I partially disagree with my friend Robert Miller on the matter of papal bird-flipping. Only partially, because I tend to agree with him about the quasi-apologies proffered by the Vatican after the Regensburg speech, but disagree about Cardinal Re’s remarks.

Robert says, “if you intentionally flip someone the bird, don’t pretend afterwards you did it by accident.” The question is whether the Holy Father intentionally flipped anyone the bird at the Easter Vigil. I think not. If I may apply a well-known distinction from Catholic moral theology, there is a difference between an insult that is intended and one that is an unintended (even if admittedly foreseen) by-product of one’s act or statement. If a man says, “The Catholic Church is the one true Church,” his statement implies that other Christian groups are something less than that. Consequently, it is to be anticipated that his statement will annoy many non-Catholic Christians. That doesn’t mean that the statement is made with the intention of causing annoyance. When recently the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document that in essence made just this assertion about the Catholic Church, its purpose was obviously the positive one of clarifying the Church’s teaching on ecclesiology for the benefit of her own members and most especially of her theologians. I am sure the CDF and the pope realized that there would be interreligious fallout but thought it was a price that had to be paid for the sake of a greater good. In the same way, if any Christian says, “Jesus is Lord,” it does not mean that he “intends to flip the bird” to all those who think Jesus is not Lord.

Robert himself states very well one message that the pope presumably meant to convey by agreeing to baptize Mr. Allam at the Easter Vigil—namely that the gospel is to be preached in season and out. One imagines the pope also meant to underline the fact that the gospel message is intended for all people of whatever background. Popes have publicly baptized former animists and Buddhists and members of other religions. To refuse to baptize former Muslims, or to treat such baptisms as something to be hidden away, would be to deny the universality of the Church’s message and mission.

I understand what Cardinal Re said about not taking things “negatively” to be a simple statement that the pope’s act in baptizing Mr. Allam had a positive purpose that did not include giving “one in the eye” to anybody. This isn’t to say that Cardinal Re’s statement was perfectly formulated. Baptism is never a purely private matter. And what the cardinal said about negative interpretations does sound a little like an apology—even though I don’t think it was or was meant to be.

There is another distinction that needs to be insisted upon in today’s world, namely the distinction between acts or words that are “offensive” in some objective way, and those that are “offensive” merely in the sense of bothering someone or another. An objectively offensive act or word, I would say, is one that offends against some objective standard—for example, which offends against truth, or justice, or charity, or modesty, or the innocence of children, or the majesty of God. What the “Reverend” Jeremiah Wright said about the U.S. government inventing the AIDS virus to kill Blacks offends against both truth and justice. As a statement clearly inspired by hatred, it also offends against charity. It is a statement that ought to offend everyone, whether or not it actually offends anyone. On the other hand, the statement of Geraldine Ferraro was offensive only in the sense that some people were made uncomfortable by it.

This is not to say that the two kinds of offensiveness can always be neatly separated. There are times when one’s duty to truth (as in the case of the CDF statement) requires one to say something that will be hurtful to someone. But gratuitous hurtfulness is to be avoided—which is, I think, the point of Churchill’s amusing observation. Charity requires that we avoid hurting the feelings of others either intentionally or unnecessarily. Thus it can be objectively offensive to hurt someone’s feelings, but in many cases it is not.

I think the larger point that Robert is making—and I agree with it wholeheartedly—is that we have become tyrannized over by a ridiculous cult of niceness where any statement however true or salutary has to be apologized for in groveling terms just because somebody somewhere doesn’t like it. What we need is a national—indeed a world—conversation about “offensiveness,” before we suffocate on our own good manners.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr

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