Anastasia María Benavente offended Pope Francis, the Rosary, and Catholicism. Justices said case should proceed. Meanwhile, the offending video remains online.
by Massimo Introvigne
The question of the limits of freedom of expression and its interaction with religious liberty is one Bitter Winter has long been interested in. One question is beyond what limits provocative anti-religious artistic expressions may be censored as hate crimes and gratuitous offenses against the believers. While religionists have promoted censorship of such works, they have also been at the receiving end of censorship interventions when artworks of the past have been removed from museums or not allowed on Facebook for not being “politically correct” or offending women through depictions of nudity.
All this shows how much these cases are complicated. The distinction adopted by certain authors and courts between “philosophical blasphemy,” which has a redeeming value as articulate anti-religious criticism, and “gratuitous blasphemy,” whose aim is only to offend the believers, may be clear in theory but is never easy to apply in practice.
One case decided on October 13, 2021 by the Supreme Court of Chile confirms that applying existing laws on religious liberty and hate crimes is difficult. The case concerned Anastasia María Benavente, a transsexual performer who violently attacked Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in a performance during the TV show “La Gansa” on Chilean network “La Red” on August 21, 2021.
Benavente, whose show is still available as an Instagram video, appeared surrounded by a scantily dressed man who played the submissive role in a sado-masochistic act. Benavente stated that “the performance is devoted to the Pope and the members of the Parliament [of Chile].” She sang a song where she addressed Pope Francis with these words: “I defecate on your holiness, and on your authority as well. I defecate on your Papal zucchetto. You should burn, burn, burn!”
Then, Benavente continued to dance, and the man ostensibly took out a rosary, i.e. a string of beads used by Catholics to pray the Virgin Mary, from the performer’s anus with his mouth. Benavente explained on her Instagram account that “there were no special effects, the Rosary really came out of me, meaning I defecated on it and on all this religion of hate against the LGBTTIQA+ stands for.”
What was this, exactly? From the point of view of Benavente, it was an artistic performance to support LGBT rights and denounce what she perceives as Catholic transphobia. For Catholics, it was hate speech, gratuitous offense, and violation of their religious liberty.
Complicating the issue is that Benavente is also a scholar. The performer holds degrees in Literature and Linguistics from University of Chile, and was originally allowed to teach at Universidad del Desarrollo, a prestigious elite private university in Santiago de Chile, only by using her name as a man. When she won the legal right to use her female name, the university reduced the several courses she was teaching to one, and was sued for discrimination.
But does the fact that Benavente is a scholar, and the performance was politically motivated, raise it from “gratuitous blasphemy” to “philosophical blasphemy”? Yes, answered on September 20, 2021, the Court of Appeal of Santiago, which did not find in the performance elements violating the religious liberty of the two Catholic citizens who had asked the court to order Benavente to remove the video of the show from social networks.
No, answered—in my personal opinion, correctly, as such performances have an offensive scope in themselves, quite apart from the scholarly credentials of the performers—on October 13, 2021, the Supreme Court. The Justices found a likely violation of the constitutional rights of the Catholic complainants, and remanded the case to the lower judges for further examination. Meanwhile, the performance’s video remains on Instagram.