Pope kissing Sheikh ‘is evocative of inter-faith dialogue, co-operation and communication’
This is a guest post by Caroline Farrow (a ‘Cassock-loving Catholic’):
Not content with Benetton’s withdrawal of their offensive advertisement featuring a photoshopped image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, the Vatican have announced that they intend ‘to take the proper legal measures’ to stop the use of the photo.
That the photo is offensive can be in no doubt. The photo displays the Pope in the act of a homo-erotic embrace, which Catholics would consider to be a grave sin and suggests a deep underlying hypocrisy. Not only that, but the by-line ‘hope not hate’ seems to endorse the sin as being a positive development and a sign that the Church might change its doctrine on homosexuality. To add insult to injury, there is a further implication that the Catholic Church’s stance is one of hatred when nothing could be further from the truth. As the Catechism states:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination...constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided (CCC 2358).The Vatican would be wise to accept the withdrawal and accept that the Pope was an inevitable pawn in Benetton’s global brand strategy. This is not the first time that Benetton has deliberately caused controversy and offence to the Catholic Church: the technique is a familiar trope in advertising – run offensive campaign and subsequently withdraw poster, resulting in maximum publicity. It is a deliberate weighing up of limited disgust with brand versus enormous recognition and publicity, designed to net them millions of dollars. How else might one guarantee global headlines and even a mention by the President of the United States?
Whilst the Vatican spokesman, Fr Lombardi, is correct in identifying the demonstrable lack of respect to the Pope and the offence caused to millions of believers, he should also remember that no-one has a right not to be offended. To sue for hurt feelings would be to squander resources that could be put to better use and casts Catholics into the mould of dour Puritans or fundamental Islamists, unable to laugh at ourselves or see the comic surrealism inherent in the image.
Furthermore, Catholic doctrine is considered offensive by a not inconsiderable number of secularists, hence if Catholics wish to push the right-not-to-be-offended card, we could well find ourselves on a sticky wicket and legislate away our own already-diminishing religious liberties and freedoms of speech. We cannot have a situation where nobody may publicly say anything negative about anybody else for fear that the offence caused may see them facing civil or criminal charges. Satire is an important tool of a healthy democracy, although this advertisement was of a more cynical nature. The censorship of images and the suppression of creativity are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state.
If there is no such thing as negative publicity, then the wisest move the Vatican could make would be to hijack and own the advertisement. The figures of two great spiritual leaders embracing is evocative of inter-faith dialogue, co-operation and communication. Sheikh el-Tayeb froze relations with the Vatican in January of this year after the Pope spoke out about the plight of the Coptic Christians in Eygpt. The Vatican could use this image to emphasise ‘the Holy See’s readiness to continue on the path of interreligious dialogue and cooperation’.
Since May, over 90,000 Coptic Christians have been forced to leave Egypt, and state broadcasters loyal to the military junta have been urging 'honourable Egyptians' to help the army to put down the 'sons of dogs’ as Christians have protested about the destruction of their Churches. What could be more apposite than the message of ‘Hope not Hate’, in these circumstances?
The Pope has demonstrated much commitment to inter-faith dialogue with Islam over the past few years, praying in a Turkish mosque in 2006; holding many meetings with Muslims, most recently in Berlin during September’s Papal visit to Germany; and even inviting Sheikh El-Tayeb to the recent inter-faith gathering in Assisi, which the Sheikh refused.
Of course, Fr Lombardi’s threat of legal action might well be a canny move, because to publicly endorse the advert might well cause further offence in an already volatile and precariously-balanced relationship. Presumably, Sunni Muslims find this image every bit as offensive as Catholics, but I would agree with el-Tayeb’s spokesman, that the image is indeed ‘absurd’. The Vatican has more pressing battles on its hands, not least halting the spread of a greedy and corrupt over-corporatisation: at his weekly audience at the beginning of November, the Pope denounced a profit-at-all-costs mentality as being responsible for the current global financial crisis. It would therefore be ironic if the Church were to play straight into the hands of corporate strategists, by giving the advertisement far more importance than it actually merits.