When Free Expression Isn’t Free: Pope Francis and the Western Tradition


There he goes again. Pope Francis is confusing the point.

He condemned religious violence in response to the attack in Paris. Westerners tend to applaud the condemnation of religious violence. All well and good.

But the New York Daily News believes that Francis made “a rare rhetorical misstep.”

But then the Pope confused the point by saying, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

While the sentiment is understandable coming from a man of the cloth, it conflicts with Western traditions of free expression, while enabling repressive religious zealots around the world to claim the Pope is in their corner.

The New York Daily News holds to the an Enlightenment version of free expression. In the tradition of Voltaire, freedom is a libertarian freedom to say whatever one wants to say. Humans shouldn’t be bound by tradition or cultural constraints. Every person needs the freedom to follow wherever human reason leads.

It seems that some people don’t understand that there are other ways of thinking about freedom. How could Catholicism and Western traditions disagree about free expression?

Francis seems to operate with an older idea of freedom that predates the Enlightenment.

In the Christian tradition, true freedom means that one is free to do good. If people use their freedom for evil, then they aren’t free at all. They are slaves to sin.

Freedom only comes through Christ, but it’s a paradoxical freedom. Those who are free in Christ, often describe themselves as “slaves of Christ,” as Peter, Paul, and James did. Speaking of James, what does he admonish his reader to do? Control the tongue.

The New York Daily News is right. Free expression is a tradition of Western civilization, but Western civilization has some older traditions as well, some of which reigned for 1,500 years. We shouldn’t be surprised if the Roman Pontiff sounds a little more like Dante and a little less like Voltaire every now and then.

Is it really surprising that a Pope would ask people to control their tongues?

6 responses to “When Free Expression Isn’t Free: Pope Francis and the Western Tradition”

  1. The second sentence could be rewritten to say, “He condemned religious violence in response to {religious violence.} Can’t argue with that. As Christians, we’re not called to provoke, insult or poke fun, (no love in that – that’s what the world does) but to respectful, intelligent dialog. If we feel entitled to marginalize others for their choices, we are no champion of freedom and forget our own blindness. Control the tongue, yes, but ‘out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks;’ we need a change of heart. That can only come from less of us and more of Him.

  2. Freedom of expression is incontestable. It needs no defense or explanation & those who would obstruct the freedom may be called any number of names, none of which improves on the fact that self-expression is a sacred right. But this sacred right is also nuanced. It is a right to be exercised with conscience. For every expression, there is an impression. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I get the impression of an organization that is intolerant, crude, hateful: as backward as the backwardness it attempts to mock.

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