The punching pope

Last Sunday I spent ages unsuccessfully searching Google for that incident involving Bill Clinton, but today a very similar incident occurred involving Pope Francis. While talking to journalists about the recent Charlie Hebdo killings he said freedom of speech was a fundamental human right and strongly condemned what had happened in Paris, but added that there are limits to freedom of expression and that ‘one cannot make fun of faith’. Having said that ‘such horrific violence in God’s name could not be justified’, he basically went on to contradict himself by adding ‘One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits. If my good friend Dr Gasparri [the guy who organises papal trips and was standing by his side] 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.’ What he was actually saying was that a perceived insult can be sufficient justification for physical violence, and that such violence was ‘normal’. His only problem with the Charlie Hebdo killers, then, was that they’d gone too far: punching someone is allowed, but shooting them isn’t.

He realises, quite correctly, that Catholicism has a lot more in common with Islam than it does with the sort of secular, rationalist, materialist philosophy which has gained so much ground on religion over the past few centuries – religion is under attack, so the religions of the world have to stand together. I wonder whether Pope Francis would have defended the right of the Monty Python team to make ‘Life of Brian’. But the most interesting point is his defence of violence as a reaction to ‘insult’, because that behaviour is ‘normal’. I would agree that answering ‘insult’ with violence is ‘normal’, in the sense that it’s a pretty standard phenomenon in all cultures and ages, but Pope Francis is using the word ‘normal’ not just to indicate how things are, but also how things should be, or at the very least he’s saying that such behaviour is not deserving of condemnation or disapproval. Like the true conservative that he is (and how could anyone who isn’t a conservative – except perhaps in comparison to other popes and churchmen – ever be elected pope?), he’s working on the principle that the way people usually think and act is basically OK and should be accepted.

I always thought Christians were supposed to ‘turn the other cheek’ in such circumstances, but that seems to have gone out of fashion. Well, what can you expect from someone who used to work as a bouncer? This incident is very similar to the one involving Clinton, and the reaction of the world’s press was almost equally forgiving. While one Italian newspaper saw his remarks as ‘a lapse’ which can happen to anyone (even ‘to a Pope who knows you shouldn’t punch people’), others described them as ‘colourful’ or ‘plain-speaking’. One Brazilian daily (Folha de Sao Paolo) was more negative, with a front-page headline of ‘Francisco why don’t you shut up’, but I don’t know if they were criticising him for the same reason as I am.

BTW, there’s an excellent article here about Pope Francis’s views on free speech, insult and violence.

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