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A punch in the nose from Pope Francis (using religion to justify violence)

Pope Francis has made a couple of statements in response to the recent Charlie Hebdo killings that seem hard to reconcile. On January 13th he spoke in Sri Lanka and informed the world that religion must never be used to justify violence. Today he spoke en route to the  Philippines and is reported as saying that making fun of religion was unacceptable and that anyone who does so can expect ‘a punch in the nose’. The punch in the nose comment is of course, in effect, an appeal to religion to justify violence. The underlying assumption here is that religion is deserving of respect and that at least some (low-level) violent responses are justified in response to displays of disrespect towards religion.


No doubt there will be well meaning people out there who will attempt to reconcile the two claims and perhaps try to argue that the Pope’s more recent words are somehow not a defence of violence conducted in the name of religion. My own view is that the Pope is backsliding, from a recent, and somewhat reluctant embrace of tolerance and freedom of expression, in the direction of a more traditional Catholic position. The Catholic Church has a long history of using religion to justify violence. The official Catholic view for centuries – which was explicitly defended by St. Thomas Aquinas – was that it was justifiable to torture and kill heretics and apostates. The Catholic Church conducted a series of violent inquisitions up until the mid-Nineteenth Century and regularly denounced religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century. It’s not surprising that the leader of an organisation with such a history would only have a superficial commitment to avoiding using religion to justify violence.


The Catholic Church is hardly alone amongst religious organisations in having a history of appealing to religion to justify violence and nor are appeals to religion to justify violence a thing of the past. In the past three decades Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh groups have all appealed to their respective religions to justify killing. And Pope Francis is not alone amongst religious leaders in opposing violence on some occasions and endorsing it on others. Another religious leader with a similar history is the Dalai Lama who regularly preaches a doctrine of ‘non-violence’ but who has also argued that some violent acts, such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden, are justified.


In my 2014 book The Justification of Religious Violence (Wiley-Blackwell) I look at many of the ways religion has been, and is being used to justify violence. I argue that we should not expect well-meaning appeals to the value of tolerance to do much to reduce religious violence. If we are going to be serious about reducing religious violence we need to understand how and why religion is used to justify violence and we need to take the doctrines that the religiously violent endorse seriously. If we make the effort of understanding why some of the religious believe that they are justified in acting violently then we are in a much better position to try to persuade them to refrain from acting violently than we would be otherwise.

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10 Comment on this post

  1. If you look at what he actually said, it was more in the way of saying, “this is how it is — you set out to provoke, someone will feel provoked and react. If my friend here said something rude about my mother, he’d get one on the nose, it’s only natural.” That is a far cry from justifying violence in response to insulting a religion.

  2. I would be interested to know more about the context of the “punch in the nose” comment. When Pope Francis says that you cannot insult religion, is he speaking to Catholics, or is he speaking to people in general? The Catholic Church is free to make any rules it wants for its members (e.g., if you want to be a Catholic, you can’t get an abortion, you can’t take the lord’s name in vain, etc.), but those rules are all conditional–IF you want to be a Catholic, THEN… In that context, it doesn’t trouble me that he might say, “If you want to be a Catholic, you can’t go around insulting other people’s religions,” (because it’s not polite and they will get angry, perhaps). And that doesn’t seem inconsistent with his other statement about religious violence generally. On the other hand, if he’s speaking as a world leader and saying that no one should be allowed to make fun of religious beliefs, then I would find his “punch in the nose” comments troubling. So, any idea about how to take those statements?

  3. for those who might not know, bergoglio is not a catholic, but an ecclesiastical freemason…therefore don’t be surprised when he says abominations as yesterday ! he is a mason determined to drag as many catholics to apostasy !!! Jesus ordered us to forgive even our enemies, not retribution and violence ! Bergoglio has said many things that goes straight against catholicism…

  4. Thank you for your comments Wolf and Lucas. The context was a discussion of the limits of freedom of expression. He appears to be speaking on behalf of everyone, not just Catholics, and he appears to me to be suggesting that punching people is justified in response to insults to religion. He followed the ‘punch in the nose’ comment by stating “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others”. Plainly this is not meant to be a descriptive claim as it is possible to do these things. It’s meant to be a normative claim. You ought not do these things, and by implication, according to him, punching, and presumably other low level forms of violence, are justifiable responses to such provocation.

  5. In an attempt to try and reconcile the two responses, you could argue that the Pope’s second comment was not directed at religion but at the people representative of a religion. The religion itself does not suffer from mockery, its the people within that religion who suffer a lack of recognition and pain. As a result, its they who throw the punch in attempt to reassert themselves and their value.
    In this light the Pope’s comment can be interpreted to mean the disrespect of a religion is in virtue the disrespect of a people. And following Wolf’s comment its only logical to expect a reaction. This logic does not justify the reaction, only establish it as an expected response. However it does establish the morality of the mocking or causation of that reaction as unmoral. No one wants a punch to the face. Pointing to the Pope’s own words “You cannot Provoke” The Pope’s second statement could be paraphrase as: its unmoral to mock a religion because it can only be expected to provoke violent reaction. Which does not conflict with the first statement that violence is not a moral/justified reaction to provocation.

    All of that said, this discussion (on both sides) is speculative of an Individual man’s views and it would be much easier if the Pope just used more exact wording and communication.

    To your end comment about understanding religions justification of violence for the purpose of ending violence, do you think such an approach would have a greater impact than trying to understand an individuals justification of violence? In my view, the individual seems more effective but less practical, while religion seems more practical and less effective.

  6. My reading of Pope Francis’ comments would differ from Steve’s in the critical point, which is that the Pope was speaking descriptively, not normatively (and agreeing with Nicholas). I haven’t found a full transcript of the press conference (those are rare), but the CNN story gives a broader context (

    In contrast to the previous couple of Popes, Pope Francis has a habit of speaking very colloquially. So, we have to look more broadly for his meaning rather than parse the particular words used. Immediate context is important, and in this press conference, he said a number of times directly that killing in the name of religion is immoral.

    However, it is also important to keep in mind the broader intellectual context of his thinking. As a Catholic, Pope Francis is always engaged in thinking both from a theological/biblical standpoint and a natural law standpoint (just as Thomas Aquinas did). These two frames of reference inform the two seemingly conflicting statements he uttered in the press conference. When he says “normal,” my sense is that he is speaking from the natural law framework and making a purely descriptive claim. He is using “normal” in place of the term “natural”. Many people would agree, human beings have a natural protective response to attacks. He was simply describing what he has seen regarding the basic makeup of the human animal.

    However, it was not a moral judgment. That something is “natural” or “unnatural” does not immediately make it moral or immoral. Take, for instance fasting. Fasting for long periods of time is counter to nature/natural law in that it harms the body. It is normal to experience physical pain and, perhaps even harm, if you don’t eat for while. However, Christians believe, in light of scripture (e.g., Jesus is reported as fasting for 30 days), that fasting is not immoral, even though it contradicts natural law. It is seen as beneficial to the soul. Thus, fasting can be a morally good act, despite being “unnatural.” (For the record, making someone else fast is always immoral because it harms the body of another without their consent. In order to be “fasting”—rather than “starving”—it must be chosen for one’s self.)

    This current example is similar. It is natural to punch who insults your mom. (Or at least Pope Francis thinks it is.) But that doesn’t make it right. For Pope Francis, while nature is to be taken seriously, there is a higher moral law than nature at work that forbids killing of another, or even harming the human dignity of another, especially on the basis of religion. That’s why he said elsewhere in the press conference repeatedly that the killings were wrong and unjustified. Thus, while there is tension in the Pope’s statements, they are not contradictory.

    This approach is actually not that unusual. Many of us believe that even our most sacred rights (like speech/expression) do have limits—even if they are very rare. People generally agree, for instance, that it is wrong to shout “fire” falsely in a crowded theatre. And it is a crime to lie as a witness in a trial. Or, in many countries, it is illegal to threaten bodily harm to another. The Catholic tradition approaches things similarly (at least the last 100 years or so in the era of modern Catholic social teaching). Rights are sacred, but they are not always limitless.

  7. Hi Nicholas and Jim,

    Thank you for your comments. The Pope could perhaps be interpreted as making excuses for punching those who offend religion, rather than offering a justification. I still don’t think this is the best interpretation. Nowhere does he say that you should try not throw punches at those who offend religion (but it would be excusable if you did). Like a lot of religious leaders the Pope thinks that the onus is upon others not to offend the religious and that it is inexcusable if they do offend the religious – so they deserve a low-level violent reaction, even though they don’t deserve to be killed. So, in effect, he is saying that low-level violence in response to offense to religion is justified.

    Nicholas, you are right that all of this is speculative. The Pope is the leader of an organisation of over one billion people and he offers moral guidance to them. He definitely should speak more clearly about such serious matters. However, given that he hasn’t, and given his standing in the world and capacity to influence others, it’s important that we try to interpret his words as best we can. I do think that it’s more important to look at official religious justifications offered for violence than individual ones. To see why it’s probably best to read my ‘The Justification of Religious Violence’.

    Jim, I don’t agree with you about natural law. Natural law is supposed to have a moral dimension. Aquinas and other natural law theorists supposed that those who had not heard Christ’s message could still understand core aspects of morality because God had written these in to their natures, so to speak. So they could understand that incest was morally wrong, for example, because it felt unnatural. Similarly, the Pope appeared to be saying that people should understand that feeling offended in response to insults to religion is natural/normal that, therefore, people ought not (normative claim) insult religion and that low-level violent reactions in response to insults to religion are justified, even if killing is not (normative claim).

    Incidentally, I liked this article on the topic in the Guardian:

  8. The Pope’s calls to rationalize violence as a “normal” response to “offense” to religion is a mistake, rejects our laws, and flouts our universal human rights. It is precisely this position which is also used to oppress other Roman Catholics, Christians, Hindus, and other Muslims in Pakistan and around the world Those we pray to do not need us to waive our fists in their air, they need us to set an example by our outstretched hands, even to those who offend us.

    Details on this at:

  9. The Pope’s calls to rationalize violence as a “normal” response to “offense” to religion is a mistake, rejects our laws, and flouts our universal human rights. It is precisely this position which is also used to oppress other Roman Catholics, Christians, Hindus, and other Muslims in Pakistan and around the world Those we pray to do not need us to waive our fists in their air, they need us to set an example by our outstretched hands, even to those who offend us.

  10. Hi Steve, great article.

    I’m afraid I’m left wondering if your final question was rhetorical? Surely the reason they think they’re justified in using violence is because they believe their mythologies are literally true and that they have a duty to defend this truth against all attacks? I can’t imagine what else you could be suggesting.

    As far as I’m concerned, the solution is quite simple. Simple but not easy. We need to, without apology, make it completely unacceptable for religious parents to indoctrinate their children. Religion needs to become like any other belief system. Something you explore, and determine your preferences for, when you’re at the age of reason. The world has become too small for these competing moral identities to live alongside each other. My proposal would lead to a diluting effect (much as it has in european christianity) where you’d no longer get geographical religious clumps that act as echo chambers and allow the “us vs them” mentality to form.

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