectable light (by of course atheists) when it feeds the behaviors of the debauched minds of so many now. Luckily there is well made home-based security systems now for private life and concealed carry is spreading to protect decent people while they are forced to travel around in so-many now unsafe public places.

    Free speech can really be fun.

  • @ Doug Barr,

    “Free speech unites humanity.”

    On what planet? For a fact, not this one. Not yet – or anytime soon – anyway.

    Not even in the places where dope smokers are lighting up like crazy. Literally, like crazy.

  • Poor Richard’s Almanac, August 1735:

    There’s small Revenge in Words, but Words may be greatly Revenged.

  • The pope is the leader of Catholics, and as you said, he told “in effect more than a billion Catholics” not to insult other people’s religions. That sounds less like a free speech issue, and more like what Jesus would probably say if he were speaking instead.

    To me, the big thing with his comments were whether he meant “should not” when he said “cannot”. In the reports, I’ve found it difficult to find exactly what languages were involved, but as best I can tell, he was speaking in Italian (which is not his first language), which was then translated into English for the reports.

    It may just be a language issue, but unless he clarifies, it seems to me that he is telling his flock not to insult other people’s religions, and if they do, not to be surprised if they react violently, which (unfortunately) seems to be human nature. I don’t personally have much problem with that sentiment.

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