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The One About the Pope’s Mother

What Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff comments about punching the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists can tell us about the long history of the Catholic Church's relationship with secularism.
Pope Francis greets the pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on December 04, 2013. (Photo: giulio napolitano/Shutterstock)

Pope Francis greets the pilgrims during his weekly general audience in St Peter's Square at the Vatican on December 04, 2013. (Photo: giulio napolitano/Shutterstock)

Pope Francis was crossing the skies recently when he pronounced that if someone “Says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.” (He added, “It’s normal.”) The fact that he was crossing the international air space between Sri Lanka and the Philippines is quite symbolic of the universal jurisdiction and general loftiness claimed by all religions—including Catholicism.

The pope had been asked about the attacks against the French satirical weekly journal Charlie Hebdo. Francis clearly condemned the attacks, but perhaps the many caricatures of him—and of many catholic and Christian symbols published on many pages of the same journal since it was founded in 1970—flickered in his earthly head.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, the pope would have found other reactions toward such insults that might have been considered far more Christian. Turning the other cheek, for example, instead of punching the offender’s.

Was the pope talking about his own biological mother, and thus turning a public issue into a private sort of resolution? Or was he, rather, using an extremely powerful foundational trope of Catholicism, according to which the Holy Church is the very spouse of Christ and the mother of us all—including the pope?

In this confusion between private and public, between one mother and the other, is where the problems of interpretation reside. This slippage made the claim of theological violence slightly more palatable, but Francis immediately added, “You cannot insult the others’ faith—it’s not possible,” thus relocating himself in the territory of theology and belief.

In fact, one may wonder whether in his response the pope was referring to his holy knuckles impacting actual noses or, rather, to the long tradition of the pugiles Christi, or “Christ’s boxers” (nothing to do with underwear), that popes used to summon to fight the infidels and heretics. By means of bulls and briefs (again, not the undergarments, just holy letters), popes called their fighters among the Christian knights from military and crusaders orders, to engage in battles against the Saracens, or against those they considered heterodox, like the Cathars of Southern France.

What underlies the pope’s pugilism is hardly as funny as his remark may sound; rather, it reveals how religious leaders, including Catholic ones, seem to be all too sensitive to the ways in which secular societies express their opinions and thoughts by all possible—and legal—means, including satire. Don’t forget that the pope’s words are directly rooted in the lineage that invented heresies and conversion in order to universalize persecution and prosecution.

This symbolic punch is nothing more than a claim to dilute civil legislations with the traditional powers of religious legal systems—legal systems that consider themselves more universal than the civil ones, and that sometimes advance the idea that their values and laws are preferable to those publicly enforced in democratic states. Secular societies must resist the historical privileges claimed by the Church (and many religions) to limit public speech, and, in particular, to prevent others from criticizing the repressive strategies of some religious leaders.

What does secularism do? Among many other things, it upholds the rule of law, or legal principle of nomocracy. Secularism promotes the idea that no private belief can interfere in public life. It also assures believers that they can practice their religion without any legal interference.

It is within this sense of secularism that satirical journals like Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaîné, and others have been working for the last 40-plus years—in a long tradition of moral and societal critique that has accompanied the production of culture from One Thousand and One Nights to The Interview. Satire is one of the names of critical thought, one of whose tasks is unveiling the many different ways, including fear or violence, in which religious leaders have tried to cling to their claimed universal power to change the frames in which civil, secular societies should work.

And since secularism is no religion and has no mystical or holy parent, your nose is mostly safe from the papal fist.