The Pope is wrong on religious speech

The popular Pope Francis is taking some hits himself after some lighthearted comments that included a pretend punch to a colleague. The comments came while trying to make the point that free speech should have some limits, including on the right to insult another's faith.

Speaking Thursday to reporters on the plane ride to the Philippines, the Pope gestured with a fake punch to demonstrate what he would do if someone were to say "a swear word against my mother".

Most journalists interpreted it as a joke, not a justification of violence, especially since the Pope had also just forcefully stated that "one cannot kill in the name of God".

Still, the Vatican felt the need to clarify, in response to a later CNN question about the punch, that his words were "spoken colloquially" and consistent with the Pope's "free style of speech".

I don't for one minute think the Pope is advocating for any type of violence, whether religiously motivated murder or sparring among friends who dis each other's mamas.

What concerns me is his apparent belief that religion should have special protection when it comes to free speech.

"One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people's faith, one cannot make fun of faith", he said. "There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity. ... In freedom of expression there are limits".

The Pope, responding to a general question about the interplay between religious liberty and free expression, was clearly referencing the massacre of journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine by Islamist militants in Paris last week.

Although he did not say the slain cartoonists brought the attack upon themselves because of their satirical criticism of Islam, it's not a huge logical leap to that conclusion and raises the likelihood of such a misinterpretation.

Let's just say it's not what most public relations professionals would advise

And while the Pope has been known to talk more informally with reporters on the papal plane (his "Who am I to judge?" comment about gay Catholics came on the return flight from Brazil in 2013), he's still on the record and obviously aware that his words will be reported and analyzed.

The Pope is not the only prominent Catholic raising the issue.

Bill Donahue, a self-appointed spokesman fighting "anti-Catholicism" as the president of the New York-based Catholic League, released a statement with the headline, "Muslims have a right to be angry", on the day of the killings.

On Thursday, his statement was headlined: "Pope sides with Catholic League". Such chutzpah.

While no one can match the offensive tone of Donahue, who actually said Charlie Hebdo's Stephane Charbonnier "didn't understand the role he played in his own death", the gist of the Pope's message was the same: Criticism of religion is problematic.

As an aside, I'll be curious to see if those who slammed Donahue have the same harsh words for the Pope.

Perhaps both of them should take a lesson from the response of another Christian, Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a progressive, evangelical community and publication. He had a different suggestion for how people of faith should respond to the Paris attacks:

"Jesus tells us to bless those who persecute us, to return love for hate and good for evil, and even to love our enemies", Wallis wrote. "Loving your enemies certainly includes supporting the foundational commitment to free speech, and defending the right of free speech, even, or especially, for those who offend you".

I think most American Catholics agree that while blasphemy -- offensive speech against God or religion -- is not particularly nice, it does not follow that it can or should be regulated or outlawed. In the United States, the Supreme Court outlawed blasphemy laws in 1952.

I'm hoping the Pope was only offering counsel to his followers, rather than advocating for any sort of legal position. No one has the right not to be offended. Even the Pope.

Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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