Don’t appeal to ‘blasphemy’ as a defence

The writer, Clive James, defined blasphemy as mocking the sincerely-held religious views of people. It’s a fair definition. And even though many would believe that blasphemy as an offence shouldn’t be in the Constitution, it doesn’t give anyone the right to be so gratuitously offensive as Stephen Fry was, about a God whom he professes not to believe in, especially on a public broadcasting service. Though we shouldn’t be too surprised.
We’re getting used to it – from the casual insults by commentators anxious to advertise what they imagine is some form of sophistication, to the anti-Catholic group-think so obvious in some publications, to the venom of individuals whose derision of Catholicism and by extension Christianity must surely emanate from some bitter personal experience.
Understandable, yes. Predictable too. Shortly before he died, in an article in The Guardian, John McGahern wrote: ‘When a long abuse of power is corrected, it is generally replaced by an opposite violence. In the new dispensation all that was good in what went before is tarred indiscriminately with the bad.’
McGahern’s words explain to some degree the avalanche of abuse that rained down on the Sisters of Charity over the National Maternity Hospital controversy (though this is not my focus here) and why a record of selfless service of the vast majority of religious men and women is so easily expunged from public consciousness.
His words explain both the growing religious intolerance of our society and the parallel effort, unviable and probably impossible, to build a secular society. Because religious faith is not a simple thing, especially if it deeply embedded in a society.
The difficult truth for evangelical secularists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry (and their supporters who quote them as if they were holy writ) is that the religious instinct is so ingrained in human nature that it is never likely to disappear, even when it’s derided and suppressed. And particularly so in societies like Ireland, steeped for centuries in religious vocabulary, emblem, and iconography, what McGahern memorably described as ‘part of the very weather of our lives.’ In an impoverished time, McGahern wrote, ‘the Church was my first book. It was my introduction to ceremony, to grace and sacrament, to symbol and ritual’.
I remember as an altar boy in Ballycastle Church with Canon Paddy Maloney on Fridays during Lent as we did the rounds of the Stations of the Cross ending each of the 14 stations with a prayer I can still recite from memory: ‘I love you, Jesus my love, above all things, I repent of my whole heart . . .Grant that I may always love you and then do with me what thou wilt.’
While my thoughts at the time were more focussed on Randolph Scott and going to the pictures on Friday night (in the school which doubled as a cinema) it’s the Stations of the Cross that are more deeply embedded in my memory. Another memory is the family rosary with, as the poet John Montague wrote, ‘Hail Mary dissolving into Holy Mary’ and ‘the steady drone’ deepening as the beads glide through the fingers.
The poet Seamus Heaney wrote about the fresh, instinctual energy his words achieved when they hovered around his home ground in County Derry and he attributed that to the sense of the transcendental that fired his sense of place. For Heaney, the local landscape was sacramental, a system of signs that drew on deep reservoirs of religious feeling and thinking. (The writer and poet, John O’Donohue, drew on the same language when he described his beloved Burren as ‘a tabernacle of God’s presence.’)
For Heaney, green rushes were a link into St Brigid and the crosses that decked rooms and houses; the buttercups on the windowsills became a mid-summer rite when memory of a pagan goddess morphed into the Virgin Mary; and at Christmas times candles blazed in the windows.
For Heaney, the Virgin Mary – intercessor, Star of the Sea, Mother of Mercy – occupied in common psychology the place of the muse in poetic psychology. (Little wonder that Heaney regarded the ‘Catholic’ poet as lucky in that he saw the Virgin Mary as preserving the feminine in the structure of Catholicism.)
All three – McGahern, Heaney and O’Donohue – went beyond the religious quest into areas at odds with the constraints of institutional Christianity and ended with a very individual view of the world, but the truth is we all do that in our own way.
What happens is that we gradually refine our religious sensibility as some beliefs move into the background and others into the foreground as knowledge and experience produce a workable and authentic faith and we come to realise that this process of communal and individual selection is natural and inevitable, and not the collapse of some God-given scaffolding holding everything together. Part of this personal development is shedding infantile concepts at the heart of our religion, and refining what we believe in the complex crucible of experience and growth.
While this process is often unfairly caricatured as an ‘a-la-carte’ approach to Christianity, the truth is that we are complex beings with individual and varied experiences, instincts, and personalities, and selection is the way we function as human beings. A one-size-fits-all notion of Catholic or Christian, while it may have its advantages in terms of institutional organisation and control, pays little respect to the complexity of the individual faith journey. In simple terms achieving an adult faith is an individual quest.
Against the poetic sensibilities of McGahern, Heaney and O’Donohue, the populist rantings of those who have no sense of God (and no feel for the religious quest) like Christopher Hawkins and Stephen Fry are not just simplistic and patronising but insulting to those who treasure their religious faith and indeed to our intelligence.
But rather than seeking to quell their voices by appealing to a definition of blasphemy in our constitution we need to take our arguments into the public square, despite the opposition of those who imagine that anyone criticising the Catholic Church in Ireland today is always right.

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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Well, love is not real unless it is combined with the ability to not love, right? In a world of choice, there is always going to be the possibility for evil/hate. The good news is that true goodness does exist and we are tasked at putting it to use if we truly want to change the world for the better – is this not what is desperately needed to be ingrained in human nature?
    Bring true goodness to the public square and we’ll eliminate the need for any argument.

  2. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Having seen the Stephen Fry interview with Gay Byrne, what struck me was that Stephen was utterly sincere and serious about the questions he asked. I don’t think there was blasphemy there, any more than in the questioning of God in Scripture. They are very real questions, nowhere near taking the name of God in vain. It is one of the perennial philosophical and theological questions. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus face us with the same.
    Brendan Purcell wrote “Where is God in suffering” (Veritas) in response to Stephen Fry’s remarks. There’s a very brief article by Brendan on this in the Irish Catholic at http://irishcatholic.ie/article/six-reasons-why-i-think-stephen-fry-wrong-%E2%80%93-fr-brendan-purcell.
    Theologian Denys Turner has a good talk on “How could a good God allow evil” at https://player.fm/series/the-thomistic-institute/dr-denys-turner-how-could-a-good-god-allow-evil-101316-harvard.

  3. Con Devree says:

    Blasphemy is a complex matter.
    Catholics would probably distance themselves from the mockery Christ was subjected to by many on Calvary. If one feels a need to dissociate from such mockery the latter probably amounts to blasphemy.
    Paragraph 2162 of the CCC says “The second commandment forbids every improper use of God’s name. Blasphemy is the use of the name of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the saints in an offensive way.” This is extended in paragraph 2148.
    Blasphemy is one of those issues where it is better to “render unto Caesar etc.” The State has its reasons and understandings different from those of the Church.
    Both could regard the offensive references to the Real Presence on the Late Late Show some months back as plain mockery. (I did no see it). But any act of blasphemy should raise considerations other than efforts at protest.
    Christ provided a guide for responses to blasphemy.
    Consider a few quotations.
    “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” [John 12, 32]. Thomas Aquinas somewhere attributes a saying to the Saviour: “As I myself manifest truth, so I am preparing a kingdom for myself.” It could conceivably apply here.
    But on the Cross Christ was aware of other forces at work. “The whole world is under the power of the Evil One” [1 John, 5, 19]. The battle suggested by these two quotations becomes real in the Book of Revelation between Revelation and anti-Revelation, between creation and anti-creation.
    Jesus told Pilate that his kingship is not that of the kings of this world, but consists of the obedience of his subjects to his word, to his truth. He reigns over his subjects not through force or power, but through the truth of which he is witness, which “all who are from the truth” receive with faith’. Pascal writes: “You would not seek me if you had not already found me”. The force of attraction mentioned in John 12, 32 above can only take effect on those who try to be available to the Truth.
    Jesus says of Satan: “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [John 8, 44]. He who holds the entire world under his sway dominates through lies. Satan must regard blasphemy as native to his interiority, instigating blasphemy to remove the image of God from creation, to obscure His presence therein, to extinguish truth in peoples’ hearts along with their desire for truth. Incidences of blasphemy throughout history were clearly aimed not just at giving offence but at rendering Catholic belief baseless.
    It seems that acts of blasphemy should give rise to pastoral responses over and beyond focus on the perpetrators. Their levels of culpability are unknown. Should not the pastoral response focus be on the experience of Jesus as victim, as he was mocked on Calvary? He provided insight on this experience in His revelations at Paray Le Monial. In one sense He was/is not invulnerable to such mockery. Given these revelations, should not homiletic input on blasphemy be necessary, be governed by these revelations, and much less concerned with decisions of State?

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