An Italian atheist, Luigi Cascioli, has started a lawsuit against a Catholic priest, claiming that the priest violates Italian law, which does not allow the abuse of popular belief. Such as when people are fraudulently deceived in believing falsehoods, namely, according to Cascioli, the historical existence of Jesus Christ. The lawsuit is drawing international attention.
Many believers will probably view this litigation as one more attack by secular extremists against religion (though in reality it is merely nasty anticlericalism assailing historically abusive Catholicism) .
But viewed from another perspective, this lawsuit could paradoxically be an excellent case in favor of the rights of more recent, “new” religions, such as Mormonism.
The matter can indeed be seen in a political context since the 1980s. The excesses of a few destructive apocalyptic cults (Jonestown, Waco, Solar Temple…) and the subsequent repeated media reports of mental, physical, and financial abuses in certain sects have prompted a number of governments in European countries to take legal measures against those proselytizers “who take advantage of vulnerable persons”, who “brainwash and use mental manipulation”. For years parliamentary commissions have now been studying cases, inviting experts, working out legislative proposals, etc. Departments of Justice have been asked to organize Centers to watch cults. Scientology and Jehovah’s witnesses have been choice targets. Intelligence services are keeping an eye on cults and their members. Assiduous anti-cult organizations have sprung up, led by people who “lost a child to a cult”, or by vindictive ex-members of cults, or simply by self-appointed vigilantes who are often much more cultish in their fever to condemn “dissenters”, than the ones they claim to fight.
This is not to say that concern and protective measures are unnecessary: there are no doubt cases where abuse is rampant, where the health of adepts is undermined, where even lives are put in danger. The problem is that judgments easily cross the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not. The problem is that the media quickly jump on the sensational and generalize from one incident to the whole, and that the label “cult” is slovenly applied to any small, minority religion, especially if it tries to convert people. The result is that a number of respectable minority churches are being harassed and its members discriminated against – including Mormons.
The well-established churches (Catholic, Orthodox, main Protestant denominations) have, generally, taken an ambivalent position in the discussion. On the one hand they have, without admitting it, actually enjoyed the limitations set against “cults”, which are perceived as competitors. In some countries, the nationally established church has been using its political influence to further legislation against religious newcomers. On the other hand, some individuals in main churches have seen the risks: the whole anti-cult movement could endanger religious freedom as such and infringe on civil rights.
Indeed, the anti-cult rhetoric also contains references to “brainwashing” and “mental manipulation”, meaning people are “led to believe unproven, impossible or inexistent things”. Like believing in the end of the world ten months from now. Or in divine UFO’s.
But Luigi Cascioli’s lawsuit immediately and spectacularly extends the delusion to belief in Jesus Christ. And that makes the case interesting for us. No one expects the Italian judge to condemn a Catholic priest for preaching faith in a historical Jesus. Nor for belief in the miracles reported in the New Testament. Nor for belief in the flesh and blood of the Eucharist, or divine manifestations to medieval saints. But even if the judge pronounces a condemnation, most of the world will give a shrug and classify the event as bizarre and fun. No European government will put the Catholic Church on the list of dangerous cults and have its members watched by the secret police for believing unproven things. The whole matter, laughable in se, should reconfirm the right to have faith as, in the words of Paul, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
As Mormons we claim that same right. The right to believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, in the First Vision, in the restoration of the Priesthood. It is not because these things are more recent, and outside long-held cultural and religious conventions, that such beliefs suddenly become perilous mental manipulation. So, paradoxically, Cascioli’s case illustrates how anti-cultism, in its attack on faith as such, can extend just as well to any major religion. And how unfair it is to single out innocent minority religions and their — especially in some countries — vulnerable members. They are easy victims of what comes close to oral hate-crimes. And history shows how such rhetoric can lead to worse.
For us, tolerance is an article of faith. We claim the right to believe in a historical Jesus, but allow others the right to believe he never existed. Without lawsuits.