Craig Purcell

Pope Francis arrived in the Philippines Jan. 15, and when asked by a reporter about religious liberty and freedom of expression, the pontiff replied, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith,” according to CNN.

The reporter was French, so Francis used the recent attack at Charlie Hebdo magazine as his context.

I understand the sentiment behind his statement and long for an idyllic day when people of all faiths and colors peacefully coexist. 

There’s just too much gray area when it comes to what is thought-provoking, and what provokes violence. In simple terms, what I might find humorous and protected by the First Amendment, others might view as blasphemous and incendiary.

Let’s go back to the fall of 1979 and the Strand Theater in Dubuque. 

I was 18 and headstrong—but no more so than most 18-year-old boys. My friends and I were eagerly anticipating the release of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” We knew vaguely that it dealt with religion in the satirical way the Monty Python comedy troupe dealt with most things.

We had already memorized the lines to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the first Python feature film. We figured this new movie would be nothing more than a second helping of silliness.

But not everybody was as eager for the movie to come out.

The parents of one of our friends went to church at St. Joseph in Dubuque. Through that friend, we learned that a priest was urging parishioners to boycott the movie because it was blasphemous. Leaflets encouraging a boycott of the movie were placed on cars in the parking lot during services, and we heard there were going to be protestors when the movie opened at the Strand.

Initially, I had no problem with the idea of a priest expressing his opinion or of people possibly protesting, but one thing changed all that.

The priest admitted he had not actually seen the movie.

That was all that my friends and I needed to hear, and we hatched our plan to protest the protestors.

Unsure of any statute of limitations I’ll say that, hypothetically, flyers challenging people to “Think for yourselves!” may or may not have been placed on cars during church services.

A couple friends backed out, but two of us dressed up as silly as we could and marched in front of the Strand with signs reading “God bless Monty Python.”

Yes, there were a few protestors there, but we had no problems with each other. Two TV stations and two newspapers talked to us, one even asking if we were with Monty Python.

Then we watched the movie, and it wasn’t blasphemous in the least. Not by my 18-year-old standards, nor after any subsequent viewings as an adult.

The main character in the movie is a young Jewish man who, through a series of strange events, is mistakenly viewed by followers as the Messiah. For most of the movie, he is trying to get everybody to realize that he is NOT the Son of God.

One scene depicts the Sermon on the Mount from a distance, but with no irreverence. 

Some were outraged that Dubuque would show such a movie. Others enjoyed an hour and 34 minutes of comedy and laughed a lot.

Two groups of people reacted very differently regarding the same event.

What’s free expression and what’s insulting will never be black and white.