Stephen McGinty: A case of papal fallibility?

Pope Francis said that if his tour manager Alberto Gasparri (left) cursed his mother it would be 'natural' for him to be punched. Picture: AP

Pope Francis said that if his tour manager Alberto Gasparri (left) cursed his mother it would be 'natural' for him to be punched. Picture: AP

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If you’re a Christian leader, the party line on handling hatred is to turn the other cheek. So why did Pope Francis suggest that insults to faith should be met with violence? asks Stephen McGinty

HOW big a punch do you think Pope Francis can pack? Do you think if he really put his weight behind it he could knock you off your feet?

I have spent a morning ruminating on the pugilistic prowess of Popes. If we look at Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, one has to conclude that he does not have the appearance of a natural scrapper. If the issue of liberation theology was to have been settled in a cage fight, I think Fr Leonardo Boff might now be Pope. If suitably provoked, I think Pope Benedict would, like Monty Burns in The Simpsons, struggle to even raise his wrists and would instead send in his own Smithers – the Swiss Guards – to sort you out. Now, having been huckled out of St Peter’s Square by a pair of plainclothes Swiss Guards after accidentally/on purpose clambering over a barrier as a short cut, I can testify from personal experience about their lightning moves.

Pope John Paul II? Now there was a Pontiff who had the appearance of a man who could handle himself in a bar-room brawl, a former goalkeeper and keen alpine skier. I’m sure he could have packed a considerable right hook.

It is not common to ponder the combat ability of the most high-profile representative of the “Prince of Peace”, but when it comes to Pope Francis, one can at least apply the bloody- nosed cry of schoolboys around the world and declare: “He started it!”

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In a conversation with journalists at the rear of the papal plane returning from a successful trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis attempted to illustrate the limits of freedom of speech by using his tour co-ordinator, Dr Alberto Gasparri, as a prop. Clutching a microphone in one hand and with the other curled into a fist, the Pope said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch, it’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

He went on to say: “Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression, there are limits.” It was indeed a deeply strange response, one which should shock and disturb people, but one with which he will probably get away with on account of the bank of goodwill he has accrued over the past two years since his election. There will be those who will nod their head, not just hot-headed Latin Americans or Italians who love their mama, who will agree that the only natural response to a verbal smear against one’s mother is to resort to violence.

Pope Francis was being asked his response to the publication of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo on whose cover is a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad weeping, while holding a sign that says: “I am Charlie”, with a headline that reads: “All is forgiven”. The previous week the Pope had condemned utterly the murderous attack on the satirical French magazine, but this week, with many of the victims now buried, he allowed himself a little leeway.

Now, he didn’t say: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect to be shot.” No, he was moderate in the appropriate use of violence. A punch, maybe two, no more. Just enough for Dr Gasparris to learn that it is unwise to curse the name of Regina Maria Sivoris in the presence of her little boy.

The problem with Charlie Hebdo was they did what they had no choice but to do, which was to rise up unbowed and repeat the “blasphemy” for which so many of their staff paid a fatal price. Anything less would be an admission of defeat, and yet could we really expect the Pope to say such a thing? Perhaps we should.

The key point to remember about the Catholic Church is that for all its good deeds – and I believe they are legion – it can be deeply duplicitous. Pope Francis said on the plane that with liberty of expression came the obligation to speak for “the common good”.

Yet who decides what is for the “common good”? For decades the Catholic Church felt that protecting the faith of millions by suppressing clerical abuse was for “the common good”. What if this global discussion about whether there should be limits on free speech was for “the common good”?

The tragic fact is that in so many Islamic nations freedom of speech is as progressive as in 17th century Scotland, when a young student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged for blasphemy with the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland urging a “vigorous execution” as a means of preventing “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”. A Scot remains in prison in Pakistan sentenced to death for blasphemy, and this week a religious demonstration in the country was calling for the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo to be hanged for their latest outrage. Does anyone believe nations such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would not benefit from freedom of speech? And how many centuries will it take to evolve to the point where Muhammad can be safely mocked in the same manner as Jesus Christ is today?

We should also cast a sceptical eye over Pope Francis’s comment that: “You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression, there are limits.” Yet the Catholic Church affording “every religion its dignity” is a relatively new development from an institution that once launched crusades, burned non-believers and believed it could only be beneficial for a child of Jews to be baptised and raised as a Catholic. The Jesuits, of whom Pope Francis is one, barred candidates of Jewish descent until 1946 and it was only after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s that the Catholic Church decided that other faiths were not, as they had long argued, steep chutes delivering their adherents to the fires of Hell but had, in fact, the capacity to deliver souls to Heaven, even if it was by the spiritual equivalent of the tradesman’s entrance.

Lets be clear, it may not be pleasant to make fun of the faith of others, it may not be polite and you may indeed cause grave offence, but what is the alternative? To recall the blasphemy laws and rope faith off from criticism and insult, when it is often so richly deserved? Jesus Christ taught that when you were struck, you did not retaliate, instead you offered your other cheek. The least one expects of the Pope is to remember the party line and not re-write Christian teaching to authorise a pre-emptive strike against a hail of words. Still for many people it will calcify his “man of the people” popularity.

The Pope continued his pugilistic sermon by moving on from the freedom of speech to the environment and stated that “man has slapped the face of nature”. So where did this physicality come from? In Buenos Aries, as young man and before he joined the Catholic seminary, the future Pope Francis took a part-time job: as a nightclub doorman. I’m sure there are people alive today who could testify on how big a punch the Pope can pack.

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