Sticks and Stones

Pope Francis Questions Free Speech in the Charlie Hebdo Case

The pontiff certainly did not endorse the murder of journalists, but he suggested that the bitter reaction against the satirical weekly’s caricatures is predictable.

01.15.15 5:46 PM ET

ROME — Pope Francis shocked journalists on the papal plane between Sri Lanka and the Philippines Thursday when, commenting on the murderous attack against French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, he said that people who “provoke” or “offend” others should not be “surprised” when such acts are avenged.

No, the pope did not say it was ok for jihadists to execute cartoonists, nor did he condone their action. In response to a question from a French reporter, he said that it is “an aberration to kill in the name of God.” But he did slalom along a very fine line about how far is too far when it comes to mocking faith. 

By way of example, according to the Vatican spokesman, Francis pointed to Alberto Gasparri the papal trip organizer who was standing by the pontiff on the plane.  He pointed to Gasparri and said, “If he says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” at which point he air-boxed the papal assistant.  “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

So much for turning the other cheek.  Francis then went on to say that freedom of speech has its limits. When asked to clarify the difference between freedom of religion and freedom of speech Francis said, “People who make fun of, who toy with other people’s religions,” he said, “risk running into what would happen to [the friend] if he said something against my mother.”

The pope openly condemned the Paris massacre during his angelus in Rome, but this is the first time he has spoken directly to reporters about the matter.

Charlie Hebdo has often had the Pope in its sights, lampooning the Catholic leader.  Even in the latest “survivors’” edition of the newspaper, which is being printed by the millions, the pope is depicted in a number of borderline cartoons. In one he is giving communion to a group of large-breasted divorcees with their tongues sticking out under the caption, “My God, forgive these cock suckers.” Another cartoon depicts an elderly nun known for her work with the poor in Egypt under the caption, “Down here I masturbated, but in heaven I’m going to suck dicks.”

On Thursday, Francis went on to draw a fine line between freedom of religion and free speech.  “I think freedom of religion and freedom of expression are both fundamental human rights,” he said, according to reports from the plane.  “Everyone has not only the freedom and the right but the obligation to say what he thinks for the common good. … We have the right to have this freedom openly without offending.”

Francis also went on to say that he wasn’t worried about his own security with regard to reported threats against the Vatican by the so-called Islamic State, including the depiction of St. Peter’s square with a black jihadist flag flying atop the obelisk there.  “I do worry about the faithful, though,” he said.  “You all know well that I have a defect,” what he called “a good dose of unconsciousness” that keeps him from dwelling on fear.  “I know that I am in God’s hands, but I also know that we take prudent and efficient security measures. For the rest, we just hope for the best!”