On his blog yesterday, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf called attention to a Reporters Without Borders initiative to compel religious leaders to acknowledge that blasphemy is a right—one which is higher than (the liberal conception of) religious liberty. Today, in the course of his visit to Asia, Pope Francis had some other thoughts on the matter. Here are some excerpts taken from the translation up at Rorate Caeli.
We cannot provoke, we cannot insult the faith of others, we cannot mock faith.
Pope Benedict, in an address I cannot recall well [note: the Regensburg address] had spoken of this post-positivist mindset, of this post-positivist metaphysics that led, in the end, to believe that all religions, or all religious expressions, are a kind of sub-culture: they are tolerated, but they are irrelevant, they are not in the culture of the Enlightenment. This is a legacy of the Enlightenment.
There are so many people who speak ill of religions, who mock them, who play with the religion of others. They provoke[.] . . . Each religion has dignity, each religion that respects human life and man, and I cannot mock it…it’s a limit. I take the example of the limit to say that, in the matter of the freedom of speech, there are limits[.]
It’s not entirely clear what the Holy Father is driving at here, though it would seem that Francis believes that speech which mocks any religion is morally wrong and can, perhaps, be prohibited legally. As I noted in my unintentionally controversial post, “A Comment on Charlie Hebdo,” actual blasphemy is only committed when it is directed against God and His Holy Church. The Pope appears to have a more broadminded approach to what constitutes blasphemy. It’s not entirely clear why, however. (A “broadminded” approach is not the same as a “liberal approach,” such as what Joe Carter of the Acton Institute defended on Twitter last year.)
Perhaps the Holy Father believes, as a prudential matter, that any mockery of any religion in society is likely to undermine public order because the passions such mockery may inflame. As such, blasphemous speech (broadly understood) is out of bounds. If that is so, then there is no reason why any Catholic should feel compelled to question his words. On the other hand, if the Pope means to imply that all religions are effectively equal or by right warrant equal protection and recognition from men and society, then that may put his off-the-cuff remarks at odds with the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humane, paragraph 1, which, in part, reads: “[This document] leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”
As a final note, it is unclear exactly what constitutes blasphemous speech in the Pope’s mind. Certainly the inflammatory cartoons run regularly in the pages of Charlie Hebdo count. How about a Catholic tract describing the errors of Islam and the falsity of Allah? By Muslim lights, such speech is blasphemous. At the same time, does the Church not have a duty to witness against false religions and lead all people to the truth? How can it faithfully carry out the Great Commission without speaking out forcefully against error? Maybe the Pope, or some enterprising official at the Vatican Press Office, will clarify this matter soon.