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The Vatican has hit back against Benetton’s insult to the pope ‘in uncharacteristically swift fashion’. Good for them, I say

And what about a bit more of that ‘uncharacteristic swiftness’?

By on Friday, 18 November 2011

A Benetton shop features the Unhate poster campaign (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

A Benetton shop features the Unhate poster campaign (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

So what on earth does Benetton think it’s doing in its so-called “Unhate campaign”, in which it shows faked digital images of various world leaders – most offensively one of the Pope and of Mohamed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo (who has broken off relations with the Vatican) – kissing each other on the mouth?

Well this is what it claims are its intentions (don’t go to this link if you don’t want to see a picture of President Obama snogging the president of China):

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This profound and humane concept of tolerance sums up the principles inspiring the UNHATE CAMPAIGN, which Benetton has created with the aim of contrasting the culture of hatred and promoting closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations, using a global call to action and the latest communication tools…

“While global love is still a utopia, albeit a worthy one, the invitation ‘not to hate’, to combat the ‘culture of hatred’, is an ambitious but realistic objective,” explains Alessandro Benetton. “At this moment in history, so full of major upheavals and equally large hopes, we have decided, through this campaign, to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of ‘the other’ and of what is unfamiliar to us…”

And blah-de-blah-de-blah, at some considerable length. There’s no point in attempting to unravel some kind of sense from this drivel: it exemplifies what the logical positivists meant by the expression “pseudo-statement”, that is, a statement “entirely lacking cognitive meaning”. But what are they after? Benetton, I find, sells clothing. If you’re interested, for winter, it features “a women’s collection designed for those who love a combination of balance and innovation”, and envisages a male customer “who shuns excesses, but has an innate sense of style”. What a mastery of language these people have, to be sure. The accompanying illustrations show a man and a woman, also a “kid” all wearing the kind of scruffy crumpled clothing people wear on the underground. So why is it going in for all this pretentious drivel about universal understanding? And how is “unhate” going to be promoted by faking up a picture of two religious leaders, both of whom it knows have religious principles which lead them unavoidably to declare the inadmissibility of any physical expression of homosexuality, linked together in a passionate and clearly homoerotic snog?

Well, it certainly doesn’t encourage my own unhate for Benetton: it might, I suppose, temporarily bring about a certain common mind between Muslims and Catholics over this foul image (sorry, I’m not going to give a link for it, you can find it yourself easily enough if you really want to) on the general principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. And it is absolutely clear that it was meant to be deeply offensive to both Muslims and Catholics. This is the image they meant to be noticed: all the other ones, of other world leaders snogging, are there to pad the project out. (One of the others, incidentally, is hardly offensive at all: the Telegraph’s website shows Frau Merkel and President Sarkozy indulging in a rather charmingly puckered-up kiss, which I thought at first – until I reflected on Frau Merkel’s famously non feely-touchy nature – was a real photo).

Benetton have now “withdrawn” the image of the Pope and Dr el-Tayeb. But it’s out there now. It’s too late to undo the profound offence they have caused and meant to cause. Will it sell more clothing? I don’t know, though it’s clear enough that this is all about Benetton’s self-promotion rather than about creating mutual understanding. As one Cairo cleric, Sheikh Ahmed Abdallah, put it, the aim of the campaign “is to create controversy. I was in advertising before finding God and I understand what they were doing with the attempt, but they should have known better than to use religious figures in such a way” (I like “I was in advertising before I found God”). As the website More about Advertising put it: “Benetton, from time to time a rather contentious jumper manufacturer, has struck another winner (in publicity terms at least) with its new ‘Unhate’ campaign.”

The real question now is, what is to be done about this? I suppose one could say “don’t buy their scruffy clothes”, but I don’t know anyone who would. The Vatican came in hot and strong and immediately dived into taking legal action (with uncharacteristic swiftness, said the Guardian). Reaction from Cairo, however, seems to be more guarded. “Now”, AFP reports the affair thus:

Al-Azhar, whose grand imam was pictured kissing the pope in a photo montage by Italian clothes company Benetton, on Thursday slammed the advertisement as “irresponsible and absurd.”

So absurd was the concept that [Al-Azhar] – Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning – “is still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response,” Mahmud Azab, adviser to Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayyeb, told AFP.

Azab said he wondered if this type of campaign was “in fact dangerous for universal values and freedom of expression as understood in Europe.”

Well, certainly, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, immediately initiated legal action, in Italy and elsewhere, to prevent the circulation, via the mass media and in other ways, of the offending image: so there’s one way in which “freedom of expression as understood in Europe” has been decisively challenged. But was the Vatican’s instinct to act so swiftly, with its high profile protests and legal action actually justified? Well, yes, surely it was. This isn’t a matter about whether or not to turn the other cheek. The Pope himself, a man of deep humility, might well do so, if it were simply left to him. But those around him have a duty to hit back hard in his defence, and they have done so, in the Guardian’s words “in uncharacteristically swift fashion”.

Good for them, I say; but now the pope’s bureaucracy has discovered how to do it, what about extending that “uncharacteristic swiftness” to one or two other matters I could think of, if I really put my mind to it…

  • Caroline Farrow

    I agree, but feel that legal action would be counter-productive. Plus I would question whether it is wise for us as Catholics to be pushing the right not to be offended card? You may have seen that I said something similar on Archbishop Cranmer’s blog this morning.

  • Anonymous

    I feel there is a danger in over-reacting, and even that an overreaction is exactly what Benetton wants, after all it is free publicity for them.  Perhaps as Catholics the best thing we can do is to carefully explain why the posters are both deliberately offensive and anti-Catholic, and far from promoting “unhate”, all that the Benetton ads are promoting is disrespect and ridicule for commercial motives.

  • Mark_H

    i feel a brick though the offending window(s) would be an intuitive and yet creative reply that would be understood by all fellow travellers. I would call it Up Yours Art.

  • maryp

    Overreacting?? I’m with Mark H on this one, although I’m not sure I’d want to waste the brick.

  • David Lindsay

    Like The Life of Brian, or P**s Christ, or whatever, this advertisement is a monument to the spatially and temporally located, infinitely and eternally effective Salvific Work of the Incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ.

    It therefore needs to be evaluated by reference to other such monuments. Durham Cathedral. Saint Peter’s Basilica. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The statues of Christ the King overlooking Lisbon and Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Dante’s Comedia Divina. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

    And so on.

  • theroadmaster

    Perhaps the Vatican bureaucracy reacted with too much alacrity to public denounce and take legal action against this admittedly offensive poster involving a photo montage of the pope and a prominent Islamic leader engaging in a full-on kiss.  The best policy may have been not to have caused such a stir to prevent Benetton from benefiting from the resulting fall-out.  A strongly worded editorial in the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano may have sufficed.  Real insult is caused when such a piece as the  Romeo Castellucci’s theatrical play “On the Concept of the Son Of God”, in the name of “Art” includes blasphemous material such as the throwing of fecal waste-matter onto a huge painting of the Face of our Lord.  The places where this piece was staged experienced the righteous outrage of Christian protesters who consisted mainly of concerned Catholics who in the main displayed great dignity in the face of such provocation.  The French hierarchy while insistent that the minor disturbances which some activists instigated to try to disrupt the play was unacceptable, failed to unambiguously criticize the obvious  grave insult that the author of this  very juvenile and sensationalist work had caused to Christians.

  • Parasum

    Benetton is whiter than white compared to the Papacy – I’m not aware than Benetton has denied justice to thousands of Irish children (to name no-one else). Nor does Benetton confuse fine words with repentance & conversion – but Rome is hard-hearted & impenitent, as its behaviour shows. The Vatican is behaving like the Pharisees, who were punctilious in observing religious niceties, while overlooking the “weightier matters of the Law”.  

  • Parasum

    What about the insult that consists in crucifying Christ all over again by molesting the weakest members of the Church ? Matt.25.31-46 comes to mind…. What is the Pope’s ego - or the Vatican’s – compared to *that* ? The Vatican cannot tell its rear from its front end – and these people tell us what to do ? If that is nor dysfunctional, what is ? The Vatican insults Christ’s faithful by such wrong-headedness.

  • Parasum

    “This isn’t a matter about whether or not to turn the other cheek. The Pope himself, a man of deep humility, might well do so, if it were simply left to him. But those around him have a duty to hit back hard in his defence, and they have done so, in the Guardian’s words “in uncharacteristically swift fashion”.”

    ## IOW, when push comes to shove: stuff what Jesus said, & how he lived & how many Saints have lived :( So much for “taking up the cross” as per Mark 8.34 – a former vicar needs no explanation of places likes that.

    What is the point of claiming to be Christian if one “hit[s] back hard” ? Christ did not, forbad the doinmg so, and healed a man wounded by St. Peter in Gethsemane. I’m sorry, but that is not humility; a humble man would not tolerate the idea that anyone should hit back on his behalf, nor would he hit back by letting them do the dirty work as his proxies. He would see God’s Providence in such things, and “offer it up” in union with the Passion. Are we not supposed to “offer up” the bad stuff that comes our way ? Then why does the Pope get a free pass, to dispense himself from the teaching of Christ when it suits him ? And what became of that well-known opposition to relativism ? Disparu, it seems. The religion of the NT & of Christ is light-years distant from the values of the Vatican :(

  • Anonymous

    Placing the question of free speech, etc, to one side, it is important to realise that the Holy See owns the rights to the Pope’s image – no one is free to use the papal office or the person of the Pope in order to make personal / corporate financial gains. Using his image in a deliberately despicable fashion in an attempt to cash in must be stopped – hence I applaud the Vatican’s swift decision to instruct its lawyers to act.

    It seems that hardly any news agency is reporting the fact that the White House is equally angry with Benetton and is also considering legal action. It owns the rights to Obama’s image and to any images relating to US presidents. Needless to say, those who advise the current holder of that office are not happy that the President’s image is being used for commercial purposes.

    Benetton is a business, and is out to make money. It is happy to create salacious scandals in order to boost sales – we normally call this profiteering. The Vatican’s stance, therefore, is totally in line with the Church’s teaching on economic morality – one cannot go about making money by unethical or illegal means.

    When using someone’s image in an ad campaign, most decent companies would a) ask for the person’s permission first and b) then offer to pay the person. It would seem to me that Benetton is more than happy to use the petrine ministry as well as the office of US president in order to cash in – with no or very little regard a) to God who ordained the papacy or b) the US people, whose constitution grants executive powers to their president.  

  • Anonymous

    Think very carefully about what you are saying, and please acquaint yourself with a modicum of objectivity and rationality. Then realise that one day we shall all have to make an account of the things we have done and said.

  • Anonymous

    It’s really not about being offended – Benetton seems to have acted illegally (see my comment on this thread).

  • Anonymous

    Our Lord tore down the money-lenders’ stalls in the Temple. In like manner, the Holy See is letting Benetton know that using religious / personal symbols / images, especially ones it does not own, for the sake of corporate profit is both possibly illegal and always immoral / unethical. His commandment to turn the other cheek relates to personal morality, and refers to the fact that Christians should not respond to personal insults with insults or violence – a slap on the cheek was a way of humiliating someone in 1st century Palestine. In that sense, it’s like advising someone who has been slapped as means of inviting them to a duel not to respond – to rise above it. This does not diminish one’s duty to defend oneself and / or others. In that respects, the Holy See is defending the Pope’s image – which has been used for monetary gain by a seemingly anti-Catholic business – not so much on behalf of the Pope (I am sure he pays little regard to such slurs) but on behalf of all those millions of Catholics who love Christ and the Church and Petrine Ministry he himself has given us.

    It might also surprise you to know that some saints – such as the very holy and passionate St Louis de Montfort – would often hit blasphemers in the face, especially if they happened to be in a church when they uttered their offensive words against God. St Louis was not alone in getting physical when showing his love for God and the things of God.

     Also, as you say, Peter struck out at the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear. The high priest’s servant was called Malchus, and therefore symbolises “kings” (secular governments or organisations) who oppose Christ. Although Our Lord told Peter to put back his sword, he did so only because Peter had acted without  recognising that at that particular moment the Passion was necessary – upon his return to earth Our Lord will be coming as Judge of the living and the dead, and his angels will avenge him in ways that Peter never could! In fact, if it weren’t necessary for Jesus to suffer at that point in history, as himself said, legions of angels would have come to defend him. In fact, Jesus even instructed his disciples to carry swords (cf Luke 22), and seems to have approved of the fact that some had two (symbolising spiritual and temporal power). Although warning Peter of the dangers of exercising his temporal power, he did not condemn him when he tried (out of human love) to defend him, but recognised that Peter was acting out of love, panic and a desire to fight for his God. Jesus healed Malchus to show that wishes all to be reconciled to him, even those whose ability to hear his words might have been deafened by the power of his legitimate Vicar. Sometimes, Popes (who are universally represented by Peter) have had to excommunicate people or nations who stubbornly accepted the truth. In so doing, more often than not this was a means for Christ to heal those people and eventually restore them to Christian dignity. In that sense, Peter’s actions in the Garden were more than providential.

    The Pope, like all Catholics, also has a moral obligation to rebuke sinners, for it is often the only way that some of them actually find out that they have done something wrong. It is only then that they can repent.

    False humility is no humility at all, it is inverted pride. Allowing people to get away with evil is also indefensible – it means that we do not really care for the salvation of their immortal souls.

  • Anonymous

    I’d concentrate on your own back yard if I were you – leave the judging to Christ. He knows what each man deserves, from the lowliest to the highest. 

    Also, if you read the Pope’s speeches you will know that no one in the Church has done more since the time of Pope St Pius V to try and deal with wolves in sheep’s clothing who have used the priesthood in the pursuit of evil.

    No one can tell you what to do – take some responsibility. If you want to sin, that’s your choice; if you want to walk the path of holiness, that’s also your choice. We are all free to choose good, whatever situation or pain we find ourselves in. We’re all free to leave the Church, too. Sometimes, especially when we’ve left the Church in all but name (by being seemingly extremely Protestant in our hatred for the See of Rome), it might be better for our eternal souls to be honest and go. There is nothing worse than a bitter self-hating Catholic – it is a scandal, which turns truth-seekers and sinners away from salvation. 

  • Ricardo Boncan

    It’s only a matter of time till some Muslim extremist starts something about this issue then Benetton is really screwed. 

  • Sean Mccarney

    Oh, give it a rest…

  • Mike

    Rather than castigate and take legal action, I wonder what would happen if the Vatican responded along the lines of: “Through our fallen nature, human weakness and sin, we sometimes act in offensive and hurtful ways. As the true Church of Christ, the Vatican and all the faithful will be praying for those who created this poster in the hope that they come to know the true redemptive power of Christ – a power which casts out sin and enables men and women to act in the ways God intended.”

    That is, after all, what we believe isn’t it? So let’s use such events to preach the Gospel. God knows, the world needs to hear it.

  • Anonymous

    Nothing like dealing with the great issues of our time, eh, Dr Oddie? 

  • Anonymous

    A gallon of gasoline.

  • GFFM

    There is most definitely a certain warped orientation behind this “ad” campaign. It’s a caddy, petty, tremendously immature PR stunt.. For Benetton, Abercrombie and Fitch and many other retailers this kind of classless, tasteless, shock advertising is the order of the day and those who shop there aid and abet such garbage and most likely giggle at the offensiveness.

  • Anonymous

    Why did not Benetton publish posters of Mr Benetton blowing himself?

  • Anon

    Messing with the catholics is child’s plan.  Insulting the Muslims…that’ll get you a fatwa, then a Molotov cocktail through the front door.  Then they get mad.

  • Honeybadger

    Bennetton? They are soooooo 20th century! They have always been into shock-ads but this takes the garibaldi to another level.

    Actually, their clothes are nothing to write home about – they’re mostly worn by the humus and raw carrot-chomping classes, not punks or rebels.

    So The Guardian said the Vatican acted with ‘uncharacteristic swiftness’ –  well done and good on you, the Vatican! Keep shifting up the gears and mean business.

  • Honeybadger

    I wouldn’t kiss Obama under anaesthetic…

  • David Armitage

    What spoil sports. When the Vatican media react with uncharacteristic swiftness it usually shows that Tarcisio Bertone still suffers from advanced foot and mouth disease. It certainly had me rushing to Google to see what the fuss was about. Once again Benetton has grabbed acres of free publicity across the world, even – what a wheeze – in the catholic press! A rueful grin, with the slightest hint of  a shrug would have been a far more adequate response. Weren’t Italians having a hard enough time already without  trying to deprive them of something to laugh about?

  • ellablue

    Good for the Vatican and the Suni’s. This isn’t advertising, it’s all about their 1 minute of fame! It’s shows an appaling lack of good taste and is offensive.

  • John Coonen

    Bennetton violates the most basic of intellectual property rights of others, while lining their pockets, all the while cloaking it in a message of “love.” Those who were violated are in a designed catch 22.


  • Hidden One

    Ah ha! Common ground between Catholics and the Obama administration.

  • Missionary_mom

    I’m with you! Yuck!

  • Anonymous

    @Parasum: I think a distinction between personal insult (which I’m sure the Pope doesn’t care about) and combatting commercial exploitation (which might be worth legal action) could be made here.

  • Anonymous

    Benetton sells clothes produced in sweatshops for vast profits to gullible customers:

    “Sweatshops are prevalent throughout the world and big companies readily utilize their rock-bottom prices and catering attitudes. The apparel industry is one sector of popular commerce that uses and abuses sweatshops, but they are not alone; sporting goods, electronics, shoes, sneakers, coffee, and toys are among the industries that are guilty of turning their heads to obscene working environments and slave wages. The conditions of sweatshops and the effects they have on the workers were introduced in last month’s issue, and J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Eddie Bauer and Abercrombie & Fitch were among the exposed companies using sweatshop labor. Now we will take a deeper look into some of the most popular brands in the clothing and shoe business: Nike, The Gap, Benetton and Wal-Mart.Once dubbed as the “McDonalds of the clothing industry”, Benetton has over 7000 shops and a total turnover of $2 billion. Benetton has been largely criticized for its publicity advertisements that over-simplify social issues in an attempt to portray itself as “socially committed”, but meanwhile, the company utilizes sweatshop labor in the manufacturing of their products.
    Benetton’s unresponsible labor practices have been publicly announced and documented. Although its foreign suppliers locations and numbers are unknown (and will not be revealed), information has surfaced that shows Benettons true colors, which are far from “united”. Female workers at Riese Maglieria in Sicily (one of the poorest areas in Italy) were told to schedule their marriages and pregnancies in shifts as to not disrupt production. The Bermuda factory in Istanbul has been exposed heavily in the media, showing eleven and thirteen year old kids at work. (Meanwhile, Benetton has run ads portraying child labor and designates a portion of their website to child labor issues!) Corriere della Sera (a leading Italian newspaper) published an interview with one of the children who told reporters of exploitation and physical abuse. A female worker at one of Benetton’s suppliers in Romania was interviewed by researchers. She reported that she had to work an average of 240-260 hours each month to reach her quota and receive her basic wages, which are far from adequate.”

    The Catholic Church whilst it has had evil wrong-doers within it, is also amongst the largest providers of aid, education and healthcare in the world. Therefore I find your characterisation deeply crass.

  • Honeybadger

    How about YOU stand in a barrel and wee in the corner on the Piazza Navone? That’ll give the Italians something to laugh about.

    The Holy Father deserves to be treated with respect. Remember that.

  • Honeybadger


  • David Armitage

    Bricks through windows, petrol bombs? Charlie Hebdo got firebombed for a cartoon about peace be upon him. This is ecumenism gone mad if we start imitating muslim extremists.

  • David Armitage

    So glad to bring out the best in you.

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, no! Not another member of the turn-the-other-cheek fraternity!