Weekly Newsletter(click to download PDF)

The Rector writes ...   

One of the reasons that Pope Francis is so popular with the media is that he seems to stray off message very quickly. It is sometimes hard to work out quite what is meant by his off the cuff quips though, as in the interview he gave to journalists on the plane between his most recent visits to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, he does provide much pause for thought. When asked about the terrible events in Paris, where attacks on the offices of a satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket had left many dead, the Pope first condemned the attacks in the clearest of terms, but went on to say “one should not provoke; one should not insult other people’s faith. There is a limit and there are limits to the freedom of expression”. A number of politicians have subsequently criticised the Holy Father’s words but it is worth reflecting on what he said for there is a message for us all, not least for the opinion formers in our own society.

We have to begin with the fundamental Commandment: “Thou shall not kill”. Human life – every human life – is precious and can only be received and valued as gift. Pope Francis, along with so many others, was right to condemn the killings in Paris and terrorism in general. To take away another’s life is a terrible thing but anything which is life-denying is also an offence against the Creator – not just the act of murder itself but any word or deed which undermines the respect which is due to every person. Pontius Pilate famously asked Jesus, “what is truth?” and of course (without fully understanding to whom he was speaking) he posed the question which goes to the heart of everything. We need to be reminded often that among the Ten Commandments is the ninth which says: “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and that in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ view: “We could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that we were being truthful to one another”.

It is surely right that in a democracy freedom of expression ought to be paramount and that it should only be curtailed for the gravest of reasons, but we must not be caught in the relativist trap where all ideas and theories have equal validity. The views people hold and express (be they political, social or theological) need to be tested – proper and demanding scrutiny is a necessary guarantee of authentic freedoms – and satire has always played a part in this. Pope Francis is correct though in his assessment that “one should not provoke” and “there are limits to the freedom of expression”. In a mature society because people have the ability to do something does not mean that they are automatically justified in doing so. The freedom to do certain things brings with it the moral responsibility to weigh up the consequences of one’s actions: the common good must frequently override personal desire, legitimate as that might be, and, for instance, the decision to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed in defiance of the Paris killers has led to other lives being lost in consequent rioting in parts of the Islamic world. Because something can be done, does not mean that it should be done – that is what I understand the Pope’s words to mean.

Truthfulness keeps to the just mean between what ought to be expressed and what ought to be be kept secret: it entails honesty and discretion” (Catechism: 2469): it should also involve balance and proportionality. The Paris killings were dreadful and clearly shook French society: the vast crowds who took to the streets of many cities in a gesture of sympathy were demonstrating a common humanity, but on the very day one of Europe’s capitals was suffering terror, several villages in northern Nigeria were being razed to the ground and their inhabitants massacred It is thought that something near to two thousand men, women and children lost their lives in those cruel assaults. There has not been the same expression of outrage: it would appear that we are more touched by the death of a European journalist than an African child, and we should be asking ourselves “why?”

Of course, we find it easier to relate to circumstances in our own backyard, but Christian faith  - and our commitment to the absolute value of each individual – emphasises a human solidarity to which Shakespeare’s Shylock once gave powerful expression: “if you prick us do we not bleed: if you tickle us do we not laugh?”. Saint Peter once wrote: “wrap ourselves in humility to be servants of each other” – a message renewed forcefully by his current Successor

Christopher Colven