I’m given to understand that the media tends to misreport the words of the Pope, and, more generally, to misrepresent what Catholics and their church actually believe. As such, I tend to take what I read about the Vatican with a large pinch of salt. But I must say that I’m struggling to find the nuance in today’s report from the Rome Bureau of the Catholic News Service. Per Francis X. Rocca, Pope Francis said the following this morning while aboard his airplane:
“Let’s go to Paris, let’s speak clearly,” the pope said. “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.”
The pope said freedom of expression was a “fundamental human right” like freedom of religion, but one that must be exercised “without giving offense.”
Offering a hypothetical example that referred to the Vatican’s planner of papal trips, who was standing beside him as he spoke, the pope said: “It’s true, one cannot react violently, but if Dr. (Alberto) Gasbarri, a great friend, says a swear word against my mother, then he is going to get a punch. But it’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”
The pope said those who “make fun or toy with other people’s religions, these people provoke, and there can happen what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother. That is, there is a limit. Every religion has its dignity.”
Given its record in this area, it is nice to see the Catholic Church drawing a firm distinction between what it believes should be legal and what it believes is morally right. It is good, too, to see a Pope contending bluntly that “one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion.” And yet, as so often, a giant “But . . .” was wheeled out to spoil the declaration. By proposing that insults against his mother would prompt him to “punch” the speaker — and that such violent responses are “normal” — Francis not only limited the force of his initial statements, but he gave succor to the notion that those who give gratuitous offense should expect retaliation.
It is one thing to say, “we strongly support the legal rights of provocateurs but, clearly, we dislike their output”; but it is quite another to suggest that those who insult others will likely “get a punch,” or to submit that, if one wishes to stay safe, “one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.” Whatever Francis “really meant” here, one thing is absolutely clear: The language he used was imprecise, poorly judged, and terribly, terribly timed. There is never — ever — an excuse for violence against peaceful critics. It is not in any way “normal” to see such foul play. What happened to that simple formulation: “turn the other cheek”?