Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why the 'U' shouldn't present 'The Pope and the Witch' play

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Letter to the Editor of the Pioneer Press

I am writing in response to the Pioneer Press' editorial "Play is no threat to Catholic Church" (Sept. 20).

The editorial argues from two premises:

a. free speech is good, and

b. the Catholic Church is big enough to take it.

Before moving on to what I believe are issues that are more critical, let's look at those. Free speech, used responsibly, is good! There are laws against slander and libel. The Supreme Court says one may not shout "fire" in a crowded theater. So who gets to say what is responsible? Well, in a sense we all, collectively, do. Our community standards generally do not approve of ridicule and mockery against one group of people. Even if, under the law of the land, one has a "right" to do it, that does not make it "right."

Second, the Church is "big enough" to take it. That may be. It did, after all, survive the first few hundred years of relentless persecution and attack. But that does not make it fair game for any type of attack today.

The real and fundamental issues have to do with people and the character of the University of Minnesota.

In my letter to Robert H. Bruininks, president of the university, I cited three items of concern.

First, to go out of one's way to offend any segment of the population is wrong. Certainly, reasoned and civil debate is OK. Intelligent disagreement with the beliefs the Catholic Church promulgates is one thing, but to ridicule, demean or demonize the people of the church for what they believe or teach is quite another, and unacceptable. That is the gist of this play — to demean and demonize the pope and people of the church. This is Catholic bashing. It is a slippery slope from sarcasm (somewhat OK) to ridicule and mockery (not OK). It might not be as difficult to accept from a non-public-supported institution. It is not good that the U produced this play. It is not worthy of the institution.

Second, what kind of message does it send to the U's students? The university has an obligation to educate its students by example in the moral values of respect and tolerance. Is ridicule of religious belief OK? Is ridicule of any segment of society OK? Production of this play lends moral credence by the university to the notion of intolerance.

Aside from what it teaches the students at the U, the play is ridicule. If the play had been about ridicule of a person for being gay, would it have been allowed? Hate speech, which triggers mindless action, has been the cause of harassment and death of many homosexuals. If you think we have not arrived at that state regarding Catholics, do not forget about the neo-Nazis and the like. There are plenty of groups around that dislike/hate Catholics. I would think at least the university would be liable for civil and perhaps criminal damages that result from this kind of hate speech.

Lastly, why would the university not militate against it let alone allow it or. even worse, participate in it. Like it or not, this place sets the values and community standards for the next generation of leadership in Minnesota.

We have pressed and will continue to press the U not to produce this play (or any similar gratuitous expression of ridicule against the Catholic Church).

Pat Phillips of Roseville is president of the Catholic Defense League.

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