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The case of the Pope

“Though Catholics are no better or worse than their non-Catholic fellow citizens, the Vatican “state” that purports to rule their spiritual lives is an Augean stable of secrets and perfidy that presides over financial fraud and harbours paedophile clerics even as it seeks to micro-manage the sexual behaviour of consenting adults.”

Juliette Hughes

October 9, 2010

THE Case of the Pope presents Catholics with a conundrum. Much of what Geoffrey Robertson says isn’t exactly new to us: the call for renewal has been going on for 40 years, albeit stonewalled by the last two popes. But it takes a great human rights lawyer to show, in the style of a legal document or one of his famous Hypotheticals, what the problem is: if the Vatican is using its rather dodgy provenance as a state in order to pervert the course of justice in other countries, should it continue to enjoy the privileges of statehood?

Robertson argues that to see the Vatican as an impregnable, unaccountable state is problematic; he is the first non-Catholic of such impartiality and standing to take on the argument.

Catholics such as Robert Blair Kaiser have been arguing for years that the people need to take their church back from the bishops and force them to democratic elections — ending the papacy’s fossil autocracy.

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Books such as Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church and the American Jason Berry’s Vows of Silence have been keeping Catholics well informed of what the situation is and even proposing what to do about it.

This is not (and never was) a simple in-house problem: crimes have been committed against human rights and that concerns everyone.

What Robertson’s book achieves is to put the mess out there squarely for the rest of the world to assess. He is careful not to demonise Catholicism and praises the good work done by such agencies as the Catholic Overseas Development Agency.

But though Catholics are no better or worse than their non-Catholic fellow citizens, the Vatican “state” that purports to rule their spiritual lives is an Augean stable of secrets and perfidy that presides over financial fraud and harbours paedophile clerics even as it seeks to micro-manage the sexual behaviour of consenting adults.

Robertson investigates the role of compulsory celibacy in all this and finds it part of the problem: the Vatican has shown itself farcically devoid of moral discernment in such matters, for since its official teaching lumps all non-marital sexual activity as sin, paedophilia is just yet another prohibited act in the bafflingly broad spectrum of what the hierarchy considers to be sexual misconduct.

For many, Vatican statehood has been something of a curio, a weird historical artefact. My own great-great-uncle was a Papal Zouave, one of an international brigade of men who went to Italy to fight for the pope in the 1860s. Now that Robertson shows the implications of Vatican “statehood”, something as comic and quaint as my ancestor’s quixoticism has become sad, part of a broader picture that encompasses systemic corruption of the basest kind. He details the relentless manoeuvring at the UN, the diplomatic white-anting that has paid off handsomely for the Holy See but delivered nothing of value to ordinary Catholics.

Recognition of the Vatican as a state has privileged Roman Catholicism over all other religions but ordinary people have not benefited.

The Vatican has exploited its position not only to hamper the UN’s contraceptive programs and the use of condoms against AIDS in Africa but also to indulge in money laundering and other activities that subvert the laws of countries where its adherents live. The most egregious of these transgressions has been the Vatican’s refusal to respect the anti-paedophile laws of other countries. It developed a culture of concealing crimes and a widespread practice of transferring criminal clerics from place to place to commit more.

There have been whistleblowers, but they were often ostracised, even excommunicated (as with Mary MacKillop). Robertson makes regretful reference to the heroic Wollongong priest, Father Maurie Crocker, who was driven to suicide in the 1990s after he publicly supported the victims of two clerical paedophiles.

What the current Pope does not seem to get is that no expressions of personal anguish over the abuses committed on his watch can substitute for what is needed: an acknowledgement that he and many bishops covered up crimes — and a commitment to change.

He expresses sorrow and horror, but never takes responsibility for the cover-ups. In its anxiety to avoid scandal, the Vatican has created far more.

Robertson makes a pointed comparison of Catholic canon law with Islamic sharia law and asks us to consider what would be our reaction if Mecca were declared a sovereign state with a seat at the UN and concomitant diplomatic influence.

Anyone who is uncomfortable with that idea needs to remember his point that the Vatican’s own claim to statehood at the UN rests on the shady and altogether embarrassing Lateran Treaty.

Popes after Italian unification were simply squatters in Vatican City until Mussolini did a deal with Pius XI in 1929.

Now that Robertson has demonstrated the problematic situation of the pope as a head of state, the rest of the world may well wonder why any Catholics stay in the church — or at any rate, why they don’t start suing the soutanes off the cardinals and take it back. For no one can now say that they don’t know how things are.

Juliette Hughes is a practising Catholic.



6 Responses

  1. It’s horrifying to know that the Vatican would use its position in the UN to stop something that would prevent AIDS on the basis of a medieval moral code. I guess they only want the right to life for the unborn. After that, you have to live up to their standards to get any protection.

    • That’s right, Carla. Except “living up to their standards” includes dying if you have a life-threatening pregnancy and accepting intrusive and painful end-of-life measures that will benefit your doctor’s and hospital’s bottom line.


  2. Betty,

    Your article doesn’t ask for nor deserve a response.

  3. Wow! Hard-hitting. I have supported the idea of an independent, albeit small, State for the Church (i.e., the Vatican) to preserve its independence. I have to say, though, that the analogy to a “Muslim Nation” really made me think.

  4. […] The case of the Pope (opentabernacle.wordpress.com) […]

  5. […] The case of the Pope (opentabernacle.wordpress.com) […]

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