Pope Francis says religious freedom trumps the right to free speech

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Pope Francis is in the Philippines today and, as expected, he got a wildly enthusiastic welcome in the majority Catholic nation. We’ll hear more from there in a few minutes, but first we have to mention some surprising comments made by the pontiff while on his way to the Philippines. The World’s Matthew Bell has been reporting on religion for us and he’s in the studio with me. So, I gather Pope Francis basically said at a press conference “Talk trash about my mom and you can expect a punch in the mouth.” I know it was a joke, but it was in the context of something serious. Explain, Matthew.


Matthew Bell: Right, it sounds a little bit something more like Tony Soprano would say. But it does get to something serious, and the pope has been asked a lot about this of course after the attacks in Paris, and he has said that such violence that’s based on any sort of religious belief is founded in deviant religion, he says it’s an aberration to be killing in the name of God. But then he was asked about the limits of free speech and he said “Actually, there are limits,” and he says that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both fundamental human rights but they’re conflicting at times and there should be limits on certain types of speech.


Werman: Right, so his mother was just an example of “This is something sacred to me, so I could understand that while somebody insults my mom, I would want to hit them.”


Bell: Exactly, and the type of speech he’s talking about is insulting religion specifically. To get a handle on this in terms of Catholic teaching, I called up Michael Peppard, who’s of the religion department at Fordham University and here’s what he had to say about it.


Michael Peppard: In the Catholic tradition, there is no freedom that, on its own, trumps freedom of religion, and freedom of religion definitely trumps freedom of speech. But with all of the freedoms in Catholic teachings, there’s a balance of rights and responsibilities, so that always there exists also the duty to, in Catholic speak, “promote the common good.” I think that’s what Pope Francis was getting at today.


Werman: Do we know how long that Francis has taken this strongly conciliatory position, respect for all religions--it preceded his tenure at the Vatican, right?


Bell: Absolutely. He’s talked about the importance of interfaith dialogue for many years and he’s continued to use that theme since he’s been pope in terms of his role as an international diplomat.


Werman: Does the Catholic flock generally see eye-to-eye with the pope on this kind of “no-go zone” of mocking religion?


Bell: That’s a question that came up with Michael Peppard at Fordham University. He said “Listen, I’ll bring up an example of someone who might be America’s most famous Catholic, and that is Stephen Colbert.” Here’s Peppard describing the way Colbert answered this question.


Peppard: He talked first about how satire is at its best when it’s speaking truth to power. Of course, we all agree with that. But even so, he said there were lines that he wouldn’t cross as a Catholic. Two examples he gave were that on his show, he would not portray images of a crucifix, even when doing satire about Christianity. He gave another example of once, as an actor, when he refused to participate in a skit that involved a eucharist.


Bell: So Marco, Peppard brought up one more example which is really interesting: in 2006, the previous pope, Pope Benedict, gave a speech in which he talked about the Prophet Muhammad, and the way that he characterized things was seen as insulting by Muslims around the world. This caused some protest, there was violence, and at the time when the pope was the bishop in Argentina, he was asked about this and he said that he actually thought the pope went a bit too far and it wasn’t quite phrased right, and that people should be careful about insulting other people’s religions.


Werman: Wow, to think that Stephen Colbert had more restraint than Pope Benedict, that’s kind of wild. The World’s Matthew Bell, thank you.


Bell: Thanks Marco.