Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, January 21, 2015

They Said It:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1869.



Longtime readers will recognize that we have spilled a great deal of ink over the past couple of decades arguing that the Catholic Church has a unique and critically important role to play in Western civilization.  The Church, and perhaps the Church alone, has the capacity not merely to preserve but to embolden and encourage on a global scale the traditional, Judeo-Christian-Hellenic moral code that served as the foundation of Western Civilization and which has been under attack since at least the Enlightenment.

As conservatives, though, we concede that our loyalties have been tested a great deal over the past couple of years.  We hope that the Church can and will continue the mission pursued most notably by Pope Benedict XVI, namely to restore the Judeo-Christian tradition to the land once known as “Christendom.”  Yet, like many who share our political proclivities, we have found ourselves bristling, time and again, when Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis, offers his opinions on a variety of matters bridging the religio-political divide.

We have argued – in these pages and elsewhere – that Pope Francis has been misinterpreted, has been mischaracterized, and should not be judged by contemporary political standards, if for no other reason than he is obviously not a political leader.  Nevertheless, the fact that we and countless others find ourselves constantly having to digest and defend the Pope’s comments worries us more than a little bit.  We are more than willing to blame most of the confusion on the ignorant and inflammatory Western media, but even they cannot be held liable for everything Pope Francis utters and every bit of confusion he has sown.  We find ourselves, therefore, in the awkward position of having to admit – to ourselves, if no one else – that the Pope either is, on occasion, very clumsy with his choice of words or has been unduly affected by the leftist culture that permeates both the geographic region and the religious tradition (the Jesuits) that have dominated his life.

As you may have guessed, all of this is, we’re afraid, prelude to a regretful discussion we believe we must have regarding Pope Francis’s latest controversial utterances, those made last week with respect to the terrorist attacks in France.  On the off chance that you missed it, last week, on board a plane between Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Pope Francis was asked about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and responded thusly:

As for freedom of expression: each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good.  The obligation!  Let’s think, if a member of parliament or a senator doesn’t say what he thinks is the right path then he does not collaborate for the common good.  Not only these, but many others too.  We have the obligation to say openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offense, because it is true, one cannot react violently.  But if Dr. Gasbarri [the papal trip organizer who was standing beside him], a great friend, says a bad word against my mother, then a punch awaits him.  But it’s normal, it’s normal.  One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. . . . And so many people who speak badly about other religions, or religions [in general], they make fun of, let’s say toy with [make into toys] other people’s religions, these people provoke and there can occur what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mother.  That is, there is a limit.  Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects life, human life, the human person.  And I cannot make fun of it.  This is a limit and I have taken this sense of limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that in regard to my mom.

Good Lord.  Where do we even start?

The first problem with this statement, we think, is the Pope’s declaration that freedom of expression is a universal right but, nonetheless, a right that should be tempered and which can, under certain circumstances, be met with a vigorous response.  “If Dr. Gabarri says a bad word against my mother,” the Pope asserts, “then a punch awaits him.”  A punch awaits him.  A.  Punch.  Awaits.  Him.  Honestly, is there any way to read this except as a justification for violence in response to certain kinds of speech?

Earlier in his discussion with journalists, Pope Francis said that “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion, that is, in the name of God.”  This is a nice, solid, blanket condemnation of religious violence and especially religious terrorism.  It is the type of condemnation you would expect from the Bishop of Rome.  And yet he goes on to say – explicitly and repeatedly – that some speech is so offensive that it can and will draw a violent rebuke.  Moreover, he says – again, explicitly – that this reaction, this resort to violence, is “normal.”

This is, to put it mildly, shocking.  Here we have the Pope – the leader of the world’s most populous religious denomination, a global symbol of morality, CHRIST’S REPRESENTATIVE ON EARTH, for crying out loud – telling the world that it is both understandable and perfectly “normal” to engage in violence against entirely peaceful, if obnoxious, speakers.  The implications of this statement are just staggering.  Most people in the West at least, if not the entire world, understand that violence in response to mere words is irrational.  It is rash, reckless and indicative of a loss of control.  Yet here is the Pope saying that it is, nevertheless “normal.”

The Pope’s words may have been “imprecise” and unrehearsed, which is to say poorly chosen.  But that’s not to say that they aren’t meaningful.  And if taken literally, the meaning of which those words are full is more than a little troubling.

In a much-derided statement published just after the attacks in Paris, Bill Donahue, the longtime President of the Catholic League, more or less blamed the victims for their own murders.  “Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned,” Donahue declared, “that is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated.”  Unfortunately, he continued on, and the very next word out of his mouth (or from his keyboard), was “but,” as in “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”  Then he got to the real kicker:

Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter.  It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.  In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.”  Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.  Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.

This is moral nonsense.  It’s absurd.  It is patent rationalization of horrific and appalling violence.

One can be forgiven, though, for wondering about the difference between what Donahue wrote and what Pope Francis said.  Yes, violence is unacceptable . . . BUT . . . Always, there is a “but.”

In the Pope’s hypothetical, would Dr. Gasbari not have played a role in his own punch in the nose?  If he’d had the sense not to “provoke” the Pope by insulting his mother, Gasbari would not have been punched.  And note that the word “provoke” – used both by Pope Francis and Bill Donahue – is defined as “to give rise to, induce, or bring about.”  Both the Pontiff and Bill Donahue state explicitly that words can be interpreted as provocation to violence.  And frankly, if that isn’t blaming the victim, we’ll be damned if we know what is.

The next bit of problematic rhetoric from Pope Francis is his blanket defense of “religion.”  “One cannot provoke,” the Pope says, “one cannot insult other people’s faith.”  Later, he says that “every religion has dignity.”  Is this true?  Does Pope Francis really believe this?  “Every” religion?  Seriously?

Now, we realize that he doesn’t say that every religion has the same dignity or that they’re all equal, but he comes pretty close.  Does he believe that Wiccans have dignity?  Animists?  We were under the impression that it was nearly universally acknowledged that the advent of monotheism, of one, singular God who is God of everything, everyone, and everywhere was a critical development in civilizational history; that the dehumanization of the divine was the indispensable variable in the facilitation of a rational worldview, a worldview that defines each and every individual as a child of God.  Does Pope Francis really believe that polytheistic faiths or New Age spirituality are equally possessed of dignity as are the monotheistic religions that have formed and which dominate contemporary civilization?  How about the pantheism of the old Teutons that animated the Nazis?

More to the point, we wonder if Pope Francis really believes that Islam is as possessed of dignity as is Christianity or Judaism.  Recall that almost a decade ago, Pope Benedict – the Pope Emeritus today – issued a challenge to the world’s Muslims to define themselves and to define the type of God in which they believe.  Pope Benedict spoke of faith and reason, arguing that the two cannot exist separately and, moreover, that when they exist in harmony, violence in God’s name is impossible.  Specifically, Pope Benedict spoke of logos, i.e. Divine Reason, as the animating force of God’s nature.  He argued that logos – faith and reason in perfect accord – is the key to human potential, freedom, and civilizational progress.

In his famous address at Regensburg, Pope Benedict declared that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and with the nature of the soul.”  In so doing, he challenged Islam to reject violence, to reject an arbitrary and willful God who demands violence of his people, and thus to accept God as perfectly and completely rational.

Samuel Gregg, the research director at the Acton Institute, reminds us that Pope Benedict continued to emphasize this point about the nature of God for the remainder of his papacy.  In 2012, for example, Pope Benedict argued that the Church had an obligation to identify some religions as “sick and distorted.”  Gregg recounted Benedict’s argument as follows:

In an article published in the Holy See’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Benedict reflected upon his own memories of the Council.  Characteristically, however, he used the occasion to make subtle but pointed observations about particular challenges presently confronting the Church and orthodox Christianity more generally: difficulties that no amount of interfaith happy-talk and ecumenical handholding will make go away.

One of Vatican II’s achievements, the pope argued, was the Declaration Nostra Aetate, which addressed the Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions.  This document focused on the most theologically-important relationship — Judaism and Christianity — but also ventured remarks about Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.  Without watering down Christianity’s truth-claims, Benedict wrote, Nostra Aetate outlined how Catholics could engage in “respectful dialogue and collaboration with other religions.”

Then, however, Benedict made his move.  With the passage of time, he noted, “a weakness” of Nostra Aetate has become apparent: it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion.”

Plainly Benedict wasn’t referring to the choice of Christians to sin.  The Catholic who, for instance, intentionally chooses to kill innocent life is, after all, acting contrary to the Church’s teaching.  Instead Benedict appears to have in mind religions which seemingly legitimize gross violations of human dignity or inhibit its members from condemning their co-religionists’ actions.

One example is the pre-Christian pagan religions.  Their view of the gods as mere hedonists who treated humans as toys, their deification of the state, their profound contempt for human life, and their conception of women as virtual sub-humans made such religions, from a Jewish and Christian standpoint, irredeemable.  Then there are particular practices that indicate profound dysfunctionality in a religion’s core beliefs, such as the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice.

As Pope Benedict put it, “For this reason the Christian faith, from the outset, adopted a critical stance towards religion, both internally and externally.”

Now, the unanswered question in all of this is into which category contemporary Islam falls.  Does it believe in a God of logos?  Or does it believe in some other type of God, a god of voluntas, or pure will?  That was the question Pope Benedict posed at Regensburg, and that is the question that bedevils both the Western world and the Islamic world to this very day.

In declaring that “every religion” has dignity, Pope Francis appears not only to reject Benedict’s categorization of some religions as “sick and distorted,” but also to answer the question asked by his predecessor with respect to Islam.  Unfortunately, he offers this answer with no rationale, no corroboration, and indeed in the face of even more evidence to the contrary, the attacks in Paris that prompted the entire discussion in the first place.

Again, we understand that the Pope’s comments were impromptu and thus should not be taken as anything more than his extemporaneous thoughts on the question of free expression and religion.  Still, in trying to be inclusive and reconciliatory, he risks veering off into the moral wasteland of contemporary multiculturalism.  And in its contemporary usage the term multiculturalism suggests not merely knowledge of many cultures, but acceptance of them, indeed, moral equivalence between them.

When Pope Francis declared that “every” religion has dignity, without distinction, he came precariously close to embracing “cultural relativism,” which is the cousin of moral relativism and the foundation of the post-war world order, particularly as fostered by the political Left.  Over the course of the last seven decades, the tenants of cultural relativism have dominated Leftist thought on comparative government, comparative sociology, and comparative religion.  Cultural relativism is, as we have noted, a noxious brew, Marxist in spirit, post-modern in epistemology, and destructive in practice.  The Pope’s message on dignity is off-putting, not because it proposes reflection and thoughtfulness on the part of those who speak about religion, but because it does so indiscriminately, suggesting that all religions – regardless of belief and practice – should be treated equally.

All of which brings us, at long last, to the final bit moral confusion engendered by the Pope’s statement on the freedom of expression and religion.  Pope Francis says that free speech cannot provoke, insult, or “give offense,” to religion.  Again, the language here is sloppy and potentially troubling.  As the aforementioned Samuel Gregg notes, “much pivots on his [the Pope’s] use of the word ‘offend,’” which is an exceptionally loaded term.  Gregg continues, explaining why:

In much of the West today, we increasingly live in societies in which even expressing a view, religious or otherwise, on any number of subjects is considered “offensive” because it (a) might question something that someone else believes to be true and/or (2) it may raise questions about the morality of others’ actions or the manner in which they live their life.  In short, “offending someone” — or even the potential to offend someone — is becoming a basis for shutting down free speech and the free exchange of views.  If, for instance, we can’t have an open conversation about the respective truth claims of, say, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or atheism because such a conversation might offend someone, then “offending someone” becomes a basis for terminating important discourse about some rather fundamental questions.

This raises two profoundly important questions.  First, what is an “offense?”  Who defines it?  How severe must an offense be for it to compel restrictions on free expression?  As Gregg notes, “even expressing a view . . . on any number of subjects is considered ‘offensive. . . .’”  In contemporary society, there is no agreement – indeed, no possible agreement – on what constitutes offense.  Anything can be offensive – as long as someone, somewhere, at some point takes offense.  There are no objective standards, no established quantitative measures.  All that matters are feelings, which are perhaps the most tenderly subjective measure imaginable.  What is offensive?  Anything that offends me.

All of this calls to mind Alasdair MacIntyre’s criticism of contemporary morality and especially its reliance on a heavily emotive disposition.  MacIntyre, recall, argued that the Enlightenment mission of destroying the traditional, religiously based moral scheme and replacing it with one based exclusively on reason was doomed from its inception and left the very notion of morality shattered.

Without the pre-Enlightenment, pre-Modern teleological framework, MacIntyre argued, “the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible,” and moral philosophy becomes nothing more than an arena for competing notions that have no basis other than “logic,” which is, of course, subjective.

The ultimate end of all of this is a civil order in which the traditional moral order has been eroded but has been replaced by nothing of any substance or meaning, which, in turn, breeds moral chaos. The modern, liberal society, in turn, is one in which the meanings of such words as right, wrong, moral, immoral, truth, lie, justice and injustice are entirely capricious and contextual.  In such a society, MacIntyre notes, the statement “This is good” comes to mean nothing more than “Hurrah for this!”  Likewise, “this is offensive” comes to mean nothing more than “I don’t like this.”

Pope Francis states – openly and unabashedly – that “offense” is the key to understanding the appropriate limits on otherwise obligatory expression.  In so doing, however, he introduces randomness, relativism, subjectivity, and emotiveness into the moral equation.  All of which is to say that he muddies the proverbial waters.  In contemporary society – and especially on the Left – offense can be found everywhere and in everything, particularly if the speaker in question is a person of “privilege.”  That the Pope has, apparently, bought into this notion is, again, dispiriting, in that it indicates that even the stability of the Catholic Church is threatened by the post-Enlightenment, post-modern flight from reason.

The other problem with this notion of “offense” being the key to understanding limitations on expression is the simple fact that religious differences are, almost by definition, matters of offense.  As Samuel Gregg suggests above the basic fundamental questions dividing the world’s great religions are, to some extent or another, questions that give offense.  Muslims, for example, consider Jesus a prophet, but bristle at the Christian notion that he is more than that, that he is, in fact, God.  The idea that the one, true God could have a triune nature is offensive, particularly to Muslims, who are keen to find offense.  Likewise, the idea that the Jewish Messiah was born but was rejected by the Jewish people, who also had Him killed, is or at least could be offensive to many Jews.  The list of potential “offenses” between faiths is not just long, but virtually inexhaustible.

Daniel Greenfield, an author and journalist who blogs under the pseudonym Sultan Knish, notes that “offense” at and from other religions is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of many faiths, particularly Islam, for which politics and faith are largely indistinguishable.  His put it as follows:

Citizenship is linked to religion and even in countries such as Egypt, where non-Muslims may be citizens, there are fundamental restrictions in place that link Islamic identity to Egyptian citizenship.  For example, Egyptian Muslims who attempt to convert to Christianity have found extremely difficult to have the government recognize their change of religion by issuing them new identification cards.

While we may think of blasphemy in terms of the Charlie Hebdocartoons, each religion is mutually blasphemous.

Muslims argue that the West should “respect prophets” by outlawing insults to Mohammed and a panoply of prophets gathered from Judaism and Christianity.  But the Islamic view of Jesus is equally blasphemous to Christianity. And Islam considers Christianity’s view of Jesus to be blasphemous.

If we were to truly prosecute blasphemy, the legal system would have to pick a side between the two religions and either prosecute Christians for blaspheming against Islam or Muslims for blaspheming against Christianity.  And indeed in Muslim countries, Christians are frequently accused of blasphemy.

Malaysia’s blasphemy laws were used to ban Christians from employing the word “Allah” for god and to seize children’s books depicting Noah and Moses.  The reason for seizing the children’s books was the same as the reason for the attack on Charlie Hebdo; both were featuring cartoons of prophets.

While Charlie Hebdo pushed the outer limits of blasphemy, every religion that is not Islam, and even various alternative flavors of Islam, are also blasphemous.

Greenfield points out that St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most important of all the Catholic Church’s philosophers, wrote that “Mohammed seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure,” which is unquestionably “offensive” Muslims.

Would Pope Francis muzzle Aquinas?  Should he muzzle Aquinas?  Can the Church accept that one of its “doctors” undoubtedly gave offense to another religion?

Consider as well the fascinating and enlightening case of Hilaire Belloc.  Belloc, you may recall, was one of the most important Catholic writers of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  Belloc is not as well-remembered as his friend and collaborator G.K. Chesterton, but he is nonetheless an important figure in early 20th century literature and political and religious discourse.  We have cited him in these pages before as one of the key opponents of the secular and expansive “servile state.”  We have also cited him on the subject of Islam, which is quite possibly the issue for which he is best remembered.  In his 1938 classic The Great Heresies, Belloc challenged Islam head on, labeling it a Christian heresy, rather than a unique and distinct religion. He put it this way:

Mohammedanism was a heresy: that is the essential point to grasp before going any further.  It began as a heresy, not as a new religion.  It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was not an alien enemy.  It was a perversion of Christian doctrine.  Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was, not a denial, but an adaptation and a misuse, of the Christian thing.  It differed from most (not from all) heresies in this, that it did not arise within the bounds of the Christian Church.  The chief heresiarch, Mohammed himself, was not, like most heresiarchs, a man of Catholic birth and doctrine to begin with.  He sprang from pagans.  But that which he taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified.  It was the great Catholic world on the frontiers of which he lived, whose influence was all around him and whose territories he had known by travel, which inspired his convictions.  He came of, and mixed with, the degraded idolaters of the Arabian wilderness, the conquest of which had never seemed worth the Romans’ while.

He took over very few of those old pagan ideas which might have been native to him from his descent.  On the contrary, he preached and insisted upon a whole group of ideas which were peculiar to the Catholic Church and distinguished it from the paganism which it had conquered in the Greek and Roman civilization.  Thus the very foundation of his teaching was that prime Catholic doctrine, the unity and omnipotence of God.  The attributes of God he also took over in the main from Catholic doctrine:  the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things, and His sustenance of all things by His power alone.  The world of good spirits and angels and of evil spirits in rebellion against God was a part of the teaching, with a chief evil spirit, such as Christendom had recognized.  Mohammed preached with insistence that prime Catholic doctrine, on the human side the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the consequent doctrine of punishment and reward after death.

If anyone sets down those points that orthodox Catholicism has in common with Mohammedanism, and those points only, one might imagine if one went no further that there should have been no cause of quarrel.  Mohammed would almost seem in this aspect to be a sort of missionary, preaching and spreading by the energy of his character the chief and fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church among those who had hitherto been degraded pagans of the Desert.  He gave to Our Lord the highest reverence, and to Our Lady also, for that matter.  On the day of judgment (another Catholic idea which he taught) it was Our Lord, according to Mohammed, who would be the judge of mankind, not he, Mohammed.  The Mother of Christ, Our Lady, “the Lady Miriam” was ever for him the first of womankind.  His followers even got from the early fathers some vague hint of her Immaculate Conception.

But the central point where this new heresy struck home with a mortal blow against Catholic tradition was a full denial of the Incarnation.

Mohammed did not merely take the first steps toward that denial, as the Arians and their followers had done; he advanced a clear affirmation, full and complete, against the whole doctrine of an incarnate God.  He taught that Our Lord was the greatest of all the prophets, but still only a prophet: a man like other men.  He eliminated the Trinity altogether.

With that denial of the Incarnation went the whole sacramental structure.  He refused to know anything of the Eucharist, with its Real Presence; he stopped the sacrifice of the Mass, and therefore the institution of a special priesthood.  In other words, he, like so many other lesser heresiarchs, founded his heresy on simplification.

The question, then, is “was Belloc right?”  If so, then the entirety of Islam is an “offense” against Catholicism and against those of Catholic faith.  It is a blasphemy that cannot, under Pope Francis’s formulation, be allowed to stand.

But if not, then Belloc himself is the giver of offense and a man whom the Holy See must therefore disavow as a zealot, a liar, and a religious provocateur.

Of course, the catch here is that Belloc wasn’t denounced and ostracized as an agitator when he wrote about “The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed,” just as Muslims weren’t tried and punished as heretics in the early 20th century.  In 1938, the world was too concerned with real and serious matters to worry about the triviality of “offense,” while the Catholic Church had, thankfully, progressed beyond burning heretics at the stake, which was, by then, acknowledged as an act of sheer barbarism completely unjustified even by the notion of heresy.

Given all of this, perhaps we should consider it a luxury that the leader of more than one billion Catholics worldwide has both the time and the inclination to wax philosophical about the question of free speech.  We don’t suppose that Pope Pius XI, the Pope who served during the rise of the Axis powers, probably had that luxury.

At the same time, we should acknowledge that sometimes people – even people with exceptional blessings – say things they wish they hadn’t or that they later wish they could have said more clearly.  Having done our fair share of radio interviews over the last several months, heaven knows that we’ve said things far more suspect and far less in line with our more considered thoughts than Pope Francis did the other day.  Of course then, we are not Christ’s vicar on earth – far from it – so our gaffes don’t carry quite the same weight.

We can only say that we hope what Pope Francis said was indeed a gaffe and that he will clarify himself at a later date.  Otherwise, all of us who count on the Catholic Church for stability and defense of eternal truths would have cause for some consternation.

Make no mistake.  Western civilization is tottering on extinction.  If it falls, chaos and old night will reign.  Think about that and think about the fact that our civilization’s foundational freedom is under aggressive attack, not just from without, but from within as well.


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