Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Catholic press raises questions about role of satire aimed at religion

By CAROL ZIMMERMANN, Catholic News Service | Published January 22, 2015

WASHINGTON (CNS)—In the days since the terrorist attack in Paris that killed 12 people, including the editor and four cartoonists at a satirical newsweekly, the discussion about the role of satire and just how far freedom of speech should go has become a hot topic.

From the onset, most commentators condemned the Jan. 7 attack at the French satirical newsweekly Charlie Hebdo, stressing that the paper’s mockery of religion never justified such deadly violence said to be in retaliation to the publication of cartoons mocking Islam’s prophet Muhammad.

The world community reacted almost immediately in solidarity with the victims and the satirical publication claiming in posters, buttons and T-shirts, “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie,” and more than 1 million attended a rally Jan. 11 in Paris echoing that sentiment.

SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Communication, said in a Jan. 9 statement condemning the attack that its members reiterated their “support for the fundamental principle of freedom of expression and for all those journalists around the world who face the threat of death or injury in carrying out their profession.”

Charlie Hebdo, which published its first post-attack edition Jan. 14 and sold all of its 5 million copies within hours, said in its lead editorial that it would continue its vigorous defense of secular values.

“The millions of anonymous people, all the institutions, all the world leaders, all the politicians, all the intellectuals and media figures, all the religious dignitaries who proclaimed this week that ‘I am Charlie’ need to also know that that means ‘I am secularism,’” it said.

And that’s what people are taking a deeper look at in the aftermath of the attack when some are saying the alternate response, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” or “I am not Charlie.”

A Jan. 14 column in America, a national Catholic weekly magazine run by the Jesuits, pointed out that initially there was a broad outcry for freedom of speech and “an emphatic refusal around the world to be silenced by intimidation or violence.”

But as the world at large has stepped back, other questions are being raised such as: “What’s the proper place for taunting and mockery in civil society?”

Jesuit Father Jim McDermott wrote: “We all have sacred cows. Some are unjust and need to be challenged, no doubt. But others hurt no one; they’re just sacred. And what exactly is gained in demeaning them?”

He said he wholeheartedly supports free speech, but he also wrote that considerations about being kind, enhancing community relationships and building one another up can’t be ignored.

Paulist Father Dave Dwyer, a host on the Catholic Channel on the Sirius XM satellite radio, raised similar questions in a Jan. 13 “Busted Halo Show” when referring to what an official for Charlie Hebdo described as the magazine’s “right to blaspheme.”

“That’s such a provocative term, it makes me wonder: Are rights the be all and end all? Just because we can, does that mean we should?”

On the Catholic Channel’s “Conversation With Cardinal Dolan,” the priest asked New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan about this.

“Every right has a limit,” the cardinal said.

He denounced the attack on the newspaper, but he also pointed to a need for more civility.

“Do we need to be sensitive about any signs of bigotry and animosity and hatred from anybody, from either side?” the cardinal asked before responding with another question: “Yeah we do, don’t we?”

He said if you “chip away” at the sacredness of human life, dignity, religious sensitivities, civility and courtesy, “sooner or later you’ve got a pretty harsh society and culture” that could “go to terribly, radical, nauseating extremes.”

A Jan. 14 column in Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, a national Catholic newspaper based in Huntington, Indiana, also stressed the need to carefully treat freedom of speech. “Few people are aware of the inconsistency of declaring something ‘supreme’ while maintaining that anything can, and even should, be derided,” it said.

The OSV writer, Jean Duchesne, secretary-general of the French Catholic Academy and a longtime special adviser to the archbishop of Paris, said freedom of speech can get lost when “the right to ridicule what is dear to others has no limits.”

“Now, the unchallengeable ‘right to desecrate’ could be called ‘sacred,’ so that the thing still exists but now upside down and no longer able to be named,” he added.

These deeper questions emerging since the newspaper attack indicate “some dissension in the ranks and the realization by some that the moral high ground is neither as elevated nor steady as it first seemed,” an article in the online site The Jesuit Post said.

“After the immediate one-sided reaction that was dominated by the assertion of the freedom of expression, more concerns and matters of conscience are finding their way into the debate,” it added.

“It turns out that many people abhor the killing of journalists and the offensive images which Charlie Hebdo published,” wrote Jesuit Father Niall Leahy, adding that many do not believe the cartoonists should be “exalted as moral heroes since their magazine served to raise the heat under a pot that was already boiling.”