P.Z. Myers: Jerk or Criminal?

P.Z. Myers: Jerk or Criminal? July 24, 2008

Over the past couple of weeks, the blogosphere has been ablaze with controversy ignited by biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers’ threatened (and later claimed) desecration of a Eucharistic host. Myers’ actions were met with many a forceful rebuke, and rightly so. Curiously, though, there were no calls among Myers’ critics for him to be jailed or fined for his actions, nor was there much discussion about how it was too bad that people were free to engage in this sort of offensive behavior without the threat of legal sanctions.

What do I say this is curious? Because it is the position of the Catholic Church (or, at least, of Her current leadership) that the sorts of acts Prof. Myers claims to have performed ought to be against the law. Pope Benedict, for example, said the following back in 2006:

I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, 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, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good. This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological.

Similarly, during the controversy over the Danish Mohamed cartoons, the Vatican press office issued a statement declaring that “the right to freedom of thought and expression, sanctioned by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, cannot imply the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers,” and that governments “might and should intervene eventually according to the principles of national legislation.”

Not only that, but the reluctance I suspect most Vox Nova readers would have at criminalizing blasphemy or religiously offensive speech is, if not a uniquely American trait, then at least a particularly American one. While Americans are generally speaking more religious than Europeans, they are also less likely to think that religious blasphemy should be against the law. And while no break down is given by religious denomination, my guess is that American Catholics would not favor such laws at a higher rate than the general population.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to think that the Pope is simply wrong on this one (and I suspect that deep down even those who often accuse American Catholics of “Americanism” wouldn’t disagree). Criminalizing speech because it might be offensive to some religious group is just a really bad idea, and while the double standard the Pope notes is real, the solution is not to simply add Catholics to the list of groups one is forbidden to criticize, but to get rid of the list altogether.

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