The Media Have Completely Misrepresented Pope Francis on Charlie Hebdo

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

For the last week, as the world has recovered from the shocking and wicked murders of twelve staff at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, as well as two policeman and four hostages in subsequent violent encounters, much debate has occurred over the concept of freedom of speech. Recently, in not entirely unexpected comments to journalists on his way to the Philippines, Pope Francis weighed in on the question, decrying the violence, but also maintaining that it is wrong to mock other people’s religious faith.

Using the analogy of his own mother and Dr. Alberto Gasbarri (the Papal Trip organiser), the Holy Father stated, “… if Dr. Gasbarri, a great friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him. But it’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

This provoked predictable responses from those whose own anti-religious bias led them to mis-read the Holy Father’s words. The British Humanist Association (BHA) caricatured what he said as “Pope says violence justified if religious people offended”, a theme was unthinkingly repeated by other religion-baiters like Nick Cohen and Polly Toynbee, who even managed to compare the Pope to a ‘wife-beater’.

Not just the usual anti-Theist suspects made this assumption however, but even those more religiously inclined. Prime Minister David Cameron was widely reported as criticising Pope Francis, when on CBS he said, “I’m a Christian – if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have the right to, sort of, wreak my vengeance on them”. His fellow liberal Anglican, Lord Harries (former Bishop of Oxford) said he was “aghast” at the Pope’s comments, since “[t]he reference to a punch could easily be taken for a justification of violence in response to insult”.

To the extent that Lord Harries’s comment is even vaguely correct, it is only in reference to people who had never bothered to read what the Holy Father actually said. Those who did easily realised that his reading, like that of Cameron, Cohen and Toynbee, is patent nonsense. The point that Pope Francis was making was descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, he stated what can be expected to happen when some people traduce what (and who, or even Who) is most beloved by others, not that such outrage-motivated violence is somehow laudable behaviour. Moreover, what he said is indisputable. Anyone who doubts it can walk into any pub and see how far they get insulting other people’s Mums before they receive a verbal, if not physical, slapping.

Yet if this distinction was lost on Cameron et al, we should perhaps be less surprised that people more generally seem to have failed to make the necessary deeper distinction that the Holy Father made, between the legal and the moral. That is, what we are allowed or forbidden to do according to the law, and what we ought or ought not to do regardless of whether or not it is legally proscribed.

Since the murders in Paris took place, anyone who demurred from joining the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (‘I am Charlie’) campaign, and media outlets who refused to reproduce their cartoons, were criticised as being appeasers of terrorist violence, who implicitly compromised any support they might have on freedom of speech. As was anyone who expressed even mild criticism of Charlie Hebdo itself. Such attacks were, and are, incredibly misconceived foolishness, because they failed to distinguish between supporting someone’s freedom to publish something, and supporting their moral right to such an action.

As seems obvious, Charlie Hebdo is putrid trash. It makes no clever or insightful points, but simply gratuitously insults and degrades other people and their beliefs in the crassest, most mean-spirited way. It is graphic thuggery, and social vandalism. We’re not talking about a systematic critique of Islamism, or even Islam here, still less can we compare to the true satire of, say, Private Eye. Hebdo had long published cartoons that are blasphemous and offensive in the most vulgar and nasty way, towards the Christian faith as well as Islam.

As a Catholic, for me to identify with such a publication would suggest that what they do is less morally objectionable that it truly is. In much the same way that if the headquarters of the National Front or the Stalin Society were bombed by extremists offended by their anti-Islamism or atheism, I could not say “I am the National Front”, or “I am Stalin”, so I could not identify with Hebdo. I can support their legal freedom of speech, but in doing so to morally support what they spoke would be unconscionable.

This failure to distinguish between legal and right may be at the core of the insistence by some students who use ‘safe space’ policies to shut down debates and talks on campus by groups with which they disagree, and to justify this chilling of speech due to their moral judgement of the content of what would have been said. Yet it has also been behind the worst commentary on the Paris attacks. For some, anything less than full-throated celebration of Charlie Hebdo is a capitulation to the terrorists. Thus, for the Pope to have the balance and nuance to suggest that people should be free to publish, yet should not have desecrated what others find sacred, and for him to simply notice that when such desecration happens people may react violently, is presented as beyond the pale.

What the Pope said was spot on. On the one hand, we should have the legal freedom to publish and say even stupid or offensive things. On the other, we ought not to publish some (stupid, offensive) things, and have every right to judge what other people say as such. To paraphrase the ubiquitous Voltaire quote employed by the Hebdo triumphalists: I defend your freedom to say what you say, but I reserve the right to disagree with, and even to excoriate, your saying it.

Peter D. Williams is a Catholic commentator and Executive Officer for Right to Life UK