ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Alluding to an attack on a French magazine that left 12 people dead in reprisal for satirical depictions of Muhammad, Pope Francis today condemned the violence, but also said there are limits to free speech — especially when it involves religion.
In particular, the pope said, one shouldn’t abuse freedom of expression to “provoke” or “offend” others deliberately, and also shouldn’t be surprised when they react to such taunts.
Even in the case of a dear friend, Francis said, “If he says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose. That’s normal.”
“People who make fun of, who toy with other people’s religions, he said, risk running into “what would happen to [that friend] if he said something against my mother.”
During an airborne news conference en route to the Philippines on Thursday, Francis also said:
- He plans to finish his keenly awaited encyclical on the environment in March, with the document likely to appear in June or July. He also seemed to agree that climate change is man-made.
- He recognizes risks to his personal security, whether from terrorism or simply over-excited crowds, but has a “healthy dose of obliviousness” about it.
- On his trip to the United States in September, he plans to canonize Junípero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary who helped plant the Church on the West Coast.
- He defended his decision to make a surprise visit to a Buddhist temple on Wednesday in Sri Lanka, calling it a sign that the Catholic Church “has grown a lot” in terms of respect for other religions.
Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine where 12 people were slain, was renowned for publishing content that ridiculed Muhammad, the founder of Islam, including occasionally running cartoons of him in pornographic poses.
In the immediate wake of the attacks, Francis denounced them as “abhorrent” in a Vatican statement.
On Thursday, Francis was asked a question by a French journalist about how to balance religious freedom against freedom of expression, and he immediately linked his answer to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
“You’re French, so let’s talk about Paris, let’s speak clearly,” he said.
“One cannot make war [or] kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God,” Francis said. “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”
That said, Francis also insisted that free speech does not imply total license to insult or offend another’s faith.
“One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” the pope said, speaking in Italian.
“Every religion has its dignity … and I cannot make fun of it,” the pope said. “In freedom of expression there are limits, like in regard to my mom.”
In sum, the pope appeared to be saying that while nothing can justify the kind of violence witnessed in the Paris attacks, that doesn’t mean “everything goes” in terms of how to present religion in public.
In American Catholic circles, the pope’s words may be read in light of a recent controversy featuring William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a group that monitors anti-Catholic bias.
Donohue published a statement Jan. 7 stating that “killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned,” but at the same time Muslims had a right to be angry about being “intentionally insulted” by the magazine.
The statement triggered a wave of criticism, and generated a debate about the proper reaction to satirical or critical portrayals of religious figures.
On climate change, Francis was asked if he believes it is largely a result of human activity.
“I don’t know about all of it, but for the most part it is man who continually slaps nature around,” the pope said. “We have exploited nature too much. Thanks be to God that today there are voices, so many people who are speaking out about it.”
Francis’ impending encyclical on the environment will the first time a pope has devoted such an important teaching document to the subject. The pope said that he now has a third draft in hand, and plans to take a week in March to finish it.
After that, he said, it will have to be translated into the various major languages used by the Vatican, and should be ready for publication in June or July.
The pontiff implied that he wants the encyclical to be out in time to influence a global summit on climate change set for Paris in December, after the last round in Peru failed to reach an agreement.
“The meetings in Peru were nothing much, I was disappointed,” he said. “There was a lack of courage. They stopped at a certain point. We hope that in Paris the representatives have more courage to go forward.”
The ultimate goal of U.N. climate negotiations is to stabilize greenhouse gases at a level that keeps global warming below 2 degrees C (3.6 F), compared with pre-industrial times. Negotiations culminating in the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 meeting in Paris will rise or fall on two key points: How to divide responsibility for global warming and how to pay to fight it.
The developed world uses fossil fuels to build roads, cities, and houses; emerging economies want to have the same chances to grow as quickly as possible. Island nations and low-lying countries, meanwhile, worry that rising sea levels will swamp them and say they need money to adjust.
Francis also lamented deforestation, soil erosion, and other environmental maladies, saying he once was part of an appeal to Argentina’s Supreme Court to try to halt the destruction of a forest.
On security matters, the pope was asked if he ever wonders whether ordinary believers who turn out for one of his events might be at risk, either from a terrorist attack or simply the over-enthusiasm of a crowd.
The pontiff said, “I worry about it, truly.”
“I’ve spoken to the security people at the Vatican, who are responsible for it,” he said, “and they worry about it every day.”
Yet when it comes to his own safety, Francis said he’s always had a “healthy dose of obliviousness” about it. His aim, he said, is to be “prudent but confident.”
Canonization of a US saint
The pope’s revelation that he intends to canonize Serra came before he’d even been asked a question. At the beginning of his roughly 50-minute session with the press, Francis requested the microphone to say something about Wednesday’s canonization in Sri Lanka of Joseph Vaz, a missionary from India who worked in Sri Lanka during a period of persecution under its Dutch Calvinist occupiers.
He appeared to be responding to questions raised in some quarters as to why Vaz was another case in which Francis set aside the usual requirement for a second miracle before naming someone a saint.
The pontiff said he’d decided to do that for a series of new saints who were great missionaries in various parts of the world, revealing that the next such case will be Serra in September.
An 18th-century Franciscan priest originally from Spain, Serra is considered a driving force in establishing both the Spanish, and the Catholic, presence in the state of California. He first arrived in the United States from Mexico in 1769, and in 13 years created nine missions that served as the foundation for the later development of Catholicism in the western United States.
Although the pope didn’t say so, some observers may take the announcement as a hint that Francis is seriously pondering a stop at the US/Mexico border during his American outing in September.
The other three likely stops — Philadelphia, Washington, and New York — are on the East Coast and would likely not be seen as ideal settings for naming a saint whose career was largely spent on the other side of the country.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.