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May 8, 2006

The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church, and free expression

Over at Volokh Conspiracy a number of really interesting points have been made about statements made by a Cardinal in the Catholic Church who has urged Christians to take legal action against the Da Vinci Code which will be released as a movie later this month. Perhaps most disconcerting is that the Cardinal was Francis Arinze, a Nigerian that was widely rumored to be a favorite for the papacy last year. Arinze had this to say about the Da Vinci Code:

"Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget," Arinze said in the documentary made by Rome film maker Mario Biasetti for Rome Reports, a Catholic film agency specializing in religious affairs."Sometimes it is our duty to do something practical. So it is not I who will tell all Christians what to do but some know legal means which can be taken in order to get the other person to respect the rights of others," Arinze said."This is one of the fundamental human rights: that we should be respected, our religious beliefs respected, and our founder Jesus Christ respected," he said, without elaborating on what legal means he had in mind...."Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us. There are some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking. They will make it painfully clear to you," Arinze said.
The two interesting things discussed at Volokh in response to this are that first: it is important for those who condemned the response to the publication of the now infamous Mohammed “cartoons” to equally condemn Cardinal Arinze. The second interesting point was a slippery slope argument (except unlike most slippery slope arguments this one actually works). The argument is that if you start making exceptions for certain religious groups the rest will start demanding for the same. Arinze's last quote certainly affirms how Muslim reaction to the Mohammed “cartoons” is being used to justify Catholic sentiment in this case.But, in my opinion, what makes Arinze's statements different and even worse than the Mohammed “cartoons” is that the blasphemy in this case is not so much against Jesus, but against the Catholic Church. There is a difference (not a huge one, but still a tangible one) between offending the beliefs of a religion and offending an institution that represents that religion. Of course the Da Vinci Code does give much credence to the theory that Mary Magdalene was Jesus's wife (and we all know the type of response that has prompted in the past from Christians of all sects, even though that was a much more benign, though explicit presentation of the theory), but for the most part, the Da Vinci Code leaves its scathing criticism not for Christianity, but for the Catholic Church and its uber-devout wing called Opus Dei. I can feel the tiniest bit of sympathy if millions of believers are offended by the actual intention of a work (though not much).I have no sympathy for an institution that turns attacks against it into an attack upon its religion. But organized religion has rarely had a problem doing this in the past.