Recent comments by Pope Francis elicited pushback from several key public figures - Catholic and non-Catholic. Their responses ranged from “the Pope is out of line” to “he’s a bit too liberal for me”. It seems to me that the only thing the Pope is guilty of is trying to imitate Christ - which is the very thing we should all be praying for and expecting from him. But all too often, many of us tend to expect him to think and act all too humanly. Recall the scene in John 18:10 whereby Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus (“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus.*Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its scabbard. Shall I not drink the cup *that the Father gave me?”
Similarly, are we not all to drink of the cup that the Father gives to us? My personal cross frequently requires that I stop doing the things I can and instead chose to do things that I should - not for my sake, but for the sake of someone else. Pope Francis reminds us that just because a person is free to do or say something, maybe he/she should not do or say that. And refraining from doing or saying something for a greater good does not indicate the loss of personal freedom but its gain.
While the cartoonists have every right to depict political/religious tensions any way they want to - just because they can - choosing to defuse tension by avoiding the publication of certain depictions in no way infers that they have allowed themselves to be hand-tied or subjugated to someone else’s beliefs. Although that is what is being suggested.
Finally, it is argued that the Pope gave excuse to Islamic extremists to continue their murderous rages, beginning with non-believers who profane or insult the prophet Mohammed, and including the cartoonists working for Charlie Hebdo. I believe that what we do and say can provoke someone to anger, which in turn leads to irrational actions. But don’t take my word for it; check out Ephesians 6:4b. In this passage even parents are exhorted to “avoid provoking their children to anger and instead raise them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”. This biblical reference argues that provocation can bring out the worst behavior and, therefore, we are instead to raise them with the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Let me use this example to further explain my point. When I was just 8 or 9 years old, my parents took us on a trip to visit our cousins, living more than 100 miles away. I remember being very excited for the visit as were my other six siblings. The other cousins were obviously happy and excited to see us too! But rather than behaving as we should have, we showed off while trying to impress the others. At one point, for example, all of us (children) started jumping on one of the cousin’s beds as if it were a trampoline. Needless to say, the frame broke! And the antics didn’t stop there! Next, we proceeded to laugh at and taunt their daughter Linda. Linda and I shared the same name and age and cousin status, but the similarities stopped there. Linda was significantly mentally disabled, having been deprived of oxygen at birth. At the time of our visit, Linda was still wearing diapers and was non-verbal; although she could walk and sign a few words. After awhile, Linda suddenly approached me from behind and started yelling at me while violently pulling away at my hair. She would not let go and I felt helpless and started to cry. Perhaps I was an easy target or perhaps I was the most offensive; either case, both sets of parents had to come to the rescue. The hard lesson learned was to never again laugh at Linda and for a number of reasons. Unfortunately, I also chose not to play with her ever again or be in close proximity to her.
Who was at fault? It seems that all of us shared a degree of culpability - even the parents, for not monitoring our behavior and explaining ahead of time how to act around Linda. This story explains at least in my mind why the Pope said what he did - just because we can do and say something, does not mean that we should . And yes, sometimes what we say and do does provoke someone to commit violent acts. No, their own sins are not our fault; but our lack of sensibilities, mis-understandings and lack of compassion for their own lack of virtue, their state of life, their beliefs, their lack of mental capacity, their familiar ways of life; their defense of others, etc. are our own choices. And yes, the person committing the acts of violence will be held accountable for their actions, because they freely chose to do and/or say something. And it doesn’t mean they should have. And neither should have we said unkind words to our cousin.
And with regard to that point, it seems odd that anyone feels the need to defend the reputation of a prophet - from 1500 years ago! Obviously, he was held in such high esteem then and even now, his reputation lingers. Few of us will be remembered even just several generations after we die. Therefore, from a westernized perspective, Mohammed’s shoulders seem big enough to take the personal verbal attacks and criticisms coming his way. In fact, by westernized standards, having to defend Mohammed’s reputation seems to diminish the legitimacy of his claim to be a true prophet of God. In fact, the extreme defense gives the impression that the extremists don’t believe him to be a prophet either.
At a minimum, it reduces the legitimacy of Islam putting them at even greater risk for ridicule and questioning. Perhaps, the extremists need to take into account how their over-zealous defensive posture seems to sissify Mohammed. Yet, from the Islamic viewpoint, perhaps they are used to protecting their own and don’t have the stigma attached when defending someone being bullied. But the real question remains: aren’t true prophets well aware of the human penalty when choosing to follow God rather than their fellow men? We are reminded about their crosses that they bear willingly in Matthew 23:37:”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” And so real prophets do willingly accept the ridicule that naturally comes their way - no matter the era or the culture.
This lesson from Pope Francis is more than about speech. It actually applies to other areas of modern living. Just because we can - doesn’t mean we should. This aptly applies to adultery - heterosexual or homosexual; contraception, assisted suicide; assisted reproduction; abortion; pedophilia; rape; murder; and on and on and on.
And what is the antidote to doing what we should rather than what we can? Virtues. We have to believe that the virtuous life is worth living, before we learn how to live it. We have to recognize that virtuous living is the antidote to a life lacking in purpose or meaning but full of material pleasures. All of the human and spiritual virtues fully support authentic human freedom and personal happiness. On the contrary, vice opposes human freedoms and true happiness. Virtues perfect us; therefore they help to stamp out tendencies to lust with the mind or body. Virtues allow us to live excellently; they help us accord dignity to other human beings with whom we interact - no matter the culture or belief system. The virtues help us to come alive spiritually; without them we are not receptive to having / acquiring an active faith and love of God. Virtues allow us to mirror God to others. Virtues help us link good actions with good intentions.
How do we get virtue? First, we have to learn the purposes and actions of the different virtues, and then we have to want to acquire them. Thirdly, we have to put them into practice time and time again - consistently and earnestly. This practice convicts us of the ideal notion that yes, we can do anything we want but we will chose to do otherwise for the sake of others. We acquire virtue when we resist our own weakness, sinful inclinations and temptations. We acquire virtue when we serve others. We acquire virtue when we pray for it.