Nothing justifies the wanton slaughter of human beings. Period. So, nothing justifies the barbaric attack on the staff of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that resulted in the killing of 12 people.
The horror of this event, and the praiseworthy principles of free expression and a free press, have distracted all too much from the fact that briskly at play in the Western world, at least, is the diminishment, and indeed an attack upon, religion. Charlie Hebdo also belittled Christianity, and precisely Catholicity.
Catholics and other Christians in the past have done their share of demeaning the religion of others. This tendency has made untold numbers of enemies for Christianity in places where Christians are few, but where foreign Christians have had control.
Such was the experience in places in the Muslim world, where European Christian powers ruled and in the process humiliated Islam.
The current hate-filled situation in the world, incidentally, has not been helped by publications such as Charlie Hebdo, but Charlie Hebdo is not alone. All these mass communications, existing as they do beneath the security net of freedom of speech, signal to Muslims that the old day of heavy-handed treatment of their cherished beliefs by Christians has not yet ended, hardly relieving the hatred so tormenting the world at this time. They weaken human confidence in doing good. They are outrageously short-sighted.
Censorship is no answer but instead the enhancement of a genuine respect for the earnest religious convictions of others.
Is everything hypocrisy? All human action is subject to flaw, and any organization including humans is liable to fault. Fault among adherents of any belief system is not necessarily an indictment of the system, but always a sign that humans, whatever majestically high values they may profess, in fact do bad things.
No religious denomination, for example, in the present, has been so stunned by terrible deeds within its midst than has the Catholic Church because of sex abuse of youth by priests.
Yet, I am proud to be a Catholic, and I am proud to be a priest, appalled and disgusted as I am by the stories of such abuse. Why? My religion itself, and my admiration for the ideals of the priesthood, fuel my fury in the face of this abuse, not excuse it.
We can do better, so I applaud all the efforts of the leaders of my Church to correct the abuse and prevent future cases. Great values of religion prompt them. I share the outrage of Catholics who justifiably expect something better from priests because they have seen better.
France has an interesting, schizophrenic Catholic history. Catholic practice is waning, badly, but no other culture has more gifted Catholic vitality than has the French. The country long gloried in being called by a succession of popes “the most Christian nation.” The title was not misplaced.
In no place has Christian witness more magnificently appeared than in France. Think about St. Vincent de Paul and his attention to the poor and to the sick, about St. John Baptist de la Salle and his effort to educate, and thereby to better the lives of less fortunate youth, about St. Margaret Mary and her devotion to the Sacred Heart, about St. Isaac Jogues and his care for Native Americans, and about the wonderful contributions of French Catholic art and music.
Through all these examples, it was proved that humans can accomplish great things, lift lives and bring people hope and peace by acquainting them with God. Their religion gave them extraordinary vision and determination, and it worked. The world is better because of them.
Religion deserves respect. It is that simple.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.