Catholic Cardinal Calls for End to Blasphemy Laws

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies. You may follow Harrod on twitter at @AEHarrod.


angelo-scola-20100906-80-size-620Speaking at a conference in Milan, Italy, on May 8, 2013, that city’s archbishop, Cardinal Angelo Scola, called for the abolition of blasphemy laws worldwide.  Such a step would significantly help protect globally the freedom of speech and religion desperately needed by Christians in particular while countering Islamic fanaticism with freedom.

Once favored to become pope, Scola made his remarks at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart for the opening of a conference focusing on Roman Emperor Constantine’s 313 Edict of Milan granting imperial toleration to Christianity.  Scola advocated a “healthy secularism” allowing religious freedom, defined by him as a “true litmus test” for a civilized society.  To Scola, this “freedom means above all encouraging religious pluralism and opening to all forms of religious expression,” including “eliminating laws that criminally punish blasphemy.”

As the Catholic cable television channel EWTN reported online, the role of blasphemy laws in Muslim-majority countries in persecuting Christians and other religious minorities formed the global context of Scola’s remarks.  As reviewed previously by this writer, the authors of Persecuted:  The Global Assault on Christians have extensively documented that “Christians are the single most widely persecuted religious group in the world today,” a “terrible trend…on the upswing.”  Moreover, “it is in the Muslim world where persecution of Christians is now most widespread, intense, and, ominously, increasing.”  Abolition of Muslim blasphemy laws, often used to prohibit propagation of Christian beliefs contradicting Muslim doctrine, would eliminate one important instrument of Islamic repression.

Such religious freedom would protect not just private rights, but also public peace.  “Religious freedom,” notes Scola’s fellow Catholic, Professor Thomas F. Farr of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, “the evidence shows, can be an antidote to religion-related extremism, including terrorism.”  Freedom, analyzes Farr, dilutes fanaticism by forcing various faiths to justify their claims intellectually without coercion in a marketplace of ideas.  “What if,” speculates Farr,

Osama Bin Laden had been raised in a Saudi Arabia that allowed for religious freedom?  What if, instead of being steeped exclusively in the toxic teachings of Wahhabism and Sayyid Qutb, he had been exposed to other forms of Islam, to critics of Islam, to other forms of religious belief, and to liberal religion-based arguments about justice and the common good?

Christians like Scola and Farr have a perfectly sound theological basis for faith-based advocacy of religious freedom.  As the prominent Protestant pastor and theologian John Piper has written, numerous Biblical verses relate that “Christ did his work by being insulted” in stark contrast to Islam in which the “work of Muhammad is based on being honored.”  As the somewhat religiously eclectic but committed freethinker Thomas Jefferson wrote to a majoritarian-Christian America in his landmark 1779 (adopted 1785) Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “all attempts to influence” individual religious belief

by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations…are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.

Ironically, Christian calls for religious freedom with respect to Islam would manifest precisely the Christian concept of the “church militant” (ecclesia militans).  Muslim entities like the 57 Muslim-majority member states (including “Palestine”) of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have often tried to hide advocacy of de facto Islamic blasphemy laws behind a supposedly “ecumenical veneer” of opposition to “defamation of religion” in general.  Christian calls for religious freedom, come what may in criticism and/or condemnation of any particular faith, ostentatiously breaks ranks with this united front claimed by some Muslims, leaving them to defend religious repression on their own.

European opponents of blasphemy laws like Scola, though, will have to begin actually with their own continent.  Scola’s native Italy as well as seven other European countries (out of a total of 45, or 18%) had blasphemy laws according to a 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study.  Somewhat similar to blasphemy laws, laws against “defamation” of religion also existed in 36 European countries (80%), while collectively religious restrictions of various sorts exist in 47% of countries worldwide.

As many have already noted (see here, here, and here), ultimately arbitrary European enforcement of such laws today more often than not involve the Islamic faith of recently arrived immigrant communities, not Europe’s historically dominant Judeo-Christian beliefs.  Accordingly, concerns about limiting free speech with respect to Islam played a role in the 2012 abolition of the blasphemy law in one of the eight European countries listed by Pew in 2011, Holland.  The Dutch precedent is a model to follow for all faithful people who believe that they have a religious truth that will set free, a truth that need not fear freedom.

This article was sponsored by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.

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  • Chezwick

    Nothing will come of it of course, but what a rare and refreshing example of the Catholic Church exhibiting a little backbone.

    • κατεργάζομαι

      regarding: "Catholic Cardinal Calls for End to Blasphemy Laws"

      Replying to Chezwick.

      Do I recall that you proclaim to be an ardent atheist?

      Then: Kindly Define "Blasphemy."

      • Chezwick

        "Do I recall that you proclaim to be an ardent atheist?"

        No, I'm an ardent believer in God, but I reject all man-made religion.

        The issue here is the blasphemy LAWS of Sharia, not the concept of blasphemy itself. These laws are used not only to suppress the freedom of expression of Muslim and non-Muslim alike….but all too often, to intimidate non-Muslims into an abject dhimmitude, lest they be falsely accused.

        I'm impressed that a significant figure inside the Catholic Church has broached the subject. I believe it will come to naught because of the Church's overall pacifism, a concept, a state-of-grace that most Muslims not only disregard, but actually have the greatest contempt for.

        • κατεργάζομαι

          "No, I'm an ardent believer in God, but I reject all man-made religion. "

          Fair enough.

          Define your God.

          What is your Soteriology?

          • Chezwick

            Deliberately vague and nebulous. Unlike so many, I make no pretense of being able to define God or comprehend the essence of God. I merely note the reality of creation (the universe), and from there, acknowledge the probability of a creator.

            For me, the existence of God is a more credible explanation for the existence of the universe (and the human capacity to love, for that matter) than the mere happenstance of chemical reactions unrelated to a divine plan. It's part intellectual and part intuition….and unlike the dogmatic certainties of both the religiously devout AND the strident atheist, I readily acknowledge I might be wrong.

          • κατεργάζομαι

            ….unlike the dogmatic certainties of both the religiously devout AND the strident atheist, I readily acknowledge I might be wrong.

            That's a hard reality.

        • κατεργάζομαι

          re: "No, I'm an ardent believer in God, but I reject all man-made religion. "

          Jesus is not man-made. His birth, life and resurrection was predicted in more than 200 fulfilled prophesies. Moreover, Jesus is chronicled as an historic figure independently in secular records.

          Jesus' Return (at an unknown future date) is displayed in even more Bible prophesies.

          You are a well-read man. Check it out.

  • κατεργάζομαι

    RE: Catholic Cardinal Calls for End to Blasphemy Laws.
    Speaking about "Catholic End to Blasphemy"

    The Most Logical & Convincing Question: ~ WHO defines "Blasphemy" ?

    "Blasphemy" according to whose religion? – ISLAM?

    BTW folks, …..Does anyone really want the Roman Catholic Church defining "heresy" ….again?

    ……..really?

    .

    • chewinmule

      Really? That's all you got? Really? This is about blasphemy not heresy. Were you there when heresy was defined by the church? Honesty ……….. from a Jesuit?

  • Paul of Tarsus

    "Cardinal Angelo Scola, called for the abolition of blasphemy laws worldwide.

    Such a step would significantly help protect globally the freedom of speech and religion desperately needed by Christians in particular while countering Islamic fanaticism with freedom."

    HOW?

  • Stephen_Brady

    Exactly how would "abolishing blasphemy laws worldwide" help anyone in Muslim countries, where the state and Islam … the state within the state … are really one? Somehow, I don't think that Muslim countries would obey any such, what? Law? UN Regulation? Exactly what would it be?

  • Jon MC

    Paul and Stephen.
    You are both wrong … and right.
    Wrong in that if it were a "worldwide abolition" then that would be a great relied for Christian and other minorites in Muslim-majority Countries. Frankly, that is stating the obvious.
    Sadly you are also right in that since Muslims consider Sharia to be "Allah's Laws" and as such above all man-made law, then (1) maj-Muslim countries would not abolish such laws and (2) the "pious" Muslims would ignore such abolition and just resort to murder (i.e. carry on as now).
    There is a parallel with slavery here: most maj-Muslim Countries have abolished it in on paper (some Cuontries more than once), yet the laws are not enforced and since slavery is regulated by Sharia it continues to today.

  • Horace

    It's a nice gesture by Cardinal Scola, and may start a trend in Europe (probably not) but it will be laughed at in Muslim countries where Christians are too much fun to whip, extort, rob, rape, beat, enslave, murder, etc. while the leaders of the powerful and wealthy formerly Christian wastern nations are afraid(or complicit by being on the Saudi payroll) to acknowledge that abuse of Christians by Muslims is even happening, never mind do something about it. His call for abolition is a step in the right direction though.
    Hopefully it might influence some of the other pastors in Christian churches to quit schmoozing their local Imams and politically active muslims in some phony and futile onesided outreach, and instead demand an end to the abuse of their fellow Christians under the control of muslim governments, but probably not.

  • Gene

    a little ironic to call for the end of those laws in Muslim countries, while at the same time trying to force the dogma and beliefs of our faith onto all here through politics.

    • Drakken

      Here let me make this so simple that even you can understand it, the most vocal of christians isn't going to kill you, the muslims will, see the bloody difference?

  • Suzanne

    This is a great first step and the Catholic Church should back Cardinal Scola all the way. As a matter of fact, every priest, minister, rabbi, western educator and policy maker should, too, as the spread of Islam on the world is one of the most unfortunate things that has ever happened.