Holding another one of his colloquies with journalists on his flight back to Rome from Manila, Pope Francis was given another bite at the free expression apple. “Your words were not well understood by everyone in the world and seemed to justify in some way the use of violence in the face of provocation,” said Valentina Alazraki Crastich, the longtime Vatican reporter for Mexican television. “Could you explain a little better what you meant to say?”
His Holiness responded:
In theory we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation, in theory yes, it is not a good thing, one shouldn’t do it. In theory we can say what the Gospel says, that we should turn the other cheek. In theory we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. But in theory we all agree. But we are human and there’s prudence which is a virtue of human coexistence. I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously because I risk making him/her angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just. But that’s human. For this reason I say that freedom of expression must take account of the human reality and for this reason one must be prudent. It’s a way of saying that one must be educated, prudent. Prudence is the virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here, I can go up to there, and there, beyond that no. What I wanted to say is that in theory we all agree: there is freed[om] of expression, a violent aggression is not good, it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice let us stop a little because we are human and we risk to provoke others. For this reason freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.
In other words, what the pope said he meant in commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attack during his flight to the Philippines was simply that, even though he favors free expression and opposes violent reactions to it, it’s a good idea to refrain from provoking people.
Of course, Western Civilization includes a rich tradition of provocative satire going back to ancient Greece and Rome, and as Adam Gopnik points out in the current New Yorker, Charlie Hebdo has been keeping a particularly Gallic variety of it alive and well in France. In that tradition, prudence is no virtue.
The pope is entitled to think that it is, without being accused of justifying violence.