A bit of a misleading title, but with a hint of truth in it. Although there is a law in the Netherlands, that prohibits blasphemy or the use of God’s name in vain, it has not actually been used since the 1960s. It’s a dead law which does not look to be resurrected anytime soon, so politicians from the Socialist Party and the liberal Democrats 66 are now out to have it struck from the criminal code.
Although the initiators of the plan show an expected but disturbing disregard for religious sensibilities (“It’s something for the enthusiast who believes in it,” one of them said), is this really something to get up in arms about? I would say it is.
The State Council has said that the freedom of expression does not mean that this law should be struck, but it also doesn’t mean that blasphemy should remain illegal. The freedom that many will cite in this context is quite neutral on the matter.
Striking a dead law from the code sends a message. The existence of the law does no longer have any effect or consequence, but the fact that it exists also sends a message. And what message do we want to send out?
Maintaining a law that forbids the use of blasphemous words, even if it is not upheld, tells us that we have certain standards in our use of language. Some utterances are contrary to those standards and should therefore not be promoted. Striking the law in question would in essence communicate the message that we no longer hold to these standards. We are free to use any words we please, and that trumps any concerns, insult or characteristics of civilisation.
As Catholics we shouldn’t be too thin-skinned; we may not like certain words and utterances, but the correct response is not to hide from them. Rather, we must intelligently counter the underlying reasons that people have for using them. The existence of a dead law, a hint of standards which were once actively pursued, but today still underlie our society, can be a form of support in our efforts to maintain this civility, this intelligent defense.
For all of us, Christian or not, the law that forbids the use of blasphemous words is a reminder that it once mattered how we said things, how we related to one another, even – especially – when we disagreed. That is something worth remembering in our daily conduct. Striking the law, and so stating that it should be okay to blaspheme and curse, is the polar opposite of that..