Why are the secular courts interfering with theological statements?

The Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle Thursday, May 29, 2014, where Pastor James McConnell made comments about Muslims on Sunday (PA)

You may or may not have heard about the case of Pastor James McConnell, the born again preacher from Northern Ireland, who has got into trouble for denouncing Islam from the pulpit of his church. It seems the pastor is to be prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland for transmitting a hate message, as his sermon was live-streamed over the internet. The National Secular Society have taken this case up, and quite rightly. We should all be concerned about the prosecution of the pastor. The NSS website carries an article about the matter here.

It is also good to know that at least one Muslim authority agrees with the NSS about the wrongness of this prosecution. Northern Ireland has a sad history of religious conflict, but there is nothing that I can see about the pastor that marks him out as a hatemonger. His website suggests that he is exactly what you would expect an old fashioned revivalist evangelical to be like.

The pastor has condemned Islam as the work of the Devil and as “Satanic”. The National Secular Society believe he should not be prosecuted for saying this on the grounds of free speech. This is completely correct: after all, the pastor has a right to his opinion and to his beliefs, and he was certainly not stirring up violence.

But it goes much further than this. While we should all value our right to free speech, we must also assert and defend freedom of religious expression, and something closely allied to it, the autonomy of the Church, and of other religions too. This means that we are free to believe what we believe, and the state cannot interfere. Thus I can preach on a variety of politically incorrect subjects every Sunday with total impunity – and so can Pastor McConnell.

Moreover, any belief or practice of the Catholic Church that others may find repugnant does not come under the jurisdiction of the law. Take the present case as an example: words like “Satanic” and “work of the devil” are, whether you like it or not, words of theological meaning. Thus it would be perfectly OK for me to assert that Planned Parenthood, to take an example at random, is doing the work of the devil. That would be a theological judgement. To call those who dismember unborn children and sell their organs “Satanic” would likewise be, not a hate crime, but a theological judgement, albeit one couched in strong terms. To prosecute me for saying this would in effect not only infringe my freedom of speech but also deny me my religious freedom, because these statements would accord with my religious beliefs. Indeed, to prosecute me for saying this would effectively forbid the Catholic Church to hold its teaching on abortion.

Again, what possible business can a secular court have determining whether something is Satanic or not, the work of the devil or not, or whether the use of these terms are justified in this case or not? Our courts are secular – they are not sharia courts, they are not the Beth Din, nor are they a tribunal operating under the authority of Canon Law. For a British court terms like “Devil” and “Satanic” are simply meaningless.

It is a pity that the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland has not listened to the calm good sense of the National Secular Society. They are, in prosecuting the pastor, not only setting a dangerous precedent, but making fools of themselves. Let us hope they may still see sense.

What of the pastor’s words about Islam? As a Catholic, my position is that of the Church, as contained in Nostra Aetate, Vatican II’s declaration on other religions, the third paragraph of which is worth quoting in full.

“The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

It is interesting to note, though, what Nostra Aetate does not say. It does not say that the Koran is an inspired document. Indeed, no Catholic can believe it to be such. Moreover, no Catholic, following his or her reason, and what historical research points to, can hold what Muslims hold as to the origins of the Koran.

It is interesting to note that the passage quoted above does not take the Muslim historical claims with reference to Abraham seriously either. Does this mean the Koran is inspired by someone other than God, as Pastor McConnell would put it? Not necessarily. The Koran has some literary merit, or so those who read classical Arabic tell me. Those who wrote it were good poets, perhaps, and, tantalizingly, probably from a Christian milieu.