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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No respect

Here is Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, complaining about the disrespectful treatment of poor Pope Ratzinger in a British newspaper. I've  provided a copy of the cartoon that the Cardinal is referring to.

Sir, I was appalled at the tasteless cartoon depicting Pope Benedict XVI. No newspaper should show such disrespect to a person who is held in high esteem by a large proportion of Christians in the world. To pillory the Pope in this way is totally unacceptable. As to what Pope Benedict said, it would be wiser for people to look at the issues that he was raising in his remarks. It is certainly true that the widespread distribution of condoms can run the risk of greater promiscuity and that the best way to combat the Aids epidemic is by healthcare, education and fidelity in married life. Even if people do not accept the Church’s teaching in this matter, it is a well-known fact that the greatest contribution to health care for those living with Aids in Africa is given by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor Archbishop of Westminster 

As it happens, I support the pope's freedom of speech. For example, I do not want him jailed for a crime against humanity for urging that condoms not be used in Africa to combat the AIDS crisis. Still, I can definitely see the problem with this, given the enormous loss of life that may follow if the Pope's advice is taken seriously. 

I defend freedom of speech consistently, partly on the basis that there are many ways to respond to bad speech other than by simply suppressing it. One such way is by treating it - and its perpetrators - to ridicule. There are other ways, too, such as (in this case) pressing for renewed efforts to provide condoms in Africa. All in all, though, the ridicule of ridiculous doctrines is one very good response to them. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor should be grateful that he lives in a liberal democracy where free speech is protected, and that free speech still has some acceptance as an international norm, despite the best efforts of the Vatican to undermine it.


Anonymous said...

The Archbishop is showing poor command of the English language.
The word 'tasteless' is very neutral, as it means 'showing no taste'. He should have used the word 'distasteful' if he really knows what he means.

Coathangrrr said...

It is certainly true that the widespread distribution of condoms can run the risk of greater promiscuity and that the best way to combat the Aids epidemic is by healthcare, education and fidelity in married life.

This is most certainly not true. And this current pope is extremely distasteful.

Anonymous said...

I too don't want to see the pope jailed for his lethal 'advice' on condoms - but I also don't want to see him have continued total impunity to say such things. So how do I want to see that cashed out? I have no idea, to tell the truth. I suppose I think it's an insoluble problem. But I do think it's a problem. I refuse to accept that the pope or any other cleric has a 'right' to give lethal advice on medical matters. I don't think saying that entails accepting that clerics who do give such advice should be put in jail - but I'm not sure what it does entail. (Maybe a big muzzle. Yeah, that would work.)

Russell Blackford said...

Depends on what you mean by a "right", Ophelia. Although I sometimes use rights language, I must admit that I don't ultimately believe in it unless it means "legal entitlements". I do believe in the usefulness of certain political principles, such as the principle that we should be extremely reluctant to jail people, orotherwise apply formal punishments to people, for things that they say. If I'd been rigorous, that's the language I'd have used in my post.

If we use that language, it becomes easier to acknowledge that there can be exceptions. What if the pope had said, in a situation of great tension and simmering violence between large tribe X and small tribe Y, "Members of tribe Y are cockroaches and you must now exterminate them"? I have no problem with the idea that that really should be triable as a crime against humanity, with a jail term attached. Influential people should know in advance that this is one situation where they will be held accountable for their speech.

But that's a situation where the impact is so immediate that there's no time for any other response. In the case of what the pope actually said, there's a bit of time for international bodies to redouble the effort to counteract his message, for foreign leaders to denounce him, for the rest of us to become even more determined to mock/denounce him (and fight for our "right", as in "legal entitlement", to do so).

This is messy, of course, and unsatisfactory. There are serious harms that cannot be undone. Except for the messiness of drawing and explaining a line with freedom of speech, what the pope did might be handled in either two ways - say that it really is a situation where there are harms that can't be addressed in other ways, and this is more like Mill's demagogue in front of an enraged mob example than appears at first sight.

Alternatively, we could extend (in a principled way) Mill's caveat that freedom of speech applies to people in industrialised countries: i.e., if you give advice to people in countries where the majority are not educated and have no way of checking up on what you're saying, the principle of freedom of speech no longer applies. In such situations, we should analogise the recipients of your language to children, who should be protected paternalistically from bad speech.

I don't take Mill as the, ahem, gospel, but I think he really is very good, and both of these approaches could have merit. But I think in the end they are not politically tenable for various reasons, some of which are probably obvious.

So in the end, I do think that we might as well act on the basis that Ratzingerbag has a "right" to say such things - this time, in the sense that we should apply the principle of free speech and not jail him, or otherwise punish him in any formal way. If so, we are left to do messy, unsatisfactory things, such as mocking and denouncing.

Steve Zara said...

Ophelia -

I agree. Free speech is vitally important, but so is the responsibility for what you say when you are in a position of authority and power, especially when that position has no democratic foundation.

Responsibility for the consequences of pronouncements has to be related to the audience for the platform you have chosen to use to make these pronouncements.

Like you, I have no idea how this could be implemented. Although, with the current pope, I would fully support the use of a gag for public speaking.

Steve Zara said...


Any individual should have the right to free speech as a private individual. But in this case, Ratzinger is making statements from a position of religious authority, and that authority is accepted in societies where people probably do need the paternalistic protection Mill suggests.

Perhaps all we are left with, practically, is mocking, denouncing, and ridicule, but that feels so inadequate.

Anonymous said...


I must agree with your assessment thus far, with regards to "rights". However, Ophelia does raise a pertinent point, as does Mr Zara. Mocking, ridiculing and "debunking" feel inadequate toward the perception of papal infallibility (I don't mean in the literal sense when it was used for the "assumption of Mary", only in the sense that people perceive the Pope to be a kind of metatron and thus perfect in his views).

And we need to see that the pope has taken the mantle of public redress, to proclaim and speak into an area over which he has almost total control. The applicability of religion, especially one as orthopraxic as Catholicism, is garbed from head to foot of a human being: that is from their inner-minds to the bottom physicality. It explains where, who, and why. It does everything and therefore ceases questioning and inquiry.

I think he does have to answer for what he says. Freedom of speech does not equate to license to say WHATEVER you want, WHENEVER you want. There are limits which are guided and maintained by reason. He coutenanced the very suffering that we are attempting to fight; he is extending the pain where it could be alleviated. The fact that it does and is causing harm does cross the limits that Mill speaks of and thus I do think he should answer for it in a very real, very physical sense.

By physical I do not mean being beaten up or stuffed into an ominous black van with a scarlet "a", but one where he is forced to answer to his critics in real-time, on air, to the millions.

Unfortunately, natural science and free inquiry hold no ground to the masses in Africa. I have seen this first hand since I live here. The absurdity lies in Bertrand Russell's famous quotation that "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

So scientists and those who are more reasonable, come across as less sure of how to solve the problem, whereas someone with a divine backing (or at least one that is perceived) is "cocksure" and thus conveys that to the masses. Most people will settle for a conspiracy theory over no theory. That is of course how I minds work. Knowing this, do scientists become dogmatic and assertive in their views? I think that even if scientists adopt this view, with evidence behind them, it will have little impact on the divine backing such a man has. I think the solution is to have someone with a hotline to god - as perceived by the masses - who views science as "the language of god", as Francis Collins calls it.

I would advocate this, even though I am vehemently anti-religious, because I can almost guarantee that many would suffer less, and less children will be born with AIDS, and less people would die horribly. I am very saddened to see so many of my fellow Africans suffer because of the backing of a bronze-aged myths and celestial dictatorships.

Russell Blackford said...

In the end, I think it's important not to blur the message on freedom of speech (and freedom particularly to express the doctrines of your religion) with too many subtle nuances. The nuances may be correct, but they can be misrepresented for political purposes. It's worth discussing them amongst ourselves, though. They may at least give a clearer idea of why there's no really satisfactory solution.

I do agree with Tauriq that Ratzingerbag should somehow be forced - not by the power of the state or the UN but by the power of public opinion and the press - to defend his position.

The only way to do that, though, that I can see, is to try to get to a situation where religious leaders are treated by the press and by other disputants in public debate with exactly the same scepticism as is shown to political leaders, and religious ideas are considered no more sacrosanct than political ones.

The cartoon in The Times is a good start. So are the denunciations coming the pope's way from people who wield political authority.

I suppose it's too late to reply to the letter by Cormac the Barbarian, but it does seem to me that if religionists want the freedom to express their often-deplorable doctrines that we can at least insist that there's a downside: they get no more mercy in public debate than politicians would if they said similarly destructive things.

Steve Zara said...


The problem with relying on the public and the press to put pressure on Ratzinger is that those who would want to put pressure on him are the relative minority of his followers in Western democracies. (An old saying is that condoms sell well close the the Vatican).

How many in Africa see the Times cartoon? How many hear about the evil of condoms from their local priest?

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, Steve, that's the problem. There will be certainly be harms that can't be remedied in a particular case like this. I realise that's (probably) why there's this feeling that "there ought to be a law" or "what a pity there can't be a law" against the Pope saying what he did to the people that he did.

But if we agree, as we seem to, that there are problems with actually creating a legal regime under which this sort of thing leads to clerics being put in jail ... and bearing in mind that we have reasons to want to avoid laws that can be used against us when we exercise our freedom of speech, the practical question is "What policies should we actually be proposing?"

My original post was just saying that if the pope wants the freedom to say dangerous things he's stuck with us having the freedom to publish nasty cartoons in response. I was having a shot at Cormac the Cardinal for his own hypocrisy. But what do we seriously want the public policy to be beyond that?

In practice, I think it's inevitable that the outcome will be imperfect, because I don't think we'll have much luck arguing simultaneously for our entitlement to criticise and satirise religion - our freedom of speech in this area - while at the same time arguing against the pope's freedom to say these things. I realise that there are resources - even in Mill - that may help in reconciling the two positions, but I think that in the real world it would be too easy for us to look like hypocrites or something even worse.

Still, by all means tell me if I'm wrong. Or anyway, let's express our frustration among friends. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with these points. Isn't the problem that the Pope is invested with authority based purely on belief and faith rather than empirical evidence and yet expresses both inaccurate medical advice and dubious humanitarian and ecological principles to people who are encouraged not to launch into sceptical inquiry - whether by a lack of education or indoctrination.
It is crucial that his comments are held up to scrutiny which includes comment , debate and yes ridicule. However the challenge is that no person of similar authority is criticising his stance. Surely at the very least we could expect leaders of other churches to take the opportunity to hold forth their own faith's viewpoints.
A tasty debate would surely result.