Friday 10. July 2020
#179 - February 2015


Freedom to Speak, Yes. Freedom to Insult, No


Discussion of religion in the public forum can only benefit from being guided always by the virtue indicated by Thomas Aquinas to be the lynchpin of the whole moral fabric, namely prudence.

The tragic and shocking assassinations at the editorial office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at the kosher supermarket made 7 and 9 January dark days for Paris and the world. Given that the members of editorial team of Charlie Hebdo were targeted specifically because, in the exercise of their profession, they were deemed to be perpetrating blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, it was not surprising that journalists and newspaper columnists from around the world should provide yards of copy for broadsheets, tabloids and weeklies. Some rushed into print, throwing caution to the winds and letting raw emotion dictate their prose, others ventilated more considered reflections. All seemed of the view, as did the world leaders and countless others who came to Paris and marched on the Sunday following the events, that freedom of speech was under frontal assault.


Another fundamental freedom of an open society has rallied a good deal less support in recent years from the same indignant journalists who have understandably one and all proclaimed their allegiance to their French colleagues, namely freedom of religion. Suddenly now, politicians, religious leaders and even the chattering classes see the link between the two freedoms.


It is ironic that those who proudly proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’ by the same token face a disturbing question concerning their commitment to freedom of religion.  COMECE has not only studied the latter freedom extensively over the past half-decade but has also, by raising the issue with policy makers in co-operation with our ecumenical partners, seen to it that freedom of religion and the protection of that freedom, within the EU and beyond, is now a firm commitment by the European Commission. Respect for the latter should in no way diminish respect for the former. Discussion of religion in the public forum can only benefit from being guided always by the virtue indicated by Thomas Aquinas to be the lynchpin of the whole moral fabric, namely prudence.


Freedom to express religious views or discuss issues of religious belief in the public forum is again, thanks to what occurred in Paris in the first full week of the new year, a matter of intense and heated debate. Given that COMECE and our Jesuit friends can only enter into the fray a month after the events, we can be afforded the liberty of sourcing our reflections deep in the Christian past. In fact, it is our conviction that the most important lesson of all can be learned from an event which took place within less than a generation of the death of Jesus of Nazareth and the way it was reported. The journalist on the spot was called Luke.


When Paul of Tarsus, a devout Jew and Roman citizen, came to Athens in AD 46, he held debates about God and his belief in Jesus as Christ, in synagogues and in the market place. He discussed with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, yet he was openly repudiated as a “parrot” and a “propagandist”. Luke tells us that for the Athenians discussing the latest ideas was “amusement”, and yet rather surprisingly, even though they ridiculed Paul, they still invited him to explain his ideas (about God and Jesus) to the most sophisticated debating society in the city, the Council of the Areopagus. Here Paul’s audience gave him a polite hearing, even if when he mentioned resurrection of the body, “some of them burst out laughing.” Luke, like some cub reporter or stringer for Reuters avant la lettre provides a full first-hand report which can be read in Acts 17, 16 – 34. The altercation in first century Athens, the clash between classical Judaism and Paul’s new twist on traditional doctrine in the synagogues of the diaspora, the robust exchange between nascent Christianity and established paganism, remained a civilized affair, tempered by good humour, facilitated by an openness of mind.


As Pope Francis pointed out in the Philippines, peoples’ religious beliefs and convictions are like our family ties, they evoke visceral loyalties. They must not be disparaged nor ridiculed. And yet, as the Athenians showed nearly two thousand years ago, even if they disagreed and dismissed Paul with a laugh, they did not batten down the hatches on further open debate: “We would like to hear you talk about this again” (Acts 17, 33). Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are not mutually exclusive.


Fr. Patrick H. Daly

COMECE General Secretary

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.