Guest post: Irish Bishop produces hate speech?

Reader Sigmund has contributed a piece about an investigation of hate speech—by a Catholic Bishop, of all things!  The faithful, who have pushed for such laws about hate speech and blasphemy, are hoist with their own petard.

Irish authorities investigate papal encyclical as anti-secularist hate speech

by Sigmund

The recent imposition of restrictions on the limit of religious criticism by the student union of the London School of Economics highlights the increasing use of hate speech provisions in European law. While these laws are designed to prevent incitement to violence or discrimination against particular groups in society, a curious anomaly exists regarding religious teaching. The notion that mainstream religious instructions may incite bigotry, discrimination or even violence against members of other faiths or non-believers has thus far failed to register in legal thinking, underlying, perhaps, the customary deference given to religion.

So what happens when mainstream religious organizations begin to be treated like any other group and their pronouncements are subjected to the same scrutiny?

The Irish Independent newspaper recently reported on one such case:

“A HOMILY delivered at Knock shrine by the Bishop of Raphoe, Philip Boyce, is being investigated by the Director of Public Prosecutions following a formal complaint by a leading humanist who claims the sermon was an incitement to hatred.

The gardai have confirmed to former Fine Gael election candidate John Colgan that they have prepared and forwarded a file to the DPP after he made allegations that the address by Dr Boyce was in breach of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989.”

Mr Colgan complained that two passages in the Bishop’s sermon were “an incitement to hatred of dissidents, outsiders, secularists, within the meaning of the [Incitement to Hatred] Act, who are perfectly good citizens within the meaning of the civil law. The statements exemplify the chronic antipathy towards secularists, humanists etc, which has manifested itself in the ostracising of otherwise perfectly good Irish citizens, who do not share the aims of the Vatican’s Irish Mission Church.”

The passages themselves are pretty standard Catholic anti-secularist fare. The first referred to the Catholic Church in Ireland being “attacked from outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture”.

The second, however, is more interesting, not because it is more obviously inflammatory, but because it is a quotation from a previous Catholic encyclical “Spe Salvi”.

Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness.”

I suspect that this fact has been missed by the Irish police, resulting in something previously unthinkable in Irish society – a religious passage written by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 is being investigated by the Irish authorities as hate speech!

The passages in question are hardly the best examples of anti-atheist speech by the Catholic church. On the other hand if one reads the wording of the Irish anti hatred act – Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act – 1989, it is at least questionable whether the words of the Bishop do contravene the act – hence the referral of the matter by the police to the director of public prosecutions rather than simply dismissing it out of hand as the complaints of a crank.

It is unclear, however, whether the matter will go to trial. I suspect not, but if it does the guilty party may be liable to a fine not exceeding £10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or to both”. 

Will they extradite the Pope?


  1. Egbert
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    These hate speech laws here in Britain and Ireland are death to free speech and liberty. It’s a slippery slop to tyranny.

    Currently, footballers are high profile cases for the law investigating ‘racist language’ on the football field. Well it’s only a matter of time that intellectuals will find themselves in a court of law, for expressing thoughts which are deemed offensive.

    • Posted February 5, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      These hate speech laws here in Britain and Ireland are death to free speech and liberty. It’s a slippery slop to tyranny.

      Thanks for providing some local context, Egbert. Here in the US, we have no shortage of real hate speech, but we have so far been reluctant to legislate against it as you in the UK have — for much the reason you imply, I think.

      In my view, the statements under investigation in this case are pretty tame. Really, the only interesting thing to me is that they’re being investigated at all — I think that’s an important test case for the proper place of religious speech in a civil society, and it’s exceptional that such prominent religious leaders are the subjects of the investigation.

      But I don’t think the humanist complainants necessarily put themselves in the best possible light here. Surely a good test case could have identified real, unambiguous, damaging hate speech, instead of the relatively tame, run-of-the-mill assumption of superiority in mainstream religion?

      I don’t deny that nontheists have a real image problem, or that a robust defense is necessary — including recourse to the law. What I do say is that overall strategy would benefit more from affirmative, positive demonstrations of our values than from being perceived to play lawyer-ball with every set of words that rubs us the wrong way.

  2. Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I think there are many religious leaders, in the UK as well, who could be prosecuted for hate speech… yet they haven’t. Are the DPP and CPS chary of how those religions would respond?


    PS. Do you think those football incidents should not be pursued?

    • Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink


    • Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      “Do you think those football incidents should not be pursued?”

      I, for one, don’t. Such speech should only be a criminal offence if a reasonable person in the vicinity might feel that their physical safety is threatened.

      I’m not that impressed by humanists jumping on the “hate speech” bandwagon, and if I were I’d first choose some examples that were somewhat more hateful than the above Irish Bishop’s remarks.

      • Erp
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

        However it is reasonable if you want to point out the idiocy of the law.

        • Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          It allows the authorities to rule that these particular remarks don’t cross the “hatred” threshold, and then claim that the law is working appropriately and well.

  3. Kevin O'Neill
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    To describe the Catholic Church in Ireland being “attacked from outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture” is little more than a statement of fact. I wouldn’t describe the statement as particularly inflammatory. It could also depend on the tone of delivery. Whether such an attack is or isn’t legitimate is another issue. The use of the word ‘godless’ would in the context of a sermon have a negative connotation (cf. Coulter), whereas, personally I would carry it as a badge of pride.
    Reminds me of an Irish priest I heard years ago holding forth against “free thinkers and intellectuals” with such a tone of vehemence. I was in the church only to accompany my parents as we were going away immediately after the service, and even my folks were offended by the contents and tone. They actually apologised to me for what the priest said, as if it were their fault. “He was horrible, we don’t think those things”
    Evidently the intellectuality and mind games of the Jesuit is acceptable because of its in-line orthodoxy whereas the intellectuality of ‘inconvenient’ ideas is not. Since then I prefer to bid a secular farewell to my friends from outside a church rather than allow the sanctimonious blatherings of a pompous cleric to turn me bilious.

    • Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      I disagree – it isn’t as neutral or factual a statement . “Attacked from outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture” implies a deliberate and concerted act aggression. It uses the metaphor of war. It is in fact both self-pitying and intended to conjure up both fear and animosity against the perceived aggressor.

      Personally I think that hate-speech laws are misconceived and that atheists who think that they should try to use them are making a rod for their own back.

      However, the fact that many of us no longer particularly mind what epithets the faithful use to label us doesn’t change the fact that their continued use is intended to shore up the religious community and engender an “us against them” mentality. That’s not particularly conducive to building a modern enlightened society.

  4. Kevin O'Neill
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

  5. Pete UK
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    It’s clear from the comments above that at least two people view the bishop’s remarks rather differently.

    I think the real problem is with deciding what is “incitement to hatred” and what isn’t. The definition of hatred in the Act isn’t helpful. It defines at whom the hatred may be directed, but not what hatred is. And what is inciting?

    Suggesting to his own faithful that non-believers don’t have futures isn’t necessarily inciting hatred. Taken at face value, it ought to incite pity. If he had said “kill them all, before they infect you with their poisonous beliefs and jeopardise your immortal souls, well, that would be nearer the mark.

    I would rather like to know if his statement that Christians have a future after this life could be taken as something like advertising unsubstantiated by evidence, or inaccurate labelling of homeopathic boxes of, well, sod all. Maybe he could be done under the Irish equivalent of the Trades Descriptions Act.

    • Joanna
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      “Suggesting to his own faithful that non-believers don’t have futures isn’t necessarily inciting hatred.”

      Not as such. But picking out the free thinkers and condemning them for their lack of faith is a bit petulant. I tried to read the Bishop’s sermon but got too annoyed halfway through.

      • Shatterface
        Posted February 12, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        And an expression of petulance should be illegal, and your ‘annoyance’ is such that this Bishop requires a prosecution?

        We should be fighting this law, not promoting it.

        • Joanna
          Posted February 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          I never said anything about legalities. I do think both the religious and the free thinkers should let each other get along with their own business though.

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    It is both curious and refreshing that secularists hop on the unfortunate “hate speech wagon.

    I think it is a good thing that a few individuals do, as would be expected. It points to the absurdity of the laws as well as the religious claims.

    The case in itself is rather clear: “f the written material, words, behaviour, visual images or sounds, as the case may be, are threatening, abusive or insulting and are intended or, having regard to all the circumstances, are likely to stir up hatred.”

    Claiming that only a specific religious crowd have a future is threatening, abusive and insulting. And of course it is used to stir up hatred, if not there so elsewhere.

  7. Paul Coller
    Posted February 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    How wonderfully precious we have all become !!!

  8. Shatterface
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Personally, I’m more offended by the idea that, as an atheist, I need the State to protect me from ‘offence’.

    Colgan’s a fucking embarassment. Maybe he is just trying to demonstrate the absurdity of this legislation as some have claimed, but he makes us look like bullies and cowards by calling for a prosecution.

  9. Shatterface
    Posted February 12, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    And what’s this about a ‘leading’ humanist?

    Did I miss an election?

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