I was surprised when a friend told me Pope Francis basically condoned the Charlie Hebdo attacks. (This was in response to me saying, “as far as Pope’s go, Francis is pretty good.” A sentiment I’ll try to avoid in the future.) I looked up exactly what The Pope had said:
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.
He went on:
There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.
Seriously Frank? In your infallibility, the best you’ve got is: don’t tease us or you may get punched? That’s some low level thinking. Certainly incompatible with liberal democracy, and it does indeed provide cover to heinous attacks like the ones on Charlie Hebdo. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee had an excellent rebuke to such dangerous nonsense:
Oh yes, you can. You may not choose to. It may not be wise or polite or kind – but you can. And to show you can, without being gunned down, Charlie Hebdo has just gone on sale in the UK, in bolder outlets, proudly defiant with an image of Muhammad on the cover – though with a tear and a kindly thought: “All is forgiven.”
Charlie Hebdo’s cover will no doubt offend some Muslims – and possibly provoke some. That’s the role of a satirical magazine: to stick two fingers up to propriety. It is a belch in the face of established taste and dignity. You can buy it or not, find it funny or not. Its previous circulation was small, but knowing anything can be said keeps the outer edges of free expression healthy.
Francis is building up this idea that religious beliefs are special. That they are off limits to satire, mockery, and criticism because… well, because lots of people really really really believe them. Oh and they’re old too! Sorry Frank, but in a free society, your religious beliefs are open to the same scrutiny as any other belief system or idea.
The Pope’s comments remind me to not fall into the trap of thinking he is progressive (made harder by the incessant media fawning). He still heads up the same archaic organization which openly won’t promote women within its ranks; which openly discriminates against homosexuals; which has a long history of rampant child-rape and subsequent cover-ups; which is partly responsible for the spread of HIV in Africa because God hates condoms; and I could go on. But we aren’t allowed to criticise any of that! Or we can, but there may be a justified violent retaliation.
Update: here’s another good article on why religion deserves ridicule, and why The Pope is flat WRONG.