Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Pope Benedict's position demands he take more care with his words

The freedom-of-speech defense is a sideshow. The pontiff should know better than to endorse the idea of a war of faiths, even if he was merely repeating a quote

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Pope Benedict XVI has joined the club. Like many before him, the pontiff has found himself at the center of a free speech row.

In 1999, Glenn Hoddle, then the chief coach of England's soccer team, suggested that disabled people were the victims of bad karma, punished for their conduct in an earlier life.

In 2004 the British politician and TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, then presenter of a daytime TV show, described Arabs as "suicide bombers, limb-amputators, women repressors." Both Hoddle and Kilroy were eventually sacked, their defenders hailing them as free-speech martyrs, cut down for daring to speak their mind.

The Pope won't suffer Hoddle and Kilroy's fate -- the only authority who can sack Benedict wears a hood and carries a scythe -- but he is already being elevated, as they were, into a symbol of freedom under assault. It's as much a mistake now as it was then, a product of a repeated confusion over the nature of free speech.

To be clear, we all have the right to free speech. In some countries that right is all but absolute, as guaranteed in the US by the constitution's first amendment. In Britain it is limited by laws on incitement, libel and the like. But essentially we have the right to say what we want.

Still, we know instinctively that certain roles or positions of responsibility limit that right.

Hoddle was free to believe the disabled were wicked souls trapped in damaged bodies, but he couldn't voice that view and expect to hold a nationally symbolic job.

Kilroy is now free to denounce Arabs, but he couldn't do that while he was a presenter for the avowedly neutral BBC. The position we hold alters the meaning of our words.

In the 1980s, at a 1983 British Conservative Party rally, the comedian Kenny Everett called out, "Let's bomb Russia!"

A year later, a microphone caught US president Ronald Reagan ad-libbing a mock radio address: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Both had an equal right to make the joke. But it was rather less wise for the leader of a Cold War power.

Pope Benedict is in the Reagan category. Of course he has the right to quote whomever he chooses, but there is now a significance to his words that did not apply when he was a humble scholar.

This is what makes the Pope's defenders so disingenuous when they insist that he was merely engaged in a "scholarly consideration of the relationship between reason and faith."

He is not a lecturer at divinity school. He is the head of a global institution with more than a billion followers. So he has to think carefully about the sources he cites.

When he digs out a 700-year-old sentence that could not be more damning of Islam -- "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" -- he has to know there will be consequences.

If he did not fully agree with the statement by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos, he should have put some distance between himself and it.

But read the lecture and the only hint of papal disavowal is a description of Manuel's "startling brusqueness" -- which means the Pope was either inept, failing to disown Manuel's sentiment effectively, or that he in fact agreed with it and wanted to say so. Again, that is his right -- but he should have known, given who he is, that it would have the most calamitous results.

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