“Freedom of expression” has been on the lips of many people across Europe and beyond since the appalling and absolutely unjustifiable killing in Paris. The right to say anything, to mock and insult everything and everyone, with no boundaries, has been presented as the foundation stone of civilisation and democracy; that any restriction or limitation would open the door to censorship and gagging. If freedom of expression is unlimited and unrestricted, why is it that in this country the state can ban so-called ‘hate preachers’, prosecute people for their offensive remarks made on the internet, and people can even be ostracised for their privately expressed opinions?
Among many sensible suggestions about how to tackle religious extremism, one in particular is promoted by those who perceive religious belief to be at the root of all evil: the removal of any religious aspect from the public domain, particularly from the education system. In practical terms it’s a call to replace traditional faiths with a new one: secularism. As with every doctrine, it produces its own extremists, aggressively and disrespectfully fighting their perceived opponents. Those with short memories, or those ignorant of what has gone on in the past, have to be reminded of communist terrorists operating in Europe and beyond in the 1960s and 70s. Every doctrine, religious or secular, can be hijacked and exploited as a means to achieve political goals. Alienating or insulting religious faith doesn’t offer a solution to world’s problems: it only boosts them.
Today’s first reading tells us the story of young Samuel, the only child of a woman who was barren for years. The boy serves the high priest in the sanctuary, but at that time has no knowledge of God. So Samuel doesn’t understand what’s happening to him when he hears a voice calling his name. Three times he reacts in the same mistaken way, until the wise and experienced high priest instructs him, pointing out the real source of that call and teaching him how to respond. That primary religious instruction leads Samuel to the recognition of God. In due course that knowledge would develop and make Samuel into one of the greatest and most respected figures in Jewish history. There’s one really important aspect to this story. The high priest’s own two sons strayed from the path of righteousness, abusing their positions and committing crimes. Eventually they brought about their own downfall as a direct result of their malevolence.
The lesson to be learnt from the story of Eli the high priest, Samuel, his boy-servant, and his own wayward sons, is that every child makes his or her own choices upon reaching a certain age. This is the experience of many of you, who carefully and diligently brought your children up in the Catholic faith but quite often see them gone astray in their adult lives, seemingly abandoning what is dear to you. There is no need to blame yourselves. You’ve done your job as best as you could, instilling the right values into them. Now they are using their freedom of expression to shape their own lives as they wish. However painful it is for us to witness, we respect their choices. And that’s what genuine freedom of expression is: making your own choices while respecting the different choices of others, and not insulting them.