Pope Francis and ‘soft power’ diplomacy

He doesn’t soft-peddle his approach.

In another airplane press conference on an apostolic journey abroad, Francis called out anyone who commits violence in the name of religion. And while he emphasized the importance of free expression, he admitted it necessarily has limits.

Here’s the transcript of his remarks. A key exchange, on the tension between freedom of religion, and freedom of speech:

Sebastien Maynard (La Croix): Holy Father, yesterday during Mass, you spoke about religious liberty as a fundamental human right. With respect to other religions, how far can the freedom of expression extend, since this latter is a fundamental human right, too?

Pope Francis: Thanks for the question, that is smart, it is good. I think that both are fundamental human rights, religious liberty and liberty of expression. You can’t … Let’s think, are you French? Let’s go to Paris. Let’s speak clearly. You cannot hide a truth. Everyone has the right to practice their religion, their own religion without offending, freely. And that’s what we do, what we all want to do.

But…

Secondly, you cannot offend or make war, kill in the name of your religion, in the name of God. What has happened now astonishes us…Killing in the name of God is an aberration against God. I think this is the main thing with freedom of religion. You can practice with freedom without offending but without imposing or killing.

The freedom of expression… Every one of us has not just the freedom, the right, but also the obligation to say what he thinks to help build the common good. The obligation. If we think of a congressman, a senator, if he doesn’t say what he thinks is the true path, he doesn’t collaborate in the common good. We have the obligation to freely have this liberty, but without offending. It’s true that you cannot react violently. But, if Dr. Gasbarri, my great friend, says something against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of the faith.

Pope Benedict, in a speech, I don’t remember which, he spoke of this post-positivist mentality, of the post-positivist metaphysics that brought people to believe that religions or religious expressions are a type of lower culture: that they are tolerated but that there’s not much to them, that they are in not part of an enlightened culture. And this is a lecacy of the Enlightenment. So many people speak against others’ religions. They make fun of them. Let’s say they “giocatalizzano” (make a playng out of) the religion of others. But they are provoking, and what can happen is what I said about Dr. Gasbarri if he says something about my mother. There is a limit. Every religion has dignity; I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person. And this is a limit. I’ve used this example of the limit to say that in the freedom of expression there are limits, like the example I gave of my mother. I don’t know if I was able to respond to the question. Thanks.

This is so Francis-like. Honest and sincere, off-the-cuff spontaneous remarks, in the colloquial expressions he’s familiar with but we all are too, in our own way. So we can relate. Would you hear Pope John Paul II or Benedict talking about ‘expecting a punch’ for insulting his mother? No. But Francis is Francis. Catholics refer to ‘Holy Mother Church’, which was a point he was making. Freedom of expression is important, but all freedoms have to be exercised within the limits of truth, right order and the common good (think ‘You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater’).

More on his thoughts about religion being abused in the cause of war here.

When confronted with the question of truth commissions in war torn nations, Francis said this:

I support efforts to find the truth, balance efforts; not those in search of vindication, but balanced efforts to help to reach an agreement.

I heard something from the President of Sri Lanka – I don’t want this to be interpreted as a political comment, it is only phenomenological: I repeat what I heard and I agree with. He said he wants to move ahead with the work of peace, reconciliation. Then he used another word, he said we must create harmony in the people. That’s something more than peace, more than reconciliation, and it’s beautiful, it’s musical, too. Then he used another word. He said harmony brings happiness and joy. I was amazed. I said: I like hearing this, but it’s not easy. He said yes, we must touch people’s hearts. That’s what I thought of in answering your question, only by touching the hearts of people who know what suffering is, what injustice is; who had suffered many things from war, so many things. Only by touching hearts can people forgive, can we find the right path, without incorrect compromises to go forward.

This all comes right after the week of terror in Paris and the extraordinary weekend unity rally that drew world leaders and massive crowds together in a demonstration of solidarity against extremist violence. Francis has been working on that, through the channels available to him, throughout his papacy. In the footsteps of his predecessors, according to former US Vatican Ambassador Francis Rooney, who wrote this Time.com opinion piece not long ago, which becomes timely again with current events.

It has now been announced that Pope Francis will make a state visit to Turkey in November [which he made]. As with Pope Benedict’s visit there in 2006, a papal visit to the secular Islamic nation will garner the attention of everyone who is concerned about the violence and civil wars in the Middle East. Like the Albania visit, the Pope’s very presence will symbolize hopes for genuine religious tolerance and inter-religious dialogue, while drawing the clear distinction between religion and lawlessness and murder.

Following Regensburg, several groups of Islamic scholars acknowledged that Koranic teaching must reconcile with modernity.

Few people know that fact, to this day.

Continuing with Ambassador Rooney

Pope Francis’ engagement of the Holy See, both in calling for an end to the persecution of Christians and implying recently that even military opposition to ISIS in Iraq and Syria could be supported a “just war,” has similarly brought constructive results.

…Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz, the leading Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia, spoke out clearly against radicalism in response to King Abdullah’s public request for all clerics to raise their voices on this issue. While King Abdullah visited Pope Benedict in the aftermath of Regensburg, this is the most clear expression of Saudi opposition to radicalism to date.

On September 10, some two dozen MuslimAmerican leaders met in Washington with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and spoke out against Islamic terrorism and the recruitment of young Muslim Americans to extremism. More recently, in a direct reference to the need for “soft power” solutions, the Minister of Religious Affairs for Jordan, Hayil Abdelhafeez Dawoud, told the Wall Street Journal that “to fight terrorism, we need to fight its ideology. It can’t be solved militarily.”

George Weigel has recently summarized the problem and suggested a solution, stating that the modern world is at a crossroads with Islam, which requires that Islam reconcile its theology with the tolerance, freedom and respect for human life that the rest of the civilized world has come to expect, as well as with the nature of the secular, modern state and its relationship to religion.

While optimism is hard to find right now, and the violence and persecution in the Middle East and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa continue unchecked, these recent expressions offer promise that a broad community of nations will congeal to create a supportable, “just” force against Islamic extremists and that the Muslim states and leaders themselves will work to devise theological and philosophical constructions to bring Islam at large into accord with the modern world.

No sovereign is more aligned with these efforts nor more suited to weigh in diplomatically than the Holy See and Pope Francis.