Another week, another controversy for Pope Francis.
After he was asked about free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the media was quick to jump on Francis’ remarks, particularly his statement that we cannot “provoke” or cause “offense” to people who practice other faiths, and that if his “great friend” Dr. Gasbarri insults his mother, well, then he can expect a punch.
The media gleefully painted his remarks to seem that Francis was saying that causing offence somehow justifies violence.
But there are two things you should keep in mind about his comments.
Pope Francis listens to a speech during a special audience he held for members of the FOCSIV Italian Catholic volunteers, at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
First, English is not the pope’s primary language, and thus the English speaking world is often limited to translations of the pontiff’s remarks.
Second, the fun little sound bites the media cherry-picked aren’t the full context of his statement. Careful examination of his remarks in their entirety reveals that not only is the pope right, he’s doing his job.
Pope Francis’ full remarks include his view that “religious liberty and liberty of expression” are both “fundamental human rights.” He called killing in the name of God an “aberration:”
“One cannot hide a truth: everyone has the right to practice one’s religion, one’s own religion without giving offense. Freely. That’s how we do it, we want everyone to do that. Second: One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.”
Considering that it was grouped together with “make war” and “kill,” “offense” likely meant something significantly more serious than hurt feelings.
“As for freedom of expression: each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation! Let’s think, if a member of parliament or a senator doesn’t say what he thinks is the right path then he does not collaborate for the common good. Not only these, but many others too.”
When reading any statement made by Francis, it is important to keep in mind that the pope speaks in a moral capacity, not a legal or political one.
He teaches right and wrong, not legal and illegal.
In no way, shape or form did Francis try to restrict my political freedom of expression as a member of the Catholic Church. He was simply trying to offer guidance as to how I should treat others in my journey of faith – which is his job.
He’s essentially saying that one shouldn’t insult the faiths of others because it’s not kind. There’s a vast difference between “hey, that’s not very nice” and “I am offended so I’m going to physically/legislatively stop you from doing that.” Any “limits” he advocated are limits I place on myself; not limits placed on me by civil authorities or violent fanatics.
He’s not advocating stopping people who do choose to mock others either through physical or legal force. He’s simply saying that Christ expects better from us.
During his visit to Sri Lanka, the pope offered some clarity about his view:
“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Each individual must be free, alone or in association with others, to seek the truth, and to openly express his or her religious convictions, free from intimidation and external compulsion. As the life of Saint Joseph Vaz teaches us, genuine worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all.”
The pope is certainly within his rights as a spiritual leader to remind the faithful that a right as absolutely vital as freedom comes with responsibility. God gave us free will to do good, not evil, a belief reflective of centuries of Catholic teaching. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1733 states that “there is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to ‘the slavery of sin.’”
The day after the attack, the pope celebrated mass for the victims, and mourned their loss.
“The attack in Paris yesterday makes us think of so much cruelty, human cruelty; of so much terrorism, both of isolated acts of terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism. The cruelty that man is capable of! Let us pray at this Mass for the victims of this cruelty. So many! And let us also ask for the cruel ones, that the Lord may change their hearts,” Francis prayed.
Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino
These are not the words of a man who thinks that the staff at Charlie Hebdo had it coming.
It is also worth noting that Pope Francis clearly doesn’t kowtow to fanatics, as he is a target of the terrorist group Islamic State. Maybe he “offended” them.
Kathryn Jean Lopez at the National Review wrote that the pope’s remarks were not a “gaffe,” but rather a “challenge.”
“With freedom comes responsibility. Be good. Be civil. Be respectful,” she said.
Pope Francis’ job is to provide wisdom and guidance to the faithful - a job he is doing well, despite what some media outlets would have you think.
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