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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Vatican diplomacy and anti-Muslim cartoons

A few days ago, prompted by this post by Eugene Volokh, I said on "Mirror of Justice" -- my "other blog" -- that I was disappointed in the response offered by the "Vatican" to the anti-Muslim cartoons that appeared recently in some Danish newspapers and to the violent reactions to those cartoons in some corners of the Muslim world.  In my view, the claim of "the Vatican" that "[t]he right to freedom of thought and expression . . . cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers" is not a particularly powerful one. (The First Things blog suggested that the Vatican's statement was one in which "obtuseness seemed caught in a death struggle with inanity."). 

Then, one of my fellow MOJ bloggers -- an international-law specialist and Jesuit priest, Fr. Robert Araujo -- added these thoughts, about how the Holy See's diplomatic status and needs might factor into an assessment of its response to the cartoons and the free-speech (and other) issues they raise.  After reminding me that, in many instances, the statements and activities of Vatican diplomats are crafted with an eye toward protecting the religious-freedom rights (or even the lives) of those who live in countries not disposed to respect those rights, Fr. Araujo concluded:

Like the rest of us, papal diplomats are human beings trying to do the right thing. Sometimes they succeed, but other times, they do not. For those who may be skeptical of them and their activities, we need to remember this: they are the ones who are asked to keep one eye on what they see nearby but the other eye must scan the distant horizons across the world. . . .  If their unsigned statements are disappointing to any of us, we might pause to think about what these words might mean to our sisters and brothers on distant shores. They may only be words, but words can mean a lot in a world where the rule of law is relevant.

Now, I tend -- at least, in the context of American law and politics -- to have a pretty robust commitment to free-speech rights.  And so, my first reaction to any statements -- whether by "the Vatican" or by the President or Secretary of State -- that focus on the alleged abuse of the freedom of speech, rather than on the freedom itself, or on the unjustifiable violent reactions to it, is to be suspicious and critical.   But maybe Fr. Araujo's post suggests that I was, in this case, too quick?  I'm not sure.   

Posted by Rick Garnett on February 9, 2006 at 02:43 PM in Religion | Permalink


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With my American free-speech bias fully admitted, I am inclined to agree with the idea that limits upon the freedom of expression, even (or especially) as they apply to religion, are problematic. But I am more troubled by another point made in the Vatican statement (assuming, of course, that the news report is accurate). The statement provides:

"Any form of excessive criticism or derision of others denotes a lack of human sensitivity and can in some cases constitute an unacceptable provocation."

It is easy to agree with the first part, that excessive criticism or derision shows a lack of human sensitivity. Such actions can be mean spirited and immoral, even if they should be permitted under the guise of free speech. However, the second part, that it constitutes "unacceptable provocation," is troubling. It seems to me that this could be perceived as a tacit approval of violent, physical reactions to religion-related speech. I concede possible “unacceptable provocation” could exist if, for example, one were to show up at a mosque with religiously offensive posters. One would expect an immediate, physical confrontation. However, couldn’t the Vatican's statement in some ways be seen to sanction the violent responses seen in Muslim countries around the world? More important, couldn't this also be seen to sanction violent responses to other speech relating to religion, such as adamantly opposing the presence of religion in certain contexts?

Please note, I am not saying the that Vatican is trying to sanction violence or that the statement was intended to do so. As a whole, it seems that the intent was to support sensitivity to all religions. I mean simply to point out, as Fr. Araujo so aptly stated, "that we might pause to think about what these words might mean to our sisters and brothers on distant shores. They may only be words, but words can mean a lot in a world where the rule of law is relevant."

Posted by: WaveLaw | Feb 10, 2006 10:51:00 AM

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