Why Pope Francis is not fond of the newest Charlie Hebdo cover

Pope Francis was one of many critics accusing the satirical magazine, which is now commemorating the one-year anniversary of attacks that killed 10 of its staff, of going too far in its critiques of religious faith. 

Francois Mori/AP
A special edition of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that marks one year after – '1 an apres' – the attacks on it, on a newsstand Wednesday at a train station in Paris.

On Tuesday, as French President François Hollande unveiled plaques to commemorate last January's terrorist attacks in Paris, the cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo magazine were preparing their own memorial for the one-year anniversary of the extremist Islamic attacks, which killed 10 of their colleagues and 10 other Parisians. 

"One year later: The assassin's still on the run," this week's edition of the satirical weekly announces. The cover cartoon shows a robed and bearded God dashing away with blood on his robe and a Kalashnikov strapped to his back.

Charlie Hebdo – a once-struggling publication buoyed by worldwide support after the Jan. 7 massacre, as free-speech defenders chanted "Je Suis Charlie" – is no stranger to controversy, especially around religion. One day after publication, the latest edition has revived fierce debate about the difference between the 'coulds' and 'shoulds' of free speech, with the Vatican leading those who say Charlie Hebdo goes too far.

In a column titled "Faith manipulated," the Church's daily newspaper criticized cartoonists for focusing on religions' power to create conflict, rather than heal:

Behind the deceptive flag of an uncompromising secularism, the French weekly once again forgets what religious leaders of every faith have been urging for ages — to reject violence in the name of religion and that using God to justify hatred is a genuine blasphemy.

The critique echoes comments made by Pope Francis following last year's attacks, when he told reporters, "You can't provoke, you can't insult the faith of others, you can't make fun of faith," according to Reuters.

Popes themselves have often been Charlie Hebdo's cover victim, including Francis. 

"All set to solicit some clients!" a skimpily-clad Francis, dressed in little more than sandals, gloves, and nail polish, said in a cover cartoon about his trip to Rio de Janeiro. The magazine celebrated the departure of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, with an image of him kissing a male Vatican guard and exulting, "Free at last!" And the cartoonists have frequently made sexual images of other Catholic figures, such as priests and nuns.

The magazine's artists defend themselves as equal-opportunity critics: leaders of many faiths have been mocked in its cartoons. But its images of the Prophet Muhammad have inspired the most violent backlash, given that most Muslims consider drawing his face blasphemy. The January 2015 attackers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, targeted staff on account of their pictures of Muhammad.

According to Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, president of the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda, Md., confusion about Western governments adds to some Muslims' outrage about such images. 

"Because governments in the Middle East and North Korea have control over what is in the media and in print, they can’t really accept that it’s not the same in the West and America," Mr. Ahmad told The Christian Science Monitor last January. "They don’t believe that in America there is no prior restraint on what is published or released online or in film."

In April, when the PEN American Center honored Charlie Hebdo with its Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, 35 of the prestigious center's writers penned a letter of dissent, defending the magazine's right to publish the provocative cartoons, but arguing that it did not deserve honor.

"In an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect," they wrote, criticizing the cartoonists for fixating on marginalized French Muslims. 

But many observers say comments such as the Vatican's, which caution against insulting faith, amount to a 'justification' for the killings. 

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, British columnist Brendan O'Neill excoriated "Western liberals" for protesting Charlie Hebdo's choice to repeatedly put inflammatory religious cartoons on its cover, particularly at times when tension between non-Muslim cultures and Muslim ones are already stretched so thin.

Criticizing writers who called the cartoons "stupid," Mr. O'Neill wrote, "You could picture him at the scene of medieval executions of earlier blasphemers, shouting as the flames licked their bodies: 'This is what happens when you say stupid things!' "

Talk of lines that "must not be crossed" is "exactly what the killers thought," he continued, scolding Charlie Hebdo's critics for not grasping that "freedom of speech, by its very definition, must apply to all or it does not exist."

Those who suggest reining in offensive images insist they're all for protecting the legal freedom to say whatever one likes. It's the moral and political dilemma that they think deserves consideration.

Writing about a cartoonist killed in the attacks, one Twitter user said he'd "confused courage and a lack of conscience." 

But the magazine seems to see moral and religious criticisms, in particular, as suspect.

"We must veil Charlie Hebdo!" a furious Orthodox Jewish man, priest, and Muslim cleric yelled as they charged towards readers on a former cover. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.