During an impromptu press conference on his flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines Pope Francis condemned the violence surrounding the Charlie Hebdo killings but also said there are limits to free speech — especially when it involves religion.
In particular, he said, one shouldn’t abuse freedom of expression to “provoke” or “offend” others deliberately, and also one shouldn’t be surprised when they react to such taunts.
Nodding towards a friend and smiling, even in the case of a dear friend, Francis said, “If he says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. That’s normal.”
The question was asked by a French journalist about how to balance religious freedom against freedom of expression, and Francis immediately linked his answer to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
“You’re French, so let’s talk about Paris, let’s speak clearly. One cannot make war [or] kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God,” Francis said. “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”
That said, Francis also insisted that free speech does not imply total license to insult or offend another’s faith.
“One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” he said, “Every religion has its dignity … and I cannot make fun of it,” the pope said. “In freedom of expression there are limits.
“People who make fun of, who toy with other people’s religions, he said, risk running into “what would happen to [that friend] if he said something against my mother.”
Pope Francis appeared to be saying that while nothing can justify the kind of violence witnessed Paris, that doesn’t mean that religion may be gratuitously insulted under the banner of freedom of speech.
Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine where 12 people were slain, was renowned for publishing content that ridiculed Muhammad, the founder of Islam, including occasionally running cartoons of him in pornographic poses.
Unfortunately Pope Francis’ words were prescient. Anti-Charlie Hebdo riots in Niger resulted in at least ten deaths, the destruction of churches and the closure of dispensaries and schools that served the poor.
Freedom of speech must be constrained by courtesy and consideration if we are to live together in peace.