Pope Francis stirs controversy in debate about freedom of speech

Pope Francis is welcomed by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III upon his arrival at Villamor Air Base in Manila.
Pope Francis is welcomed by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III upon his arrival at Villamor Air Base in Manila.
(Dondi Tawatao, Getty Images)

Pope Francis on Thursday stirred fresh controversy in the debate over freedom of speech and individual responsibility with a remark that suggested that a violent reaction to insults should be expected.

In an on-board news conference with journalists traveling with him to the Philippines from Sri Lanka, the pontiff was asked for his views after last week’s terror attacks in Paris on the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and respect for others’ religious beliefs.

Francis had said after the Jan. 7 attacks incited by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s lampooning of the Muslim prophet Muhammad that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right but that ridiculing another’s deity was disrespectful.

Asked by a French journalist Thursday “up to what point can one go in freedom of expression?” Francis replied that both religious liberty and liberty of expression are fundamental human rights.


“Everyone has the right to practice one’s religion, one’s own religion without giving offense,” the pope replied, according to a transcript of his comments published by Vatican Radio. But he added that “one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.”

In an apparent attempt at making light of the consequences of insulting others, the pontiff turned to Alberto Gasbarri, the Vatican travel organizer standing beside him.

“If Dr. Gasbarri, a good friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him,” Francis said, dealing a mock blow in the direction of the aide’s face. “It’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

While the pope had made clear his condemnation of violence in earlier remarks on the recent terror strikes, his suggestion that violent responses to offensive statements or gestures should be expected enflamed the emotional debate over whether free speech has boundaries in a free society.

In response to a flurry of media requests for clarification, Vatican spokesman Thomas Rosica issued a statement asserting that the pope’s comments and gesture were “in no way intended to be interpreted as a justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week.”

The pope’s exchange with Gasbarri was “in a friendly, intimate matter among colleagues and friends on the journey,” Rosica said.

“The pope’s free style of speech, especially in situations like the press conference must be taken at face value and not distorted or manipulated,” the spokesman said. “Violence begets violence. Pope Francis has not advocated violence with his words on the flight.”

The pope later arrived in Manila for a five-day visit that will be the final leg of his Asian tour. He was greeted by President Benigno Aquino III. As he emerged from his plane, church bells tolled across the country and children greeted him with dance performances and waving of Philippine and Vatican flags, the Associated Press reported.


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