It wouldn't be a true religious controversy without a blazing Christopher Hitchens column on the deplorable nature of religion. Whatever you think of Hitch's default anti-religion positions (I find them tired and politically suspect in general, but bracing in cases, like the present one, where events have set him up for the alley-oop*), he always manages to come up with some zingers:
Many people have pointed out that the Arab and Muslim press is replete with anti-Jewish caricature, often of the most lurid and hateful kind. In one way the comparison is hopelessly inexact. These foul items mostly appear in countries where the state decides what is published or broadcast. However, when Muslims republish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or perpetuate the story of Jewish blood-sacrifice at Passover, they are recycling the fantasies of the Russian Orthodox Christian secret police (in the first instance) and of centuries of Roman Catholic and Lutheran propaganda (in the second). And, when an Israeli politician refers to Palestinians as snakes or pigs or monkeys, it is near to a certainty that he will be a rabbi (most usually Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the leader of the disgraceful Shas party), and will cite Talmudic authority for his racism. For most of human history, religion and bigotry have been two sides of the same coin, and it still shows.
Whole article, featuring plenty of dumping on hapless State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
And in this corner: Pope Benedict XVI, who for reasons that are increasingly less clear to me, still has a reputation for being more of an "intellectual" than his predecessor. The Vatican weighs in on the side of religious sensitivity:
"The freedom of thought and expression, confirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, can not include the right to offend religious feelings of the faithful. That principle obviously applies to any religion," the Vatican said.
"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 said in a statement issued in response to media demands for the Church's opinion.
Cato's David Boaz writes in to object: "Wouldn't this mean that the teaching of evolution or the broadcasting of Desperate Housewives would fall outside the freedom of expression? Does the Vatican really mean that there is no 'right' to 'offend religious feelings of the faithful'?"
If that is what the boys in the Vatican mean, they might want to take another look at their own publications. The idea that the Prophet Jesus (PBUH) was a divine figure is an idolatrous belief that could just as easily run afoul of Islamic sensibilities as could a sexy TV show—but hey, we know no Muslim group would ever be crazy enough to make an issue of interreligious differences when there's a dictatorship of relativism to combat!
To get an idea of where Papa Ratzi's coming from, here's a passage from his new book Without Roots:
In our contemporary society, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, instead, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good. The argument has been made that restricting freedom of speech would jeopardize or even abolish tolerance and freedom overall. There is one major restriction on freedom of opinion, however: it cannot destroy the honor and the dignity of another. There is no freedom to lie or to violate human rights.
Have you ever seen anything more coy than that "thank goodness"? For the absolute unacceptability of anti-Semitism in European media, go here. As for the long-suppressed truth that the West's vanishingly small Christian minorities must suffer all insults in timid silence, all I can say is Happy Holidays, everybody!
I've been reading Ratzinger's stuff for years, and compared to John Paul II he's not only a charisma-challenged pope but an intellectual lightweight. I never hear anything out of this Great Thinker that couldn't just as easily have come from some stupid blogger. Specifically, where does this assumption keep coming from that there are natural limits to free expression that are universally recognized in the West? If Ratzinger wants to refer us back to the Ten Commandments let him do it; but a religious taboo doesn't become a universal truth no matter how preciously it's phrased. And a statement that sides with people who are burning down embassies because of a cartoon may be consistent with the history of the Catholic church, but it has no place in the contemporary civilization Benedict XVI seems so intent on rescuing.
* Apologies for any mental images of Hitchens airborne under the net, possibly wearing Julius Erving-era tighty whities. Further apologies for mixing sports metaphors: The Lord has made this day for football.