Monday 20 May 2019

The Pope is right, blasphemy exists and it always comes with consequences

Pope Francis gestures to the crowds in Manila yesterday. He has spoken out on how free speech comes with responsibility in the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre.
Pope Francis gestures to the crowds in Manila yesterday. He has spoken out on how free speech comes with responsibility in the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre.

Tim Stanley

Liberals hate the Pope now because he apparently said that free speech shouldn't apply when it comes to religion.

"If my good friend… says a curse word against my mother," Francis joked, "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."

As per usual, His Holiness has been misunderstood. Willfully, the cynic might say. Pope Francis clearly stated that what happened in Paris was abhorrent, that free speech is a human right and that speaking one's mind can be of benefit to the common good (I'd add that sometimes not saying something for fear of causing offence is a sin of omission). All he was pointing out is that when one says something in public, one does so expecting to be heard - and this can have consequences. Those consequences aren't necessarily deserved: in the case of 'Charlie Hebdo' they were plainly evil. Nevertheless, if you say something that shocks someone to their very core don't be surprised if they get a little upset. Insult my mother and, to quote that wordsmith and fellow Catholic William F Buckley, "I'll sock you right in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered." Given that the Pope was merely expressing something that ought to be blindingly obvious, why has it proved so controversial? Because contemporary Westerners struggle to understand the concept of blasphemy. Francis is pointing out that to some people God is emotionally equivalent to their father or mother - He is real, He matters, He is something they would be prepared to die for. He is open to rational inquiry and theological critique, but He isn't necessarily open to insult. Much like it's OK to say, "I do hope your mother's not depressed because she seems to be eating a lot?" But it's not okay to say, "Yo momma's so fat she went out in high heels and came back in flip flops." Yeah, that's gonna earn you a bunch of fives. Here in the West, God is such a devalued concept that we cannot comprehend that believers feel passionately about something we regard as a purely abstract concept.

You might argue that this makes us a lot more tolerant of open debate and liberated from stifling orthodoxy.

But a society that doesn't understand blasphemy also has a distant relationship with the sublime. And this has moral as well as aesthetic implications. Blasphemy is when you ridicule the sacred, which means you ridicule the pinnacle of goodness.

To translate it into secular talk: to parody Jesus is like parodying Martin Luther King Jnr or Nelson Mandela. And a society without heroes is a very sad society indeed. So all the Pope was doing was reminding us that, hey, some people believe in this whole God thing and you ought to be aware when insulting their deity that they take it more seriously than you might realise. Not that this justifies either a punch or a terrorist assault. On the contrary, the Bible tells Christians both to turn the other cheek and to suffer persecution as the inevitable consequence of being right. The Koran, likewise, shows that Mohammed took insults with a smile. The human instinct might be to land a punch, but the wise suffer fools gladly. (© Daily Telegraph London)

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