Today begins the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year's week of prayer amid diverse beliefs within Christianity falls at a time of international discussion regarding respect for diverse religious beliefs in the news media. That discussion in the secular news media arises in the context of Muslim extremist reactions to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Mohammed. With news reporters increasingly targeted for reporting that the extremists consider insulting to Islam, some members of the secular news media advocate religious sensitivity to religious belief, as reported today by Katie Couric and Oliver Knox. At the same time, many Christians are raising questions of whether free speech rights extend to publications as offensive to others as the Charlie Hebdo publication and whether international support for the French protests have been racist in failing to show equal support for the many people killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
During an in-flight interview, Pope Francis spoke to this issue. Catholic News Agency summarized: "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith," Pope Francis said during a Jan. 15 press conference held en-route to the Philippines. If you do, he said, you "can expect a punch."
I want to address those issues by explaining my own perspective on free speech in the context of respect for religion.
First, I think the timing is good, coming as it does a week after millions of people, including more than 40 heads of state, marched in support of free speech in Paris. The issue of limitations on free speech needs to be discussed, but in a way that does not imply that the Charlie Hebdo journalists caused their own murders.
Charlie Hebdo is often offensive to Christianity and Islam alike in its satire, but that cannot justify a violent attack. By analogy, it is also true that teenage girls often dress less modestly than they should, but if one of them is raped and murdered, it is never true that the girl's own actions were responsible for the rape and murder. Violent actions are not a normal response, and those who react violently bear the responsibility for their reactions, always. Without assigning blame to the cartoonists for the terrorist attacks, it is worthwhile to question their cartoons outside of that context of blame.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the latter issue on February 20, 2006 in his welcoming address to an ambassador from Morocco to the Holy See:
Mr Ambassador, you stressed your Country's contribution to the dialogue between civilizations, cultures and religions. For her part, in the present international context with which we are familiar, the Catholic Church remains convinced that to encourage peace and understanding between peoples and people, it is urgently necessary that religions and their symbols be respected and that believers not be the object of provocations that wound their outlook and religious sentiments.
However, intolerance and violence as a response to offences can never be justified, for this type of response is incompatible with the sacred principles of religion; consequently, we cannot but deplore the actions of those who deliberately exploit the offence caused to religious sentiments to stir up acts of violence, especially since such action is contrary to religion.
For believers, as for all people of good will, the only path that leads to peace and brotherhood is that of respect for the religious convictions and practices of others, so that the practice of the religion a person has freely chosen may be guaranteed to each one.
Of course it is true that religions and their symbols should be respected. That does not imply that our laws should be changed to limit free speech by outlawing disrespect. Scripture dictates, "Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all men. (Titus 3:1-2). To "speak evil of no one" and "show perfect courtesy toward all men" are religious principles that oblige us, but that does not mean we should impose those principals on others by law. If we do so, it will impact our own freedom of religious speech. Our freedom to speak openly of Christian belief has already been impacted where one group or another finds it offensive to their social cause. The only means of protecting religious freedom is to also protect the right to speak freely of our own beliefs even where they are found offensive by others. We cannot do that and, at the same time, advocate that speech offensive to us be made illegal. Free speech and free religion must both be protected as human rights. Neither freedom has much meaning if only politically correct speech and religion are legal.
While the situation in Nigeria was deplorable, both before and after the terrorism in France, I don't believe it raises a question of any racism in the march in Paris. That march was a global support for free speech in general, and not just an expression of opposition to one particular terrorist attack. The presence of more than 40 heads of state confirm that. French is the official language of international diplomacy, and Paris is a very common place for protest marches. Indeed, there is probably a protest of one kind or another somewhere in Paris almost every week-end. I walked through the streets of Paris myself once in the Paris walk for life, with youth similarly climbing onto the massive statues with signs and banners at the end of the march, although drawing far smaller numbers of people. Last week's march for free speech did not place the death of a few in Paris at a higher priority than the death of many more in Nigeria. It is a misleading, attention-getting distraction to suggest that it did so.
I am glad to see the current discussion of respect for religions in the secular news media. While they want to say that they have shown respect for the Catholic faith in the past while reporting on clergy sex abuse, I don't believe they really did so. The reporting in that era was so critical of the Church as a whole that many honest and good priests had trouble walking into a super market without attracting stares and criticism. News organizations are entitled to "keep their heads down" to protect the safety of their reporters in the face of personal threats. I don't doubt that. Indeed, the great Christian medieval saints often went silent during times of Muslim extremism, showing great caution in any mention they made of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. St. John Climacus in the east in the 7th century and St. Boniface in the west in the 8th century are examples of this. There is no reason to criticize reporters today for caring for their safety. But I hope that their desire to be respectful toward religious belief will extend to Christianity, Judaism and other religions as much as it extends to Islam.