Horrific acts of violence and the dangers of free expression have been on everyone’s minds lately. After the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the ongoing terrorism by Boko Haram, and countless other attacks and atrocities, many commentators are discussing violence in the name of Islam and limits on free expression. One of these people is Pope Francis, who discussed the Charlie Hebdo attack during a flight to the Philippines. Another, who actually made the remarks almost ten years ago at the University of Regensburg, is Pope Benedict XVI. Director of Research at Acton, Samuel Gregg, and editor-at-large of National Review Online, Kathryn Jean Lopez, recently discussed Benedict’s Regensburg address, violence in the name of Islam, and free expression.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What do you make of the controversy over Pope Francis’s comments, on the plane ride to the Philippines, about free expression?
Samuel Gregg: The context, of course, was his remarks about the unacceptability of violence in the name of religion. The pope affirmed that such violence is indeed unacceptable. Pope Francis also indicated that he thinks freedom of expression is essential. The difficulty, to my mind, surrounds his comments that freedom of expression cannot be a basis for offending other people with regard to religious matters. We all know that freedom of expression isn’t absolute.
There are good reasons why we have laws against, for instance, child pornography and defamation, and why neither can be justified on free-speech grounds. As we all know, courts, governments, and philosophers have deliberated at length about the limits to free speech. But in the case of the pope’s particular remarks — which, as is evident from the transcript, aren’t the most precise — much pivots on his use of the word “offend.”
In much of the West today, we increasingly live in societies in which even expressing a view, religious or otherwise, on any number of subjects is considered “offensive” because it (a) might question something that someone else believes to be true and/or (2) it may raise questions about the morality of others’ actions or the manner in which they live their life. In short, “offending someone” — or even the potential to offend someone — is becoming a basis for shutting down free speech and the free exchange of views. If, for instance, we can’t have an open conversation about the respective truth claims of, say, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or atheism because such a conversation might offend someone, then “offending someone” becomes a basis for terminating important discourse about some rather fundamental questions. We need very, very robust protections of freedom of speech, precisely because free speech enables us to engage and pursue questions of truth: theological truth, philosophical truth, moral truth, and economic truth. The possibility that you might offend someone, to my mind, isn’t a very strong basis for inhibiting free speech about all of these subjects and more. A side effect is that we all have to put up with views and opinions that we consider stupid, ill informed, or even offensive. That, however, is inevitable if we value free speech and the good of truth-seeking on which it is based — the very same free speech that, by the way, allows me to inform people who say something stupid why I think what they have said is erroneous.
Lopez: What Pope Francis said last weekend about perverted religion — is it anything like what Pope Benedict was talking about in his infamous Regensburg lecture?
Gregg: What Pope Francis said about perverted religion was spelled out in very clear, precise, and sophisticated terms by Benedict XVI in his 2006 Regensburg address: a talk whose relevance looms ever larger nine years later. But fewer people know that Benedict narrowed in on what he called pathologies of religion in an article published in 2012 in the Holy See’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Here Benedict observed that, over time, it had become apparent that Vatican II had been insufficiently attentive to the fact that there are “sick and distorted forms of religion.”