The Subjective Aspect of Blasphemy

After Vatican Council II, one of the criticisms launched against the council by “traditionalists”[1] is its approach toward non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate proclaimed the need for Christians to look to other religious traditions, and to promote the good within them:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. (Nostra Aetate 2).

God has been at work in and through the world, and people have responded to him. Of course, their understanding might have been crude, or it might have been corrupted through centuries of misunderstanding, but that does not remove the positive value of their experience with God and how it has influenced them and their understanding of holiness. “From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father” (Nostra Aetate 2).

Respect for the positive good in world religions is respect for God. Even if non-Christians worship false gods, their desire for worship is proper and to be respected, so much so, if they blaspheme what they believe to be God, they are sinning. Indeed, in Leviticus, we find Scripture making this point: “And say to the people of Israel, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin” (Lev.24: 15). We must remember that the Law not only directed how Israelites should act, but also explained the kind of conduct Israelites should expect of non-Israelites who dwell with them. The verse speaks about the sin of whoever curses “his God,” which means, whoever curses that which they think to be God. Theodoret of Cyrus puts it this way:

In setting down the law of blasphemy, he used the word ‘God’ to refer also to what is falsely called ‘God.’ He said that he who reviles a false god commits a sin, but he did not judge him worthy of punishment. It is not the man of right belief who commits sin when he blasphemes a false god, but the one who believes in it and reviles it, for he blasphemes what he reverences. So he called such a sin blasphemy, not because of the innate worth of what is blasphemed, but because of the belief of the one who commits the blasphemy, for he blasphemes the god, not as a false god, but as through it were the true God.[2]

Respect for holiness is a virtue. One who aims for holiness is aiming for a good. One might misunderstand the holy, misappropriate something which is not holy and claim it is holy. Their act of respect for that object would objectively be in error, but subjectively, a good. The fact that they continue to develop subjective respect for holiness means that, if and when they understand the objective truth, they will be better equipped for such reverence of the truth than those who know it and disregard it. It is for this reason we should encourage, not discourage, people to show respect to the object of their faith. This seems to be the basis behind what Mother Teresa was saying when she stated, “I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic.” Reverence for holiness is a virtue, and she was hoping to encourage people to do just that. However, the hope is that if one is drawn to holiness, drawn to respect and revere what is holy, one will also be more and more moved to the true faith — this, of course, is exactly what many patristic writers, like Eusebius, believed would and did happen. This respect for what is good in other religions, including the reverence non-Christians show for their gods, is not giving up on a Catholic principle: it is encouraging it and realizing one which has long been forgotten.

[1] They claim to be following tradition, but they are very selective in which traditions they follow.

[2] Theodoret of Cyrus, The Questions on the Octateuch Volume II. trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2007), 75.

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  • Melody K

    “This respect for what is good in other religions, including the reverence non-Christians show for their gods, is not giving up on a Catholic principle: it is encouraging it and realizing one which has long been forgotten.”
    Thanks for this post, Henry!

  • Henry Karlson

    You are welcome. To me, this is an important concern!

  • Frank M.


    I am also grateful for your post and at the same time wistful because the many people who relate to their “faith” as tribal dogma won’t see it and may never hear this message. The video attached to the “Violent Pro-Lifers” post is a particularly disturbing example.

    To follow on your quote from Mother Teresa, “we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic” I want to add my own experience. Practicing Zen has utterly changed how I am a Christian and especially how I understand Jesus’ parables. It is like the difference between seeing the grapevine gracing my arbor and tasting its sweet fruit in the fall.

    • Henry Karlson


      I very much agree — my Buddhist studies have, and continue to have, profound influences on me. The good news is that many, like Hans Urs von Balthasar, believe in the near future the Buddhist-Christian dialogue will have such an effect on the Church that it will lead to a far greater aid and change in the Church than Neoplatonic thought had for patristics. I hope he is right.

  • Chris C.

    I have tried to find a citation for the quote from Mother Teresa and was unable to find it. Could you please note where this statement was published and when she said/wrote it? Awhile back I checked on quotes supposedly made by her and found that the attributions were not correct. Hoping that is not the case here.thanks.

  • David Raber

    Frank, you speak of those who relate to their religion as tribal dogma, another way of describing what I have thought of as acting as if one’s own religion is “the party of God” to be fought for like one fights for one’s country or even a social cause.

    We need to have some sort of organization or institution here on earth to even exist as a community, I suppose, to support each other and to get anything done together (which is why I am a Catholic), and yet we need to remember that what we are about is mainly following Jesus Christ–and both we and our orangization need to be aiming at following him and becoming more and more like him. We need to ask ourselves in particular, how did Jesus “fight” for his “cause”?

    I applaud your involvemnent in Zen for the greater glory of God! Because, as I hear at mass all the time, All good things come from God; and as our Lord taught, “You will know them by their fruits”–by the taste of the grapes or oranges or whatever is given for our nourishment.