Catholic Leaders Need to Show a Little Respect for Freedom
By Debi Ghate (Bangkok Post, May 21, 2006)
This summer's blockbuster movie "The Da Vinci Code" is set to hit the big screen surrounded by controversy. Some Catholic leaders have asked their faithful to speak out against the film and to boycott it. Some bishops, however, take it even further than that. Archbishop Angelo Amato, a high-ranking Catholic official, says the movie is full of "offences, slander, historical and theological errors concerning Jesus, the gospel and the Church," which if "directed towards the Koran or the Shoah would have justifiably provoked a worldwide revolt. Yet because they were directed toward the Catholic Church, they remain unpunished." And Cardinal-Bishop Francis Arinze, a Papal candidate last year, added ominously: "Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and forget and to love even those who insult us. There are some religions that if you insult their founder they will not be just talking. They will make it painfully clear to you." (Emphases mine)
In issuing such veiled threats, the bishops are no doubt hinting at the vehement Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons. In a frenzy of violence, Danish embassies were torched, people were murdered and the cartoonists went into hiding as protestors carried signs with slogans such as "Massacre those who insult Islam."
How can the bishops possibly call such actions justified and suggest that Christians imitate them?
Because, they claim, a person has a right to have his core beliefs respected--a right the cartoonists and filmmakers violated. "This is one of the fundamental human rights," Cardinal-Bishop Arinze pronounced in a statement eerily reminiscent of what Imams said regarding the Danish cartoons: "that we should be respected, our religious beliefs respected, and our founder Jesus Christ respected." The Bishops are demanding respect--but can respect be demanded?
To respect something means to hold it in high regard. Respect is something that we reserve for the people and ideas we judge to be worthy of our love and admiration--we reserve it for what we value. Our respect is a precious commodity, used to express our sanction and approval of others and their actions. We respect Thomas Jefferson for writing the Declaration of Independence. We respect American soldiers who defend this great country's values. In contrast, we disrespect, even hate, those who oppose our values. If a white supremacist comes to your town to deliver a speech advocating that non-whites should be corralled and shot, do you have an obligation to respect his beliefs? Or should you speak out against what you consider to be evil, and in favor of what you judge to be good? And other cases are harder to judge. If your neighbor believes that a hard-working Mexican busboy should be deported because he is here without a work permit, do you have an obligation to respect that belief?
By suggesting that there is a "right to respect," the bishops are clamoring that we owe them respect regardless of whether we think their beliefs are true or false, worthy of our admiration or denunciation. Many people, of course, do respect the Catholic Church, but others agree with Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, who concluded: "Christianity is the most ridiculous, the most absurd and bloody religion that has ever infected the world." Respect can only be granted willingly, where we judge it to be due, not demanded by those whose ideas we conclude to be false or despicable. There can be no "right" to be respected.
By claiming that their "rights" have been violated, the bishops are calling for their faithful to demand government protection from "offensive" content. By asking that the filmmakers be punished, they are asking for censorship--for the filmmakers to silence themselves or be silenced by force. And their statements make it clear: If the government won't censor the filmmakers, Christians should make their displeasure "painfully clear." "Respect" granted at the point of a gun is not respect at all--it is a ransom for your life.
Our Founding Fathers created a revolutionary system that protects each individual's rights, including the right to express his ideas regardless of their popularity or whom they offend. Our country is proof that the system works. Catholics can voice their displeasure, even their disrespect, for a movie; filmmakers can present a controversial story that millions will pay to see. Each can criticize the other and peacefully walk away. It is in that spirit that "The Da Vinci Code" filmmakers have a right to release their movie without the threat of force from Catholic bishops. And this is a right the bishops need to learn to respect.
Debi Ghate is Vice-President of Academic Programs at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
For more articles by Debi Ghate, and her bio, click here.