Pope Francis has given his opinion on the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s continued sharp criticism and sarcasm regarding religious beliefs. The pope has stated that there should be limits to free expression. In particular, one should not “insult the faith of others.” He analogized criticism of religious beliefs to someone cursing his mother, saying that such a person “can expect a punch.”
Pope Francis is wrong.
There’s a world of difference between criticism of a religious belief and insulting someone’s loved one. Given that he is a tireless and effective evangelist for his own faith, the pope is well aware that religious beliefs are (usually) expressly and vigorously promoted. Members of the public are told repeatedly that these are important beliefs that they should accept. Accordingly, those who find flaws in these beliefs may, quite appropriately, point out these flaws. Religious claims should be treated like political claims or any other claims advanced in the public square. They should not be immune from criticism.
But what about ridicule? Isn’t that going too far? Ridicule should be used sparingly, for practical reasons if no other. It can become tiresome. But ridicule used judiciously can often be effective in puncturing inflated claims, again, whether these claims are political, religious, or otherwise. Kim Jong-un didn’t especially care for the ridicule he received in The Interview, and he delivered a digital punch as a result, but presumably this is not an example the pope would endorse. Those loyal to Kim regard him as sacred as the prophets revered by various religions. We can’t say ridicule is permissible in one instance, but not the other.
Perhaps the pope needs to be reminded that most faiths, including Christianity, have themselves resorted to ridicule to disparage rival beliefs. St. Augustine devoted much of his monumental City of God to merciless and relentless ridicule of pagan religious beliefs. If Augustine can mock Zeus, why should the Trinity be off limits?
Of course, ridicule can be excessive or mean-spirited. The remedy for truly outrageous ridicule, however, is supplied by the marketplace. We are free to shun those who we think have gone too far, or decline to buy their magazines or listen to their programs. The remedy is not, as the pope suggests, violence, whether it is violence carried out by the state or private individuals who are offended by the ridicule.
If Pope Francis does not want religious beliefs criticized, then he should advise all believers to keep their views private—as private as his relationship with his mother. Undoubtedly, though, he will not do that, and when he does continue to make claims in public about the truths of Christianity, these claims are properly subject to criticism, whether that criticism takes the form of a scholarly rebuttal or a satirical cartoon.