Father Bernard Ardura.

Father Bernard Ardura.

Interview with Father Bernard Ardura on the events in France and the question of freedom and its limits…

Born in Bordeaux, France, 66 years ago, Father Bernard Ardura has been head of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences since late 2009. As Committee Head, he has recently been concerned with such areas as the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I (with emphasis on the Holy See’s efforts for peace), the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan (which focuses on the relationship between Church and State, and laicism), and the Vatican’s Ostpolitik toward Eastern Europe when it was under communism. Prior to 2009, he was Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Culture and Consultor of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. So he is the perfect person to answer our questions on the events that took place in January in France, particularly the attack at Charlie Hebdo, on the relationship between freedom of expression and human dignity, on the safeguarding of dialogue with Islam, and the necessity for true education in respect for others in their diversity.

People on the streets following the mass shooting in Paris in January.

People on the streets following the mass shooting in Paris in January.

Father Ardura, let’s jump right in. After the bloody attack of January 7th at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, many newspapers ran headlines in big block letters, proclaiming that it was an “attack on freedom.” In your opinion, is that really what it was?

Fr. Bernard Ardura: When circumstances are revealed to be particularly dramatic, I feel we need to be very careful not to simplify what happened in an abusive manner; this should also help us avoid creating mistaken opinions.

What do you mean by that?

Ardura: Freedom of speech and expression is certainly a great value, but it isn’t intangible. We could say the same about artistic freedom. We mustn’t forget that the State is the authority that guarantees individual freedom, and part of that, naturally, is freedom of expression. It follows that the same State must defend and protect other civilian values, too. It has to uphold the security of its citizens, peace within its boundaries, justice, and equal dignity for all. It is inevitable, then, that defending the gamut of individual liberties brings with it the effect of reciprocal limitation. In other words, the policies of the State must always be presented as a compromise, finding balance from among the various forms of freedom.

Must freedom of the press also be associated with the exercise of a special responsibility?

Ardura: Essentially, freedom of the press translates into power, because the press is able to contribute to forming a nation’s public opinion and, at the same time, it is itself an expression of that public opinion. This is why freedom of the press cannot be without limits; it cannot be detached from a sense of responsibility towards the nation in which it operates. In a democracy, any power without checks and balances cannot be legitimate, since such a power could easily be transformed into a dictatorship.

And yet, Father Ardura, newspapers and magazines from the Catholic sphere (such as Jesus and Il Regno) have shown solidarity with the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo; we have seen statements such as “Irony and satire are not enemies of believers. Rather, they can help believers free themselves from presuming to ‘possess’ the Highest, thus playing an anti-idolatry role.” And in the French Jesuit magazine Etudes, it was remarked that “to manifest our support for our assassinated colleagues, we have chosen to print some of Charlie Hebdo’s cover pages that deal with Catholicism. (…) Freedom of expression is a basic element of our society.” Can you propose for us some reflections on these assertions?

Ardura: Satire is a particular form of education, and this implies that a cartoonist cannot overlook the love he should have for the victim of his or her pen: Castigat ridendo mores, the Latins used to say: “Correct morals by laughing.” In recent times, however, I am afraid that, in many cases, satire has been transformed into an expression of hatred camouflaged by humor.

International leaders walk in Paris at the start of a January 11 march to honor the victims of the January 7 terrorist attacks.

International leaders walk in Paris at the start of a January 11 march to honor the victims of the January 7 terrorist attacks.

Can you give us an example?

Ardura: I clearly remember the cartoons that a weekly satire magazine dedicated to Pope John Paul II during one of his pastoral visits to France. (Editor’s note: Charlie Hebdo’s cover page, on that same occasion, greeted the Pope with a delicate expression that, roughly translated, means “Welcome to the Pope who is a piece of s***”)

The cartoons published were “sexual” in nature, and extremely vulgar. To be sure, there was no positive, educational intent behind them; rather, there was only a deep-seated hatred of religion and for the Church. With this example, I wish to underline that criticism and satire cannot be considered as such, if they harm the dignity of people, offending their most profound convictions. The person who acts in this way does nothing but humiliate the ones they want to strike at. In this way, they sow hatred and they aggravate an already precarious situation.

There are others who share your opinion, among them Rome’s Head Rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni (who, at the Lateran University on January 15 affirmed, to thunderous applause, that he “was NOT Charlie”) and the President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, “disgusted” by that magazine’s cartoons. However – supported by the French government, the official cultural majority and media – the surviving members of Charlie Hebdo are continuing to produce their cartoons of barrel-scraping quality. For example, in the Wednesday, January 14 edition, there appeared, among others – following their consolidated tradition – anti-Catholic cartoons as coarse as they were offensive…

Ardura: These journalists are the offspring of a certain type of mentality that is fundamentally antisocial. Why do they continue to put out such offensive cartoons? Do they ever propose anything even vaguely positive? I don’t think so: they only stir up hatred. It might also be that their insistence hides a sort of regret, that they aren’t able to share in the faith which is such fundamental part of other people’s lives. Faith is not a form of life insurance: it is a source of hope and serenity, based on the certainty that we are neither alone nor abandoned, but instead loved by a God that we can call “Father.”

Young muslims are taking a stand against violence in the name of Islam by launching a social media campaign to show that hate and violence do not represent their religion.

Young muslims are taking a stand against violence in the name of Islam by launching a social media campaign to show that hate and violence do not represent their religion.

Can we legitimately think those associated with Charlie Hebdo are historically and emotionally tied to the protest movements of 1968, and define themselves as part of that climate that often translates into a total disdain for anyone who holds a contrasting opinion?… Another question that comes to mind spontaneously concerns the function of their kind of satire in the fight against terrorism…

Ardura: Are we sure that their form of expression is the best instrument for fighting terrorism? No, not at all: in my opinion, we need to create a new climate of mutual respect. Pope Francis reaffirmed this forcefully on January 15, when interviewed on board the plane taking him from Sri Lanka to the Philippines: “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith.” Here it is fundamentally important for us to be dedicated to an in-depth education of young people, to transmit to them the values of tolerance, respect for others and their differences, and to increase daily forms of cooperation at the local level, with the contribution of all parties involved.

France’s National Education Minister, the controversial Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has announced compulsory courses of formation in laicité, to contrast religious “fundamentalisms.” In Le Monde, we can read that there are those who suggest that among the “fundamentalisms” are not only Islamic-based ones, but also, for example, those who affirm publicly that marriage is for one man and one woman, open to procreation. To sum it up: by citing the “battle against the fundamentalisms” some people intend to go a step further in the criminalization of the sweeping phenomenon of the “Manif Pour Tous” (which has already been subjected to multiple attempts at repression).

Ardura: When we speak of laicité, or secularism, we need to distinguish between two very different types. By laicité here I am speaking of the separation of the jurisdiction and authority of the State and the Church. This does not presuppose ignorance of the one regarding the other: rather, there is a relationship of reciprocal confidence, on which public cooperation for the common good of society is based. In this sense, laicité is an expression of a mature democracy, founded on solidarity.

Secularism, then, is quite a different concept…

Ardura: Secularism excludes any reference to religion in public life. This principle of exclusion brings it down a path of intolerance, and causes it to assume, little by little, the characteristics of what is known as fundamentalism.

Charlie Heb­do is an expression of secularism. This is not at all the right way to fight against the ideological fundamentalism of the terrorists.

Why do you call it “ideological”?

Ardura: I refuse to consider these Islamic terrorists as religious fundamentalists. If I were to do so, I would be allowing Islam to be considered a religion that is violent in and of itself.

But the terrorists say that they are living out passages of the Quran…

Ardura: It is true that the Quran has some passages, some elements, that can be used to justify violent actions. Still, I would like to point out that nearly 1,500 years of civilization have passed since the time of Mohammed, and today all of us know true Muslims who live their faith with sincerity, devotion, coherence and peaceful intent.

The events in Paris have corroborated the advocates of the “clash of civilizations,” in some cases going so far as to call for the expulsion of Muslims from Europe…

Ardura: If I am not mistaken, the first time we heard that absurd expression was at the beginning of the second war against Iraq, in 2003, when American President George Bush spoke about the “conflict of civilizations” to justify the invasion of that country. It was an unfortunate and unjustified expression, because the Iraq conflict was purely political-military with a backdrop of economic interests. And it was an expression that increased the frustration of many Arab populations, who up to that point had always been dominated and humiliated by the Western powers. Minority forces within those populations saw this bring about a consolidation of a desire for vengeance in the face of a West that had never treated them with the dignity that is due to every human being.

France, moreover, found out first-hand what it means to be hated by an Arab population, during the Algerian revolt of 1954-1962.

Ardura: I recall that General Charles De Gaulle himself didn’t hesitate to say, when referring to the Algerian insurrection, that it was not to be approved, but that it certainly was explainable when one considered how the colonists had treated the Arabs.

Both back then and now, what weight does the religious element carry in that one portion of the Arab population that is so against the West?

Ardura: I think, in this case and in others, the religious element counts more as background and less as a central issue. I use this same key for trying to understand the horrendous attack in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes.

In the imagination of the Muslim minority I just mentioned, the Jews represent the quintessential enemy, when actually Jews and Arabs both descend from Abraham: they are the closest kind of brothers, and sometimes hatred between brothers can be of the strongest sort.

Father Ardura, from what you have been saying, you seem to conclude that interreligious dialogue with Muslims, far from needing to be interrupted, must be intensified, as a human and rational reaction to terrorist acts…

Ardura: We need to create new occasions for cooperation, as many as we can, to work side by side, to be at the service of our society. Everyone: Christians and Muslims (also Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc…) must aim for the common good, in a concrete way, with incisive action rather than longwinded speeches. And this must come about through an essential instrument: the education of young people…

About the minute of silence for the victims, which took place in all French schools the day after the attacks, I am sure you have heard that it was gravely interrupted in at least two schools, with students who refused to stay in the classrooms and who roamed the hallways, praising the attackers…without counting the tens of thousands of celebratory messages on Facebook and Twitter… It is also true that the French justice system went straight to work, accusing a long list of people under investigation of being “apologists of terrorism,” some of whom were rapidly tried and given sentences that were not at all light…

Ardura: And there you have it. Without an impressive and correctly-aimed drive towards education, as a State that practices laicité and not secularism, the situation will get worse. For this reason, it is all the more urgent for us to educate the young generation to accept, respect, and appreciate others.

This is a gargantuan task, but unavoidable if we want to save civil co-existence — in France, but not only there — and truly put into effect that fraternity and solidarity so often proclaimed.

Giuseppe Rusconi is a Swiss journalist based in Rome.

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