The Danish Cartoon Protests: The Vatican Responds

This is part III of a three part roundup on the Jyllands-Posten Cartoon Protests of February 2006. The first post is titled: “The Danish Cartoon Protests: Spontaneous Indignation or Orchestrated Hatred?”; the second post, “Clash of Civilizations”? – Reactions & Commentary

On February 5th, 2006, the Vatican — by way of an unsigned statement released by the Vatican press office — “condemned the publication of caricatures of Mohammed in the Western press, as well as the violent reaction of the Muslim world” (Zenit News Service). The statement, in full, reads as follows:

1. 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. This principle applies obviously for any religion.

2. In addition, coexistence calls for a climate of mutual respect to favor peace among men and nations. Moreover, these forms of exasperated criticism or derision of others manifest a lack of human sensitivity and may constitute in some cases an inadmissible provocation. A reading of history shows that wounds that exist in the life of peoples are not cured this way.

3. However, it must be said immediately that the offenses caused by an individual or an organ of the press cannot be imputed to the public institutions of the corresponding country, whose authorities might and should intervene eventually according to the principles of national legislation. Therefore, violent actions of protest are equally deplorable. Reaction in the face of offense cannot fail the true spirit of all religion. Real or verbal intolerance, no matter where it comes from, as action or reaction, is always a serious threat to peace.

Needless to say, reactions were . . . mixed.

  • UCLA Law professor Professor Bainbridge conveys his disappointment at the Vatican’s tepid response: “It reflects a cramped understanding of freedom of speech that seems to blame the victims more than those who commit violence.” Nor was Eugene Volokh and Jody Bottum impressed, the latter describing the statement as one “in which obtuseness seemed caught in a death struggle with inanity.”
  • On the other hand, Fr. Robert Araujo, SJ (Mirror of Justice) sees the Vatican’s statement an underlying concern for the Church at large (Cartoons and Violence: “Is that all, Folks?” Feb. 8, 2006):

    “[T]he need to remember that presently the Holy See has diplomatic relations with 174 countries in the world, including the US, members of the European Union, many Arab or Moslem countries, and others . . . One can argue the merits of diplomatic relations, but they are a fact of life. It is sometimes said that diplomats — like lawyers — do not receive high marks in the public’s estimation. Regardless of one’s take on diplomats, they often provide the last opportunity for using reasoned discourse rather than force to resolve the problems of the world.

    The fact that “clerics, men and women religious, and many laity have been physically targeted, sometimes with deadly force” in other parts of the world — as evidenced by the murder of Italian Catholic priest Andrea Santoro — may be the likely reason behind the Vatican’s conciliatory remarks. (On February 7 Reuters reported that “Turkish security forces arrested a high school student on Tuesday over the killing of an Italian Catholic priest . . . The student told police he was influenced by cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, NTV commercial television said. The report could not be immediately confirmed.”)

  • However, I cannot help but be reminded of Fr. Neuhaus’ observation from two years ago (The Vatican vs. “Americanism” First Things 148, December 2004):

    In the background of that European attitude, and not very far in the background, hovers the fear of huge and restive Muslim populations in countries such as France and Germany. In a global conflict with an enemy motivated by Islamic fanaticism, these Europeans, and perhaps some in the Vatican as well, do not want to be perceived as being on the Christian side. To be sure, the Vatican has a singular responsibility to cultivate dialogue with Islam, but that dialogue will be neither credible nor fruitful if the Vatican is not clearly on the Christian side. That does not mean that in every instance the Vatican should be on the American side. A great deal of delicate diplomacy and careful thought is required. But this much is certain: in the new configuration of world power and influence, the United States is, on balance and considering the alternatives, on the Christian side.

    We should all understand why President Bush refuses to speak about a clash of civilizations or to describe our circumstance as one of religio-cultural warfare. But we should all know that that is what, in fact, it is. Or, as the report of the 9/11 Commission prefers, it is an ideological conflict inescapably tied to religion. It would be an exquisite irony of history if, when war is declared on the Christian West by those inspired by a possibly perverse but undeniably Islamic ideology, the Vatican refused to take sides; thus, willy-nilly, taking the other side. The Curia’s cosmopolitanism, sophistication, devotion to dialogue, and long-term perspective shaped by centuries of diplomacy can all be assets. They can also induce a blindness to the fact that an enemy has declared war and sides must be taken. The Europeans who run the Vatican are right in believing that the Vatican must not be a chaplain to American hegemony; a critical distance is required. When that distance becomes disdain, however, the credibility of the Church’s political guidance and the defense of our common civilization are gravely weakened.

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