Is Blasphemy a right or a crime?

Fr. Z. posted this troubling news item. In France, a group called Reporters without Borders is taking the stance that public blasphemy is a human right, above the right of religion.

In Catholic teaching, blasphemy is certainly intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral.

“There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.” [CCC 1756]

A grave sin cannot be a human right. The natural law applies to all human persons, not only Catholics. By the light of human reason, considering the goods of human nature and Creation, we should understand that God exists, that He should be worshipped, and that He must not be blasphemed. So a law in secular society prohibiting blasphemy is not an imposition of any particular religion on the citizens of that society. And if anyone, with a sincere but mistaken conscience, believes God does not exist, the prohibition against blasphemy does him no harm.

So blasphemy could be made illegal. The problem is that, in the current circumstance of modern society, many grave misunderstandings of morality prevail. So making blasphemy illegal might end up giving a disordered civil government too much power over religion. It might allow secular courts and politicians to decide religious questions. And eventually this power over religion might be extended by additional laws so as to suppress religious teachings or practices that are moral.

So perhaps, in the current situation in society, blasphemy should not be illegal.

But the argument that blasphemy is a right is absurd. When you call an expression “blasphemy”, you are admitting that the expression is a grave sin against God. It might be argued that one particular expression or another is not really blasphemy. I’ve been surprised by what some Muslims consider to be blasphemy; they seem to extend the term to the slightest unwelcome expression about Islam or Muhammad. But whenever an expression truly is blasphemy, it is certainly gravely immoral. Nothing gravely immoral can be a true human right.

In a pluralistic society, we must permit persons to follow their consciences — to some extent — even if they sincerely but mistakenly believe that a grave sin is a moral choice. Abortion should nevertheless be a serious crime, since human persons are killed by abortion. Society must always protect innocent lives. We must permit freedom of religion, not as if all religions were equal, but because secular government has no right or authority to decide which religion is truest.

But blasphemy is not a right under freedom of religion because it is inherently contrary to the worship of God in any true sense. And blasphemy is not a right under freedom of expression for a couple of reasons. First, any grave sin can never be a human right. All sins are contrary to a correct understanding of the goodness inherent to human nature. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will strive to avoid sin, especially serious sin.

Second, freedom of expression does not extend to expressions that can be reasonably anticipated to do more harm than good, especially grave harm. Publicly insulting Mohammad and Islam can be reasonably anticipated, in some circumstances, to incite extremists Muslims to severe violence. If you cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater, because some persons might be injured while fleeing, you certainly cannot deliberately insult Mohammad and Islam knowing that violence and death will likely result.

The fact that these acts of violence in response to blasphemy are grave crimes against humanity is no excuse for blasphemy. Each person is responsible for his own choices. The sins of your neighbor do not justify your lesser but still grave sins. The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are not heroes for having repeatedly publicly insulted Islam until an outburst of violence was the result. And it is unconscionable for them to continue these deliberate provocations, knowing that another attack might eventually be the response.

Blasphemy is not a right, neither in itself nor as a part of the right to freedom of expression. Should blasphemy be illegal in France? The answer depends on an evaluation of the circumstances. Perhaps some lives would be saved if such a law were passed. But the law might simply be ignored, and it would be difficult to prosecute such a case. In France, incitement to violence based on religion is already illegal, yet Charlie Hebdo has not been prosecuted.

In any case, Charlie Hebdo and other European publications should cease from the deliberate provocation of Muslim extremists. The extremists commit grave crimes against humanity whenever they attack or kill innocent persons (including obnoxious journalists), regardless of the reason or the circumstances. But this does not imply that irresponsible journalism is moral or heroic.

Updated (1/15) to add: Here is what Pope Francis said on the topic:

“You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

“There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others,” he said. “They are provocateurs.”

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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