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January 23, 2021

When the Pope threatens

Pope Francisc threatened with his fist. Whilst he made a common-sense comparison – he who offends my mother can expect a punch – Bergoglio took a rather ambiguous position in the new West-Islam confrontation. On the one hand, he has multiplied his calls on Islamic leaders to denounce the violence and the holy war, the jihad. On the other hand, he knows very well that, before running the cartoons depicting prophet Mohamed, ‘Charlie Hebdo’ had been fighting a long-standing campaign seeking to undermine the credibility of the Catholic Church. As a matter of fact, the ethos of the magazine comes from a specifically European ideological clash. Satire was one of the weapons used in the cultural war between the traditional prestige of Catholicism and ideals of the Enlightenment. Used by both sides, however more effectively mastered by the latter, more suitable for the role of impious and blasphemers. Actually, the anti-Catholic cartoons have been much more insulting than those against the Islam over time. Anyway, post-modern and secularised, the West has turned satire and even blasphemy into something common, and, by that, diminished their corrosive power. Even the erotomania professed by the cartoonists from ‘Charlie Hebdo’ belongs to a specific cultural and ideological landscape, legacy of a long-standing anti-authoritarianism and claimed sexual liberation battle. Of course that all these are little comparable with an Islamic world dominated by its own traditions. After all, this solidarity of religions against blaspheming satire should not be a surprise. Western democracy is based on a relativism of substance, often discouraging, yet salutary, against the discrimination that accompanies the processes of constitution of the various spiritual authorities. Religions are respected, but their influence is circumscribed. However, religiously is often understood as an effort to ‘bring heaven on earth’, a very dangerous claim given its inherent derailments. In a certain way, Western democracy is more consistent with the dual perspective specific to Christianity – one regarding the terrestrial world and one for the spiritual world. Two essentially inter-connected, yet distinct worlds.

Pope Francisc from many points of view is a man of his time. He is not a conservative who dreams of the prestige and power of some medieval pope. However, he is unable to accept the virtues of blasphemy up to the end. Even religious virtues, as they put the believer face to face with a welcome re-consideration of the conformism of belief. Fist of all, one should not forget, laughter is not a mere diabolic temptation. As Kierkegaard reminds, God definitely laughs. Sometimes He laughs Himself into fits. Humour is a quality of the religious man. Secondly, the image we have of God is most often that of a mental idol, and our effort to bring it closer to its secret reality are much too often minimal. So we settle for a convention to which we pompously give the status of an icon. Well, sometimes the so-called blasphemies, if well targeted can shake dormant consciences. And if blasphemies are without substance, they can at most be boring. How does a cartoon, no matter how insulting, change the condition of God? The determination to defend divine honours isn’t actually but the perfect alibi for feeling hatred and using violence, both characteristics of mankind. Pope Francisc’s fist was a metaphor, but I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more appropriate for him to make the effort of refraining even from this metaphoric threat, in the name of Christian values?

It is good to anthropomorphise God. It’s an essential specificity of Christian belief. God created man in His own image. It’s a resemblance that we must re-discover. But, at the same time, the distinction should be well understood. God we must not defend as we would defend our own mother. Not in the same way. Divine ‘fragility’ is of a different kind than human fragility. Therefore, the error of judgement Pope Bergoglio made was not to disregard the liberties of Western society, including the one to satirise to one’s own desire, but to not have understood all the way to the end the positive religious intention of blasphemy.

But even the first reason would have been enough. Any public person should be able to take derision. It is not at all pleasant, to some it may even be a traumatic experience, but it’s worth making the effort for the sake of the general climate of the society who needs this kind of airing. Laughter undermines authority but, at the same time, can also reconfigure it. Even when you are the subject of a cartoon you can still laugh at yourself, overcoming your vanities. Let’s hope that the West will have enough resources to not waive a right which is not at all peripheral, but actually crucial: the satire.




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