Here’s the thing. The last two heads of the Catholic Church — Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI — were two of the greatest men to live in my lifetime. The death-defying heroism of the former and the incisive theological genius of the latter will be remembered long after the critics who ceaselessly sniped and jeered at them have been relegated to the Ash Heap of Well-Deserved Obscurity. The fact that these two giants once occupied the Vatican at the same time is an argument for providential history along the lines of Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin turning up all at once in the colonies.
And here’s another thing. Non-Catholics tend to criticize the statements of popes according to whether they violate their own political opinions, left or right. But strange as it is to tell, confirming your political opinions is not actually in the pope’s job description. This is why I tend to shrug it off when the pope says things I disagree with about economics, say. It may well be that a two thousand year old perspective helps him to see things I occasionally miss, who knows. In any case, I’m not Catholic so a lot of times it’s not my problem.
And here’s just one more thing. Pope Francis seems like a terrific guy, he really does. Kissing lepers and what-not. Finding a way to reiterate church doctrine toward gays and divorcees so as to emphasize the love rather than the judgement. You gotta love that. I do anyway.
But all those things said, I really am beginning to wonder what is going on beneath that yarmulke of his. He is a world leader, after all. He ought to think about what he says about world events. And these recent comments he made about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. What? I mean: What?
“There is a limit,” to free speech the pope told reporters on the papal plane the other day. Throwing a joke punch at his travel organizer Alberto Gaspari, he said, “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
He added that he was not justifying violence in God’s name, which he called an “aberration.”
The problem with all this… Well, for one thing, it’s not right. For another, it’s not true. And for yet another, I can’t even see my way to understanding it as Christian.
You can’t provoke? You can’t insult the faith of others? Really? Let’s listen in on the chief rabbi of Jerusalem circa the year Zero as he reacts to Jesus’s comments on his religion:
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.”
The rabbi sounds pretty provoked to me. Pretty insulted too. And after that — for those of you who attended public schools — he handed Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified!
So Jesus was not afraid to provoke and insult the faith of others, even when those others were willing to kill him for it.
On the other hand, Jesus himself took a much different approach toward being offended. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.” That’s not a call to pacifism — Jesus didn’t say, “If someone attacks your village, rapes your women and kills your men, just stand around and watch!” But it is a powerful demand for radical tolerance in the face of offense. He came, after all, to free us for freedom, as the book says. That’s how that trick is done.
Which is why responding to blasphemy with violence is an aberration — in modern Christian countries. In militant Islam, murder for blasphemy is actually a requirement! In fact, most forms of Islamic jurisprudence call for death to blasphemers if they fail to repent. Which is pure retrograde savagery. Monstrous. And to stand up before these murdered dead are cold and lend credence to the motives of their mad dog killers is just morally absurd.
So what the hell was the pope thinking? Really — I’d like to know.