Faith and Freedom

A Register Editorial

Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République Jan. 7 in protest against the terrorist attack in Paris that day.
Demonstrators gather at the Place de la République Jan. 7 in protest against the terrorist attack in Paris that day. (photo: Wikipedia)

A half century ago, when Egyptian Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir pursued a degree in Islamic studies at a French university, all the other students “were Muslims,” as the priest recalled. “I was the only Christian, and there was absolutely no difference in behavior. They were French but had the Muslim religion. I wasn’t French, but I was a Christian. They were Muslims. That was all.”

Now, in the wake of the Jan. 7-9 terrorist attacks in Paris that left 17 civilians dead, Father Samir’s memory of peaceful coexistence seems far-fetched even surreal.

Today, Islamic militants increasingly seek to advance and defend their beliefs at any cost. In Paris, they expressed their utter contempt for the lives of people who did not share their beliefs, and for laws protecting freedom of expression that have made Western democracies beacons of liberty.

We also live in a time when irreverent, sacrilegious cartoonists, who ridicule all forms of religious devotion, are hailed for their unapologetic witness to freedom of expression, while any attempt to negotiate limits to such expression for the sake of the common good is seen as cowardice or even a justification of the violence.

Catholic leaders and commentators have joined their voices to the chorus of outrage at the attacks, but they have struggled to offer a distinctive response to these chilling events. Even Pope Francis, who immediately condemned the Paris attacks and has consistently urged Muslim leaders to reject the use of violence in the name of religion, drew criticism when he subsequently observed, “There is a limit to freedom of expression.”

But many Catholics across the world viewed the violence as both an attack on innocent human life and on a basic democratic right. Thus, they were not willing to question the magazine’s offensive treatment of Islam. In the pages of Britain’s Catholic Herald, one columnist concluded, “While mocking a religious group may be unkind, once members of that group begin to threaten people for doing so, then making fun of them becomes a duty.”

Another columnist took the opposite tack. “A great deal of blather has been expended on ‘the defense of our values,’” wrote David Warren in a post on The Catholic Thing website. “This plays right into the fanatics’ hands, for they know we don’t have any. They want to accentuate the contrast between believers and unbelievers; they want to persuade their fellow Muslims, especially the young, that blasphemy is our only defense and that it can be defeated.”

So is it possible to repudiate such terrorist acts without making the irreligious satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo the icon of Western freedom?

Pope Francis has offered several related responses to that question before and since the violence was unleashed in Paris, though Catholics must do some digging to get the full picture. 

“Whatever the motives may be, homicidal violence is abhorrent. It is never justifiable. The life and dignity of all are guaranteed and protected firmly. Any incitement to hatred should be refused. Respect must be cultivated,” read the Jan. 7 statement from Pope Francis, which was released by the Holy See after the Paris attacks.

The media focused on the Pope’s repudiation of violence in the name of religion — a familiar theme in papal statements and homilies. But his remarks about working “to heal the deep sources and the causes of hatred” were mostly ignored. Those words may have alluded to extremist violence in France and in parts of the Islamic world where civilians, including children, have been executed and expelled.

“Religious fundamentalism, even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext,” the Pope stated in a Jan. 12 address before the Holy See’s diplomatic corps that referenced the events in Paris.

The Holy Father also may be concerned about the striking failure of many French Muslims to assimilate, a problem that has been tied to economic and cultural barriers. Finally, the Pope has described the spread of “deviant forms of religion” as a sign of the power of sin to enslave human beings, stoking their hunger to dominate others. This enslavement has spawned a “never-ending spread of conflicts, like a true world war fought piecemeal.”

Then, while speaking with reporters during his flight from Sri Lanka to Manila, he was asked to comment further on the terror attacks. This time, he offered a more direct statement about the “limit to freedom of expression.” To clarify his point, he imagined a scenario in which his mother was insulted by a friend.

“One cannot react violently, but if [someone] says something bad about my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s to be expected,” the Holy Father said. “There are a lot of people who speak badly about other religions. They make fun of them. What happens is what happens with my friend [who insults my mother]. There is a limit.”

In New York, where the unspeakable violence unleashed by the 9/11 terror attacks ended the lives of more than 2,000 people, the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, echoed the Pope’s condemnation and also sought to broaden the parameters of public debate.

On Jan. 13, Cardinal Dolan described the attacks as a “perversion of religion” during his weekly Sirius XM radio show. But he also questioned the advisability of publishing the offensive cartoons. “If you chip away at religious sensitivities, if you chip away at elementary civility and courtesy, sooner or later, you’ve got a pretty harsh society and culture,” he said, “that could then go to terribly, radical, nauseating extremes.”

That observation underscores the Church’s consistent efforts to link peaceful coexistence to concrete moral and religious values and actions that foster mutual respect and reconciliation: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Militant Islam poses the most immediate and direct threat to global security in our time. But Cardinal Dolan and Pope Francis remind us that the free-speech rights we celebrate hold the power to strengthen or weaken the bonds that advance human flourishing and that allow our experiment in ordered liberty to survive for future generations. This guidance does not justify restrictive speech codes that could pose a danger to freedom of expression; rather, it offers a template for public discourse.

“Each person not only has the freedom, but also the obligation, to say what he thinks in the name of the common good,” the Pope said, adding, “Each religion has its dignity.”