Pope Francis has addressed last week's deadly Islamist attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and his remarks will disappoint anyone who believes in the free and unfettered exchange of ideas and expression. On Thursday, the pontiff threw his zucchetto in with the I'm-all-for-free-speech-but crowd while showing a surprising capacity for (mild) violence when he compared mocking religion with insulting one's mother:
"I believe you cannot react violently. But if my good friend Doctor Gasparri [who organizes my trips] speaks badly of my mother, he can expect a punch. It's normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit."
This disgraceful take on free speech echoes the position of his predecessor, who responded in like fashion to the riots and killing that ensued after a Danish newspaper also published cartoons of Muhammad, in 2005. In that sorry episode, Benedict XVI said that while the violent response to the cartoons wasn't justified, "In the international context we are living at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected." He added that believers should "not be the object of provocations that wound their lives and religious sentiments."
Although the Catholic Church is the most seasoned prosecutor of the war on blasphemy with nearly two millennia of service, its arsenal has diminished concomitantly with its power and influence, which has been waning for several centuries. Once a force revered by European monarchs, the papacy is now mostly a ceremonial institution. The agonizing inquisitions of Torquemada's time have given way to impotent preachments that the faithful readily ignore. God is now openly questioned, doubted, and mocked in the same space where the pope says nice things in 140 characters or less. When His Holiness speaks about the limits of freedom of speech and admonishes against insulting mothers, the internet crafts mom jokes specifically for him.
As for Francis' recommendation that religion shouldn't be made fun of or insulted, I regret to inform him that religion is virtually self-mocking, and his faith is no exception. Catholicism is an insult to rationality and decency. The evidence for its god is nil. The existence of the supposedly miraculous (and one would assume noteworthy) Jesus isn't spoken of by any writers of the time. The vicarious redemption of humanity through Jesus' brutal sacrifice is grossly immoral and the ultimate act of scapegoating. The doctrine of transubstantiation yields the disturbing conclusion that all who receive the Eucharist are cannibals. The female sex is excluded from the clergy. The Church's teachings on birth control are downright evil and have caused immense suffering in developing countries where for years the Vatican has preferred AIDS to condoms. More than anything, Catholicism is a doctrine of self-loathing, teaching as it does that we were born evil and that the only way to be saved is through god, to whom the Church just so happens to have a direct line.
While Pope Francis may have some liberals swooning over him for having softer rhetoric than his predecessors on social issues, he is still very much a reactionary. His shameful view on the freedom of speech has left no doubt about that.
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