On a plane home from the Philippines yesterday, Pope Francis clarified remarks he made last week, on a plane to the Philippines, about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (These papal plane trips are really good copy. The Vatican press corps must fight over passes.) In last week’s remarks, while condemning the Paris murders, the Pope also cautioned against disparaging people’s religion in a way that leads, quite naturally, to a violent response. In a widely quoted remark, the Pope said that even a friend could expect a punch in the nose if he “says a swear word against my mother.” That, the Pope said, is “normal.”
I was struck by the different reactions people I know had to the Pope’s remarks. Some Eastern Christians, who have more reason than most to resent Islamist brutality, told me the Pope was correct. The Paris massacre was horrible, but the magazine should have shown more respect for religious belief, Muslim and Christian. Most of my American friends, by contrast, thought the Pope was wrong. And many in the Western media, on both the left and right, quickly denounced his remarks. Was Pope Francis advocating censorship? Was he signaling a tacit alliance with Muslims to fight the Enlightenment and insulate religion from criticism?
Yesterday, the Pope explained his meaning. According to CBS News:
Pope Francis said he wasn’t justifying violence when he said a friend who had cursed his mother could “expect a punch” in return. Rather, he says he was only expressing a very human response to a provocation, and that greater prudence would have avoided such offense. . . . Francis said: “In theory we can say a violent reaction to an offense or provocation isn’t a good thing. . . . In theory we can say that we have the freedom to express ourselves. But we are human. And there is prudence, which is a virtue of human coexistence.”
In other words, the Pope was not excusing the Paris murders or saying that religions can’t be criticized. He was making the rather sensible observation that people react badly when you insult their religion and that wisdom, not to mention civility, counsels a certain restraint. You have the legal right to say whatever you want, but why say whatever you want?
The example the Pope gave is suggestive. Most people have a special respect for their mothers. Other people’s mothers are not beyond criticism, of course, but there are limits to what you can say about them. This explains why the worst schoolyard curseit used to be, anyway; based on what I hear on the sidewalks of New York, it isn’t any longerinvolves someone else’s mother.
In most of the world, people view religion the same way, as a matter deserving special respect. It’s the so-called WEIRD societiesWestern, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democraticthat fail to do so. In WEIRD societies, individual rights, including the right to express oneself, have priority. (At least when it comes to insulting religion; other subjects, significantly, are off-limits.) Autonomy, not divinity, is the key value; insults to religion have less moral valence than restrictions on liberty. These are generalizations, but social science research supports them and they seem intuitively correct. In fact, according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book on the subject, The Righteous Mind, is well worth the read, America is the WEIRDest society in the world, and America’s educated upper-middle class, the sort of people who make up our editorial pages, is the WEIRDest group in America. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Western media would find the Pope’s remarks incomprehensible.
The murders at Charlie Hebdo were not justified, and we oughtn’t surrender our values to placate Islamists. But it’s worth remembering that much of the world, not only Islamists, sees things rather differently from us.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.