Cartoon Jihad

"It takes three to make a quarrel," said Chesterton. "The full potentialities of human fury cannot be fully realized until a friend tactfully intervenes."

I think of this remark as I watch the Vatican attempt to live in conformity to Jesus' beatitude "Blessed are the peacemakers." As is usual, we discover that "blessed" does not mean "popular".

The Church's position is, of course, eminently biblical. It was St. Paul who answered the Corinthians' confident proclamation of anarchic freedom in Christ ("Everything is permissible!") with the common sense reminder that "not everything is beneficial" (1 Corinthians 6:12).

As I watch the Cartoon Jihad play out and the various Western champions of Freedom of Speech start to forget what it is they are defending, I'm reminded of St. Paul's remark.

Andrew Sullivan is a fairly typical specimen of a Western Christian who is far more western than Christian. As he becomes more defiant in toward Islamists, Sullivan tends to lose focus on what is the precise good he is defending. He (and many like him) starts to talk as the blasphemy is a positive good in and of itself. He recommends allegedly hilarious cartoons which mock Jesus Christ and glories in this as an expression of Western wonderfulness. It's a little like watching a man crow over the West's legacy of artistic freedom as he takes a sledge hammer to the Pieta.

This is what is called "mission creep". Freedom of speech is one of the great goods that Christian culture has given the world. The Christian confidence that, in the marketplace of ideas truth will win has made it possible for the West to create genuinely pluralistic cultures whose citizens can cope with disagreements. The Christian awareness of original sin has made it possible for a deeply self-critical western culture to do the hard work of asking itself hard questions about its own most fundamental motivations. In contrast, the Muslim reactions to the Danish cartoons have shown a deep pathology in much of Muslim culture and a profound inability to cope with even the mildest criticisms.

That said, however, it has to be noted that the freedom which we enjoy in the West is not a goal in and of itself. As Pope John Paul has shown in Veritatis Splendor, the point of freedom is not absolute moral autonomy, but virtue. The goal is not and never has been for Christians to become enthusiastic blasphemers. The fact that some think it is simply shows how thoroughly some Christians allow themselves to be co-opted by jingoism against Islam rather than allow their minds to be formed by the gospel. The weird spectacle of Christians rejoicing in reviling God is not likely to persuade many Muslims that Christians are even particularly sane, much less that their gospel is worth heeding.

So what is the good being defended in the Cartoon Controversy? Freedom. Genuine freedom allows the possibility for evil things to be spoken and done. But only a lunatic thinks the evil things are thereby made good. The loony thing about the West is that it does tend increasingly to talk as though the mere fact that something was freely chosen automatically renders it good. And so, from Andrew Sullivan glorying over cartoons that mock Jesus to Planned Parenthood chattering about the wonders of freely chosen abortion, we have this strange notion that all choices are right and none wrong. This pernicious logic behind "Freedom of Choice" rhetoric threatens to become the moral logic of dunces who want to swell the ranks of Blasphemers for Christ.

The Western legacy of freedom is one of the many legacies the gospel has given to the world. But abuse of freedom always leads back to slavery. In throwing off the Church's light and easy yoke in pursuit of easy sex and abortion, formerly Christian Europe has only paved the way for the imposition of sharia in the next fifty years or so. As Catholics, we must therefore hang on to our Catholic faith in its fullness. A diseased spirituality like radical Islam cannot be cured by a diseased spirituality like post-Christian secularism. Only a healthy spirituality can heal a diseased one. And the fullness of the revelation in Jesus Christ is ultimately the only game in town.

Rome knows this and so has been in the unenviable position of appearing to Westerners to defend thin-skinned Bronze Age thugs, when in fact it is saying, "Don't needlessly insult somebody's most sacred beliefs. The chances are you will not persuade them to change their minds that way." Meantime, it has also made Muslims angry by saying, "Grow up a little and learn to deal with the fact that not everybody believes as you do. We've done it for centuries and it didn't kill us." Only time will tell if anybody is listening.

Copyright 2006 - Mark P. Shea