Many years ago, during the first weeks of a music degree, I was in the university library researching for an essay on 16th century instrumental writing. A fellow fresher, an Indian student whose English was still not quite up to speed, asked me in a worried whisper: “Excuse me please. What is wirginals?” I showed him an illustration of the instrument in the book before me. The anxiety cleared from his face. “Ah – I see!” He smiled at his own misunderstanding. “Not like Wirgin Mary.”
The ubiquity of the title given to the mother of Jesus could not have been made clearer. It was more familiar to the Hindu student than was the Renaissance keyboard instrument in question. Perhaps that almost universal familiarity might encourage those who believe the girl from Nazareth to be the Mother of God to exercise a little perspective and, arguably, humour.
Not so. A small conservative Catholic group called 'Protect the Pope' has taken exception to a brand of crisps sold by the sandwich chain Pret a Manger. Adopting the already established brand name of 'Virgin Mary' used for a non-alcoholic cocktail derived from the better known 'Bloody Mary' mix of vodka and tomato juice, the offending crisps were flavoured with Worcester sauce and chilli. This is not pointless recipe information, but necessary knowledge as to the provenance of the name.
Protect the Pope chose to interpret this as an offence to Jesus' mother (it is perhaps worth recording here that every Catholic whose opinion I have sought on this has hooted in derisive disbelief) and the complaint has resulted in Pret withdrawing the offending snack. A spokesman for the company said it had noted complainants' “strength of feeling” and withdrawn the product in order to avoid offence. This may well have been a prudent commercial decision, but it does look rather like permitting a small, though forceful interest group to have its own way.
I have never been able to comprehend the concepts of blasphemy and sacrilege as frequently presented by the outraged. The Divine Spirit may be wounded by the cruelty, oppression and injustice practised by its creation, but it seems beyond belief that prods at the dogmatic constructs of humankind can really be anything more than a failure of manners. For Protect the Pope to represent this storm in a lunch box as “mockery of our faith and discrimination against us as Catholics" seems a little overwrought.
There is no right to be protected from offence. Equally, the giving of gratuitous offence should always be questioned, if not challenged. It is evident in this case that there was no intent to offend – a fact which makes the prickliness of Protect the Pope look rather foolish.
Because criticism or mockery of those things which are dear to us may produce strong feelings, it is important to stand back and look at the intent behind the action.
Where there an inclination to be offended, it seems both good sense and charity to also examine one's own reactions and to “consider it possible you may be mistaken.” I own that this may sometimes be difficult because both ego and partisanship are powerful forces.
Last week, an MP with whom I exchange occasional tweets, signed off with a response to a question I had asked him (in which there was probably an inherent suggestion that I might be a little unconvinced by his stance) with “no problem, Quakes”. The momentary stab of irritation I felt at this is probably silly. At best, he was being facetious; at worst belittling. Either way, the problem is more mine than his. But the trivial annoyance provided me with a small insight as to why individuals and groups become upset when what they consider precious appears to be taken carelessly.
However, it is impossible to believe, unless you are determined upon offence, that Pret a Manger had any intention to mock the faith of Catholics or other Christian groups who set a high value on devotion to Mary. It is, however, useful to ask why such groups should be so ardent in interpreting what, at the most sympathetic analysis could be described as slightly tasteless, as such a grave insult to their faith. Their own devotions and freedoms of worship are not infringed, neither is their liberty to explain to others why their beliefs about Mary are significant to their lives and faith. What they cannot expect, is that everyone will share these beliefs or, beyond the demands of courtesy, be required to tiptoe around them.
Protect the Pope describes itself as “ a direct response to the unprecedented level of hostility, ridicule and ill-will from certain public figures, sections of the press and blogs against the Holy Father and the Catholic Church.” The crisps débâcle could just possibly be an own goal.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger  You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen