WHAT SHOULD be the reaction of Christians to the semi-pornographic image of a scantily clad woman, tied to the cross, and published on the front cover of The Sunday Times magazine section? Monsignor Kieran Conry, the director of the Catholic Media office, has written to the editor of The Sunday Times to object. His letter puts the case against The Sunday Times briefly but completely. It is not
only that the editor concerned, a Mr1.
Witherow, published an image deeply offensive to many people. That might have been a regrettable error. But Mr Witherow's offence is not that he made a mistake, but that what he did was done in the full knowledge of how deeply objectionable his action was. He compounded his action by sneer ing at the beliefs of those he clearly intended to offend: the caption to the photograph read "heavenly bodies", a wording clearly indicating his full realisation of the theological implications of his sordid and blasphemous prank.
As Mgr Conry eloquently says, "whatever defence is made of it, it will be seen as a callous and arrogant disregard of the legitimate sensitivities of a large number of readers".
But Christians need to ask themselves certain questions, too. We need to ask ourselves why the egregious Witherow was so sure he could get away with this squalid outrage. Is the answer really, as Mary Kenny writes in these pages, that "within Christianity... virtually nothing is now considered blasphemous"? Perhaps the answer is even worse than that: that though Christians are, indeed, deeply offended by The Sunday Times's puerile exhibitionism, we have become so embarrassed at any kind of public display of our susceptibilities that we would do anything rather than make a fuss.
The excuse we give ourselves is that we now live in a plural society, in which the virtue of toleration is paramount, and in which free speech is the only unassailable ideal. Do we not now live world, in which we cannot impose our beliefs on those who do not share them?
But toleration is a two way street. That means that those who demand freedom of speech have to use it responsibly: that even includes Salman Rushdie. Now that the indefensible threat against his life appears to have been lifted, it is possible to say openly what could not be said before without appearing to condone the fatwa against him: that in intentionally offending Muslim susceptibilities in The Satanic Verses, he was grossly violating the liberal values of which he claims to be such a living embodiment. His offence is not simply blasphemy; it is hypocrisy of a particularly nauseating kind.
No doubt Witherow of The Sunday Times will defend himself and his pornographic escapade with the same kind of canting appeal to the inviolability of freedom of expression. If he does, Christian people should not lie down under the insult. They could, to begin with, boycott The Sunday Times.
They could also consider recourse to the law. This states, in the words of the House of Lords judgement in an earlier case, that "the offence of blasphemous libel occurs when there is published anything concerning God, Christ, or the Christian religion in terms so offensive as to outrage the feelings of any member of or sympathiser with the Christian religion".
And lest it be thought that such a law must be out of tune with the needs of a modern society, consider the words of that great jurist, the late Lord Scarman: "I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law. On the contrary. I think there is a case for extending it to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians.
In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain, it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs. feelings, and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule, and contempt...".
Whether it is the business of the law to enforce such values, it certainly ought to be the instinct of all those who demand liberty and toleration for themselves.