Vatican dials back pugnacious pope

This story appears in the Francis in the Philippines feature series. View the full series.

by Thomas Reese

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If someone insults your mother, can you punch them in the face? Sure, says Pope Francis during an press conference in the air between Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

What?? Well, he actually didn't say that.

In response to a question from a French journalist about the killings in Paris, the pope emphasized that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both "fundamental human rights" and said that killing in the name of God "is an aberration."

He then went on to talk about showing respect toward religious beliefs. He joking referred to one of the organizers of the papal trip, Alberto Gasparri, who was standing next to the Holy Father on the plane. The Pope said if his "good friend Dr Gasparri" says a curse word against his mother, he can "expect a punch."

At that point, according to Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, the Vatican English language press person, the pope pretended to punch Dr. Gasparri. "It’s normal," said the pope. "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.  You cannot make fun of the faith of others."

This became the lead story for many covering the pope because it appeared that the pope was giving approval to violence in response to insults to religion.

The Vatican Press Office quickly quashed this interpretation of the pope's words. In an email to the press, Father Rosica wrote:

The Pope's expression is in no way intended to be interpreted as a justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week.  The Pope's words about Dr. Gasbarri were spoken colloquially and in a friendly, intimate matter among colleagues and friends on the journey.  His words mean that there are limits to humor and satire particularly in the ways that we speak about matters of faith and belief. Pope Francis' response might be similar to something each of us has felt when those dearest to us are insulted or harmed. The Pope's free style of speech, especially in situations like the press conference must be taken a face value and not distorted or manipulated.  The Pope has spoken out clearly against the terror and violence that occurred in Paris and in other parts of the world. Violence begets violence.  Pope Francis has not advocated violence with his words on the flight.

Okay everyone. Take a deep breath. Don't panic. Pope Francis was not kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a fanatic. What he wants is freedom, nonviolence, but also respect. Makes sense to me. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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