Volume > Issue > What's "Offensive" & What's Not

What’s “Offensive” & What’s Not


By Alice von Hildebrand | November 2002
Alice von Hildebrand is author, most recently, of The Soul of a Lion and The Privilege of Being a Woman.

On January 18, 2002, The New York Times printed an article referring to a new document published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission “validating the Jewish expectation of the Messiah.” A salient point of the article was that some Jews have been offended and “wounded” by an earlier Vatican document, Dominus Iesus. The new document, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” tries to mitigate this pain. Surely, to offend others in their beliefs could indicate a lack of charity.

But here some distinctions are called for. A person (or a community) can rightly feel offended if a statement, sketch, caricature, painting, or sculpture aims at wounding him by ridiculing him, by deriding his views, by scoffing at his beliefs. To paint swastikas on the walls of a synagogue clearly intends to wound Jews. These are shameful acts which should be condemned by all men of good will. The Hindus believe the cow to be sacred (“our mother the cow”). This belief is rejected by most people, but to ridicule it offends the sensibility of those who are sincerely convinced of the sacredness of these animals. To abstain from any offensive statement is a sign of respect for the Hindus, not for bovines. Unfortunately, some people seem to find a keen satisfaction in inflicting pain on others, even though they do not personally gain by it. To throw dirt on things that others venerate cannot be vindicated. It calls for universal condemnation. What is offensive in such cases is the intention driving the scoffer.

The Catholic League, headed by the courageous fighter William Donohue, is waging war against those whose butt is the Catholic Church. To claim that Christ had a relationship with Mary Magdalene, or that His special love for St. John was tainted by homosexual tendencies, or to produce and promote a “Virgin Mary Immaculate Conception Condom,” or to paint the Holy Virgin with breasts taken from elephant feces — all aim at offending the beliefs of Catholics. The purpose of desecration is none other than to offend and cause injury. No words are strong enough to castigate these practices; they are shameful and disgusting. Non-Jews should be vociferous in condemning practices that are offensive to the Jewish people; non-Catholics should stand up like one man to oppose the desecration of Catholic beliefs. For evil should be rejected not only because it affects a particular person or a particular group, but because it is evil. Unfortunately today, most people oppose evil only when it affects them personally. When others are the victims, they repeat the words of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

That it can be legitimate to feel offended, however, should not lead us to the conclusion that every time a person feels offended, his response is justified. Some people are so structured that they are always on the lookout for possible offenses. They spend their lives licking their imaginary wounds. Years ago I knew a woman who was deeply offended because a neighbor had received the announcement of the death of a common acquaintance before she did. She felt slighted and actually “suffered.” Someone can feel offended because an article he wrote has been turned down, or because his book has received a negative review, or because he has not received a commendation he considered to be his due. Many people are deeply “wounded” by criticism, however legitimate, and respond with acrimony and bitterness; they “suffer” and feel “wounded.” Somehow human beings feel entitled to praise, to admiration, and are allergic to the slightest blame.

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