When does making a joke about religion overstep the mark and become mocking the faith of others? Does it matter if it does? I was wondering about this as I checked my Twitter account this morning and noticed a few tweets about one of the more sensational saints of Latin America. Now, I have no devotion to the saint in question, have never lived in the country where his cult is popular, and have no desire to stir up a rumpus, but I did ask myself how I would feel if he were one of my ‘friends in heaven’, in the way that Our Lady or St Bernard are. I realised I might be a little upset. ‘Love me, love my dog’ has its parallel; respect me, respect what I respect, even if it seems to you a little absurd.
What do we mean by ‘respect’ in such a context? Are we to be afraid of saying anything for fear of giving offence? Perhaps this analogy may help. I may not be a Communist myself, but if you have little busts of Lenin all over your mantlepiece, I will take the hint and confine any remarks to discussion of his theories rather than make a joke you may find tasteless. I may not be a republican, but if you are French and ardent in your love of country, I would not choose today to make derogatory remarks about the fall of the Bastille and all that it entailed subsequently. In both cases, I would be doing no more than showing good manners. Would that mean I was truly respecting you? I’m not sure, but I find it interesting that St Benedict has a lot to say in his Rule about the dangers of scurillitas, a kind of mocking laughter that often degenerated into indecency. I don’t think he was concerned about his monks making an off-colour joke so much as losing that sense of respect and reverence for the person that is fundamental to his concept of honouring everyone.
Ultimately, mocking the faith of others is an act of derision rather than an argument. It may be effective in silencing someone but it can never really advance understanding. So, a thought for the week-end. When we are tempted to mock others, are we misusing one of God’s gifts (for laughter and fun); are we building up or tearing down? The answer can sometimes be chastening, especially for those of us who have a way with words.