While there have been popes who have earned the epithet “the Great,” it looks like Francis is risking a very different one: “the Violent.” Even though he tends to come across all goody-goody, “who am I to judge”-y, during the course of the last couple of weeks he has spoken both of punching someone and of kicking them “where the sun never shines.”
Fortunately, paragons of pacifism, like the British Prime Minister David Cameron, have come out to condemn such brutality and thuggishness, insisting that no one has the right to “wreak vengeance.” Thank goodness for that! Where would we be without pillars of the international community like David Cameron? Rogues like Pope Francis would be left unchecked and free to perpetrate their injurious misdeeds without impunity!
With that out of the way, let’s turn to what the pope actually said, and look at whether it merited the prime-ministerial admonition that followed. On the flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, during his recent visit to Asia, Pope Francis said the following, in response to a question about the limits of freedom of expression (asked days after the Charlie Hebdo attack):
“Each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation! [...] We have the obligation to speak openly, to have this freedom, but without giving offense, because, it is true, one mustn’t react violently, but if Dr. Gasbarri,1 a great friend, insults my mum to my face, he gets a punch. It’s normal! It’s normal. You mustn’t provoke, you mustn’t insult other people’s faith, you mustn’t make fun of faith. [...]Before jumping straight in, let’s also look at what he said when, a couple of days later, he was asked about his answer during the flight back from Manila to Rome:
Many people who speak badly about religions, make fun of them, we could say treat other people’s religions like toys, these people provoke, and what can occur is the same as what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mum. There is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit. I have used this example of a limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that with regard to my mum.”2
“In theory we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation, in theory yes, it is not a good thing, one shouldn’t do it. In theory we can say what the Gospel says, that we should turn the other cheek. In theory we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. In theory we all agree.Oh ... So, Pope Francis wasn’t calling for physical violence in response to offense or provocation, and neither was he inciting his 1.2 billion followers to “wreak vengeance,” as the Right Honourable David Cameron, MP, suggested. In fact, even just a closer reading of the original reference to punching Dr. Gasbarri contains clues to what Francis unpacked during the second interview: he said “[if he] insults my mum to my face, he gets a punch,” not “if he insults my mum, then I am obliged to punch him” or “it is my right to punch him” or “the right thing to do is for me to punch him, and punch him I will!,” or “I go away and plan revenge against him in cold blood and with deadly force.” Strictly speaking, Francis points out that Gasbarri insulting his mum runs the risk of triggering a reflex in the heat of the moment. And this is precisely what Francis then elaborates on in the second interview: let us not reason about freedom of expression in a conceptual vacuum, divorced from a realism about human psychology. Insults and offense risk triggering “an unjust reaction,” and in spite of being unjust, one should take the likelihood of such injustice into account.
But we are human and there’s prudence which is a virtue of human coexistence. I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously because I risk making them angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just. But that’s human. For this reason I say that freedom of expression must take account of the human reality and for this reason one must be prudent.
It’s a way of saying that one must be polite, prudent. Prudence is the virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here, I can go up to there, and there, beyond that no. What I wanted to say is that in theory we all agree: there is freedom of expression, a violent aggression is not good, it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice let us stop a little because we are human and we risk to provoke others. For this reason freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.”
It could sound like Francis is advocating a ban on any form of criticism directed at religion and is just maneuvering to preempt having the Catholic Church criticized. Such a reading, however, is unsubstantiated. Already in the first answer, Francis emphasizes other religions rather than his own, where what he says could be restated as follows: “Don’t insult other people’s religions, because they might take it the way I might take having my mum insulted. This could make me punch the offender, even though I wouldn’t be proud of myself afterwards and such behavior would not be what the Gospel teaches. But, I too am only human and can get angry when provoked.” Far from calling for violence, Francis is clear about it being wrong, but, at the same time, he reminds his audience of it being prudent to take its possibility into account when one offends another.
That Francis is not thinking here gagging criticisms of the Catholic Church should also be clear from what he has been saying pretty much since his election as pope, where he himself has been razor-sharp in pointing out the flaws of the Church with bluntness and linguistic zest. Here the most recent and brutal example were his “Christmas Greetings” to the Roman Curia last December, where he listed 15 “diseases” whose symptoms he has observed in their conduct, including “mental and spiritual petrification,” “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease,” “rivalry and vainglory,” “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting,” and “self-exhibition.” “Christmas Greetings” indeed!
Finally, let’s also look at the other instance of Francis referring to being violent himself. During the same interview from Manila to Rome, a journalist asked Francis about corruption in the Church, where his answer included the following:
“I remember once, in the year 1994, when I had been scarcely named bishop of the Flores quarter of Buenos Aires, two employees or functionaries of a ministry came to me to tell me, “You have so much need here with so many poor in the villas miserias (shanty towns).” “Oh yes,” I said, and they told me “We can help you. We have, if you want, a subsidy of 400,000 pesos.” At that time, the exchange rate with the dollar was one to one. $400,000. “You can do that?” “Yes, yes.” I listened because, when the offer is so big, even the saint is challenged. And they went on: “To do this, we make the deposit and then you give us half for ourselves.” In that moment I thought about what I would do: either I insult them and give them a kick where the sun never shines or I play the fool. I played the fool and said, in truth, we at the vicariate don’t have an account; you have to make the deposit at the archdiocese’s office (chancery) with the receipt. And that was it. “Oh, we didn’t know.” And they left. But later I thought, if these two landed without even asking for a runway -- it’s a bad thought -- it’s because someone else said yes. But it’s a bad thought, no?”Again, the thought of violence (to “kick where the sun never shines”) is triggered by offense (being offered a bribe), but again Francis only points to the impulse to such a response and spells out his having chosen another path.
Looking over all that Francis has said, both in the context of freedom of expression and when recounting his brush with corruption, I see someone who has his eyes wide open, someone who understands both what the right thing is to do, what should happen ideally, in theory, and the risks and dangers that come into play because of human weakness and sinfulness - both conditions he openly self-applies. His talking about limits to freedom of expression here does neither equal a call for legally curbing it, nor does it mean that those limits are absolute. Instead, they are tempered by prudence and may even involve getting “bruised, hurting and dirty” (Evangelii Gaudium §49) when it comes to speaking freely for the common good.
1 Dr. Gasbarri is the papal trip organizer, who was standing beside him during the interview (see the photo at the top of this post for Francis being mid-punch against his obviously distressed victim :).
2 Note that this quote departs from the America magazine English translation in an effort to provide as close a rendering of Pope Francis’ Italian words. This comes at the expense of some awkwardness of expression, but with - I believe - a closer sense of the simplicity and nuances of his words especially regarding the scenario of his punching Dr. Gasbarri.