Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Censorship 21st century style


On September 30th, 1452 Johann Gutenberg sparked a revolution when he invented the printing press. Up until that invention books were painstakingly copied by hand. In Europe this was done by monastic communities and it effectively gave the Catholic church the power of censorship. With Gutenberg’s invention of movable type printing, books could be reproduced quickly and cheaply. More importantly anyone with a printing press could publish books, or leaflets.

The Renaissance had replaced a theocentric understanding of society with a humanist understanding of the social order. The printing press gave a voice to philosophers and the newly emerging merchant class that would probably otherwise have been denied to them. The result was a changing social order in Europe. In a real sense both the American and French Revolution would probably never have occurred if it were not for Gutenberg’s invention.

The recent invention and proliferation of the internet has the potential to accomplish in our age what Gutenberg’s invention accomplished in his age. This is a lesson that has not been lost on the leadership of the People’s Republic of China, Islamic governments and even perhaps our own.


Efforts to combat the "defamation of religions" have been successful for over a decade in a campaign led by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a group of 57 Muslim-majority countries around the world. The "defamation of religions" concept empowers the state to decide what is and is not permissible religious speech.

The OIC is not alone in this battle. There is an ideological congruency between these defenders of civil religious canons and advocates of political correctness. Thanks to this partnership, a U.N. committee in Geneva will consider in November an international treaty proposal from Pakistan that would "prohibit insults to religion."

Advocates of political correctness at the U.N. claim to protect minorities via greater speech restrictions. Yet by advocating for government suppression of speech, they are actually facilitating the persecution of the same people they seek to protect. Take for example the egregious attack on two Ahmadiyya mosques last month in Pakistan. On May 28th, Islamist militants armed with guns, grenades, and suicide bombs attacked these mosques in central Pakistan, leaving over a hundred wounded with 94 dead. The attack was not an isolated event. The Ahmadiyya community has been subject to discrimination in Pakistan for decades, owing in part to the country's blasphemy laws, which forbids Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim, proselytizing their faith, "or in any manner whatsoever outrag[ing] the religious feelings of Muslims." Section 298C of the Penal Code punishes such offenses with a fine and up to three years imprisonment.

While in some cases blasphemy laws were originally enacted to control public disorder, as applied, they not only lead to such disorder, but also help justify and exacerbate it. Such laws affect customary law -- the so-called "law of the streets" -- and create a culture of impunity where private citizens are often left without state protection against extremists or other criminals manipulating broad blasphemy provisions.

Like Machiavelli, the countries applying his approach to religion rely on the end goal of absolute state power. What they fail to realize, however, is that restrictions on conscientious expression, like the internet censorship that is proliferating around the world, deny men and women their inalienable right to conscience and belief -- a problem in itself, but also contrary to the state's interests because it exacerbates public disorder and legitimizes violence. [FULL ARTICLE]

The West is not immune from this desire to control what people can read and think. A Jesuit priest, Father James Martin makes the following observations regarding the current reality within the Catholic Church:

Today in the Catholic Church almost any disagreement to almost any degree with almost any church leader on almost any topic is seen as dissent. And I'm not speaking about the essentials of the faith -- those elements contained in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed -- but about less essential topics. Even on those topics -- for example, the proper strategy for bishops to deal with Catholic politicians at odds with church teaching, the new translations of the Mass, the best way for priests to address complicated moral issues, and so on -- the slightest whiff of disagreement is confused with disloyalty.
Certainly disagreement with statements from Rome, even on non-dogmatic or non-doctrinal matters, is seen as close to heresy.

What does this engender? It engenders a fear-based church. It creates clergy and members of religious orders frightened of speaking out, terrified of reflecting on complicated questions, and nervous about proposing creative solutions to new problems. It leads to the laity, with boundless experience on almost every topic but who have a hard enough time getting their voice heard, giving up. It causes the diminution of a thoughtful theological community in Catholic colleges and universities. It muzzles what should be a vibrant, flourishing, provocative, innovative, challenging Catholic press. It empowers minuscule cadres of self-appointed watchdogs, whose malign voices are magnified by the blogosphere, and who, with little to no theological background, freely declare any sort of disagreement as tantamount to inciting schism -- and are listened to by those in authority. It creates fear.

Does this seem like what Jesus wanted to establish on earth? It doesn't to me. I thought he said "Fear not!" And I thought St. John said, "There is no fear in love." And "Perfect love casts out fear." But perfect fear casts out love. [FULL ARTICLE]

So what does all of this mean to you? It means that we stand at a crossroads and have to make a choice. Either we preserve freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, or we permit authoritarian leaders to take these away from us. Either you stand up for civil rights and human dignity, or you surrender these for the security and comforts of slavery. Winston Churchill famously quipped “Those who exchange freedom for security and peace deserve neither.

3 comments:

Will said...

I remember Catholic school (the institution that effectively killed any faith I might have had and sent me on the road to atheism with fulfillment through gay spirituality).
The message laid down by the nuns was "shut up and obey". Nothing has changed. I doubt it ever will. The Popes declared themselves infallible, so how can there ever be any progress?

FDeF said...

This disturbing trend is bound to backfire. Since the famous "Ratzinger Letter" defining me and others as "intrinsically disordered" I have put no credibility in anything coming out of the Vatican. I don't even recognize the Catholic Church I once knew as standing for peace and justice, the poor and disenfranchised, the embracing and forgiving. Personally, I find trying to enlighten the church a waste of time and energy.

seamus said...

I had to give up the fight. I think its great that my brothers and sisters remain catholic and at the local parish level are served well and serve the mission of the Church. They are chagrined at the present bishops and prefer what they hear from Rome be very filtered indeed.
But I have moved on. For the issue at hand I recognize that I am not the chicken whose eggs are involved in breakfast but the pig whose bacon is very much committed.
I joined my local Episcopal parish not out of any great psychological need but a sense of supporting a church whose support of me was under attack.
Joining this church was also an act of reconciliation with the protestant churches with which it is engaged in ecumenical dialogue.
Joining this church has ironically strengthened my understanding of the true sacramentality of the Eucharist because of the emphasis given to the actual mission of Jesus to be in communion with our neighbors as expressed in Sara Miles conversion in "Take this Bread". Never before have the words of consecration moved me in adoration when she pronounces them over crusts of bread in prayer for her dying friend.
When I told this to a Catholic priest he was appalled at her action calling it the sin of simulacrum, whereas never before have I experienced the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist with greater vividity.