One of the greatest failures of Western journalism has been the refusal by major news outlets to hold religious leaders accountable for their harmful actions. The men who claim to speak for the divine are too often taken at their word, and too rarely challenged when their word contradicts reality. This bias has not served the public well at a time when many Christian denominations have leaned so heavily toward authoritarianism.
In light of the attack on the author Salman Rushdie this summer, I could not help but think of one of the worst examples of this kind of journalistic malpractice, and how it may have contributed to some of the problems we’re facing now.
Let’s go back to January 15, 2015, on board the papal plane. Inside, standing before a group of reporters, Pope Francis discussed issues related to the criticism of religious belief. A week earlier, terrorists attacked the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing multiple people as revenge for the magazine’s insulting depictions of the Prophet. Muslims around the world denounced these fanatics. But the incident prompted debate about how artists can—or even should—mock religious figures and doctrines.
Among Francis’s remarks was a statement with which few people disagree: “There is a limit,” he said, to the kind of speech people can engage in. Only crazy people dispute this. Speech that foments violence, defrauds someone, or falsely smears someone is not protected by any reasonable definition of free expression.
But that obvious point got buried in an avalanche of bullshit.
Surely there was a way to discuss the incident within the larger context of anti-Muslim bigotry in Western Europe. And surely there was a way to criticize Charlie Hebdo–or any work of art or literature–without suggesting that the creators deserve to be physically attacked. But Francis—despite having a week to think about it—hardly even tried. His response not only blamed the cartoonists but arguably endorsed more violence.
To be fair, Francis started strong by condemning violence generally: “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion.” To this, he added:
But if [someone] says a swear word against my mother, then he is going to get a punch. But it’s normal, it’s normal. One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.
To illustrate his point, Francis swung his fist. And people laughed! One suspects that this is the same group of intrepid journalists who took his “Who am I to judge” comment and ran with it, hoping that his off-the-cuff statement signaled a change in attitude toward LGBT people. It did not.
Notice the contradiction: One cannot react violently, but here is a case in which violence is perfectly understandable! Then follows the declaration that “one cannot insult other people’s faith”—a curious statement coming from the head of a religion that proselytizes, demonizes apostasy, and dismisses other gods and other forms of spirituality. Christians have a right to do all those things, of course. But do they care if others find offense? I, for one, do not appreciate threats of hellfire. But it would not be “normal” for me to lash out violently at the people who preach it.
Soon after, the Vatican clarified that the Pope “in no way intended” to justify violence. They added that Francis never mentioned Charlie Hebdo, which, while technically true, feels a little disingenuous, unless the Vatican PR team was implying that Francis had been living under a rock for the previous week.
For those who think I’m being too hard on the Pope, imagine if an LGBT activist ran into a church or a mosque and shot the place up, and some celebrity used Francis’s language to describe what happened. “The way these institutions treat gay people is a lot like insulting a person’s mother. If you insult my mother, you can expect a punch. It’s normal!”
Would anyone in their right mind fail to condemn such a reaction? Yet if you search for criticism of the Pope’s remarks, you’ll find perhaps one or two editorials in major papers, many of which assume well-intentioned confusion on Francis’s part. Most outlets opted to report on the matter, repeat the Vatican’s clarification without correction, and move on. Thus the watchdogs of civilization wasted an opportunity to hold a leader to a higher standard.
Given his track record, I am not interested in hearing the Pope’s hot take on what happened to Salman Rushdie. The Francises of the world seek to infantilize the gunmen and the knife-wielders. For them, being offended partially absolves a person for reacting violently. The ones who caused the offense, meanwhile, are entirely responsible for their actions. At the same time, religious leaders like Francis take little care regarding the offense that they themselves cause. Did Francis ever apologize for what he said? Would anyone expect him to?
Perhaps Francis was hinting at something within his own religion that so many of us still deny: that mainstream churches would cultivate even more unhinged reactions to modernity in the coming years. Indeed, his statement comes across as a warning and a threat, but also as a confession. After all, by 2015, Francis had spent nearly two years fending off conservative opponents within the Church. And less than two years later, the majority of American Catholic voters would side with the Trump movement. Though he has expressed some vague concerns, Francis has never used such fierce language to describe the anti-democratic forces sweeping through the Church since then. Intentionally or not, his remarks in 2015 may have heralded a new era in which the decaying forces of authoritarianism and superstition would increasingly use violence to correct a world that keeps changing without their permission.
In a zero-sum game, in which dialogue and critique are no longer welcome, what other option is there?