We almost used a stronger word. While Muslim mobs burn the Danish embassy in anger over cartoon representations of Mohammad, the Roman hierarchy comes across with gems like this: "Freedom of the press, including satire, must stop where religious belief begins."
That's Ersilio Cardinal Tonini, erstwhile archbishop opf Ravenna. Cardinal Silvestrini, head of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, offers a similar gem: "We, too, here in Europe, should rebel against the idea of mocking religious symbols," Silvestrini said. "Freedom to satirize which offends other people's feelings becomes prevarication."
What's wrong with this picture? Well, apart from the fact that either Silvestrini or his translator doesn't know what "prevarication" means, there's the fact that these remarks are sheer nonsense. Undemocratic, tyrannical, pre-Enlightenment nonsense. I invite Tonini to make his point to the ghosts of Diderot and Voltaire, or even Erasmus. (Not to mention Monty Python and the Simpsons). And I invite Silvestrini to find any examples of satire properly so called that do not offend somebody's feelings. He certainly won't find them in Juvenal or St. Jerome.
There is more to this than the Vatican's well-documented history of affection for certain kinds of tyranny, both intellectual and political. Rome shows signs of joining the frightened governments of Western Europe (yes, Mister Blair, this does mean you) in limiting free speech. The motivations may be different -- the governments are afraid of riots; Rome is probably trying to prepare a case against the next Andres Serrano. But the point is that both impulses are wrong. Even if well-intentioned, they are steps away from liberty and toward an accommodation with tyranny.
Of course there are limits to free speech. Mischief-makers can't shout "fire" in a crowded theatre. Embedded reporters can't broadcast troop positions (thank you, Geraldo). Burning a flag is pure symbolism; burning a building is arson and sometimes murder. There are limits -- but nasty cartoons, foolish displays of tasteless museum art, public exposure of persons and ideas whose folly needs to be exposed -- these are not things that a free society can with justice limit. Because then it is not free.