The Pope of Rome hath erred. Again.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pope Francis was asked by journalists aboard the papal plane what he thought of the latest episode of jihadi terrorism. He didn’t say it’s fine for irked Islamists to annihilate blasphemous cartoonists. Nor did he advocate summary execution for ‘disrespecting’ or ‘insulting’ each others prophets. Indeed, he was unequivocal that: “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion – that is, in the name of God.” And he pressed the point home: “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”
But he then went on to say something which has been interpreted by many (indeed, it’s hard to interpret his words any other way) as conveying a sense that the French satirists basically got what was coming to them; that if you scoff at God’s sacred word and scorn His infallible messenger, you must expect “a punch”. His precise words have circled the earth:
“If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against 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.”
And he helpfully illustrated his extemporary ‘Parable of the Cursed Mother’ with a bout of air boxing in the direction of Alberto Gasparri, the papal trips organiser, who smiled kindly as the pugnacious Pope dramatised his homily. It is unclear in this parable what happens if your mother happens to be Myra Hindley, Irma Grese, Beverley Allitt or Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary. Would Carol Thatcher be justified is punching those who called her mother a witch? Didn’t Jesus reserve one or two choice words and phrases for religious hypocrites and false prophets?
Parables, of course, are not literal. The Pope’s punch serves the same illustrative purpose as salt, pearls, sowers, builders, wheat, weeds, lost sheep and barren fig trees. But he did say that if you “provoke”, “insult” or “make fun” of people’s religion, there would be a “normal” reaction; i.e., if you “insult” Mohammed, you must expect a retaliatory “punch”. It would be the natural reaction.
Interviewed about this by Bob Scieffer for CBS in the Unites States, David Cameron responded:
“I think in a free society, there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian; if someone says something offensive about Jesus, I might find that offensive, but in a free society I don’t have a right to wreak vengeance on them. We have to accept that newspapers, magazines, can publish things that are offensive to some, as long as it’s within the law. That is what we should defend.”
This isn’t the first time the Prime Minister has remonstrated with the Pope. Shortly after the Holy Spirit had selected him (the Pope, that is; not the Prime Minister), it came to light that as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio he had commented on the Falkand Islands, which he felt belonged to Argentina. Cameron’s terse riposte alluded to the Falklanders’ recent referendum on sovereignty, in which 99.8 per cent of the population said they wished to remain British. “The white smoke over the Falklands was pretty clear,” Cameron quipped. And there was a more cordial exchange of differences over the economic priorities of the G8 in 2013. This Pope’s grasp of self-gratifying principles and hellish torment is not as sound as it might be.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, his government has strengthened freedom of expression by removing the prohibition on “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. We still may not make utterances that are likely to cause anxiety, distress or alarm, but we may now apparently insult or curse with impunity. So, if you wish to denounce the Pope as the Antichrist, you are free to do so. If you wish to immerse an effigy of Jesus in a tank of piss, it is your right. If you wish to publish a picture of Mohammed as a terrorist, or print that he was a murderer, rapist, paedophile or false prophet, you may do so in the United Kingdom at least – without expecting a retaliatory “punch”.
But don’t be surprised if you receive one.
And don’t be surprised if politicians then do precious little about it.