Diplomatic immunity: What would Jesus think?

WELL, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Can anyone really claim to be surprised by the Vatican’s rejection of the Taoiseach’s stringent and well-founded criticisms voiced in the Dáil during the debate on the Cloyne report on 20 July?

Did anybody in this country really expect that there would be some form of admission of corporate responsibility by the Vatican for the horrors exposed, not just in the Cloyne report, but in the Ferns (October 2005), Ryan (May 2009) and Murphy (November 2009) reports?

Did we really expect that somebody in Rome would put up a hand and say, yes, we contributed to the formation and perpetuation of that corrupt culture which has caused such damage to the credibility of the Catholic Church and its leadership?

Evading any responsibility whatsoever for what happened in Ireland (and indeed in the US and elsewhere) is a cornerstone of the policy of the Vatican regime under Pope Benedict XVI, as it was under his Polish predecessor, John Paul II, with whom he worked hand-in-glove.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the most shameful episodes in the sorry and sordid saga of clerical sex abuse occurred on John Paul II’s watch. The most flagrant example of the Church’s real policy was manifested in the case of Cardinal Bernard Law.

In December 2002 he was forced to resign in disgrace as Archbishop of Boston because of his role in covering up clerical sex abuse. When it became clear that he might have to answer for this in the American courts, the Vatican shipped him to Rome, where he could hide behind its immunity as a sovereign state.

That policy prevails, and there is nothing in the 25-page response to Enda Kenny to suggest its abandonment. On the contrary, the reaction to the Taoiseach’s withering broadside is carefully crafted to ensure that the Pope and his top aides are fireproofed against any attempt to make them answerable for the culture of abuse, deceit and cover-up that had such appalling consequences here, and indeed in other parts of the Catholic world.

A gulf has been deliberately created between Rome and the local churches — not out of any pastoral concern for the well-being of souls, but to protect institutional and personal reputations.

It is not what ought to have been done, come what may, to uphold and implement gospel values, but what can be explained away or avoided altogether that animates the Vatican’s response. In similar fashion to Benedict’s letter to Irish Catholics in March 2010, the abiding concern is defending the institutional positions and the evasion of responsibility.

Once again there has been a reliance on a cloak of diplomatic protocol, and the certainty of sovereign immunity permeates the spirit of the document. Again, it is the “gimlet eye of a canon lawyer” (Enda Kenny’s apt description in his Dáil speech) rather than the pre-eminence of conscience and a desire for justice that is at work here.

Nothing in this document suggests a departure from the “calculated position”, born of the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism” of the Vatican’s own culture, and so ably castigated by the Taoiseach in that same Dáil speech.

Once again a position has been adopted that, to again quote the Taoiseach, remains “the polar opposite of the radicalism, humility and compassion upon which the Roman Church was founded” and which are “the very essence of its foundation and purpose”.

The Vatican has repudiated the Taoiseach’s claim that there was “an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic”. This claim, Rome says, is “unfounded”.

You can frustrate an inquiry in several ways. You can just ignore it, or hide behind legalisms and diplomatic protocols. You can frustrate by delay and obfuscation.

The reality is that by the time of the Cloyne enquiry, and indeed long before, what was happening in Ireland was not an isolated series of abhorrent occurrences, confined to a small remote outpost of the Catholic Church on the edge of Europe.

Rome had been aware for years of the scandal of clerical child sex abuse in other parts of the Catholic world. There was ample opportunity to formulate a clear and unequivocal policy and to ensure that it had universal application? Why was that not done? You can frustrate an inquiry just as effectively by omission as commission.

That’s part of the bigger picture that needs to be seen here. The other part is the insistence by the Holy See (described in the Code of Canon Law as “not only the Roma Pontiff but also ... the Secretariat of State, the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, and the other institutes of the Roman Curia”) that it be accorded all the rights and privileges of a state.

The anomalies caused by this have been highlighted by Geoffrey Robertson in his book The Case of the Pope.

“The papal claim that the Holy See became a state once more in 1929 because it then acquired the Vatican City as its ‘territory’ is really a fudge.”

The reference to 1929 is a reference to the Lateran Treaty, negotiated between Pope Pius XI and the government of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. It was the fruit of protracted negotiations between the Italian government and the Papacy.

The deal ended the frostiness and friction that had existed since the annexation of the Papal States following the proclamation of a Kingdom of Italy in March 1861, and the occupation of Rome in 1870. With that, as one eminent church historian put it, a millennium and a half of papal rule in Rome was at an end.

The treaty established Vatican City (consisting of 108 acres — the size of a golf course) as an independent state. But that was just in the eyes of the Italian government only; this was an internal arrangement. The UN has refused to grant this level of recognition to the Vatican. However, the latter continues to insist that the Pope is both a head of state and a religious leader.

There’s the rub. Did Christ ever think he was laying the foundations for a corporate entity that would demand recognition by the UN of its claim to statehood? Or that his successors — vicars of Christ on Earth — would adopt the imperial trappings of the Roman emperors, and seek to sprinkle the globe with their agents (called nuncios)?

TODAY’S claim of statehood by the Vatican is a legal fiction. In this though, secular governments across the world, including our own, are complicit in the maintenance of this fiction.

What the Irish Government should do — though I fear it will not — is to immediately close the embassy to the Holy See. Why do we need and put up with the expense of maintaining two embassies in Rome — one to Italy, and one to the Vatican (which calls itself the Holy See when it is wearing one of its several hats)?

We are told that people in high places in the Vatican would be miffed if we closed the embassy. Should that, given all that has happened over the past 10 years in particular, bother us? Why do we go on playing the Vatican’s game, accepting as an unshakeable premise the legal fiction that it seeks to perpetuate?

What has all or any of this to do with the Gospels or with the carpenter from Nazareth? The Gospels assure us that Christ did indeed utter the words “Tu et Petrus” (Thou art Peter), but in so doing what was he creating?

A Pope who would take unto himself the powers of an absolute monarch, or a Bishop of Rome who would embrace and make his own one of the oldest of the many titles ascribed to his office — that of “servant of the servants of God”? The present anomaly, for anomaly it surely is, can best be highlighted by the following scenario.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Church (properly known as the “Anglican Communion”) tells the Minister for Foreign Affairs that his Church is demanding equal treatment with Rome. Henceforth, therefore, the Anglicans want to have diplomatic relations. What do you think the reaction in Dublin would be?

The other way of looking at it is to ponder Fr James Good’s recent comment to me about the Vatican’s claim to be a state: “What would Christ make of all of that?”

In looking at the Vatican’s reaction to the worldwide crisis caused by the clerical abuse scandal, we need to ask — where is the role of conscience in all of this, or the untrammelled application of gospel values rather than a reliance on diplomatic protocols and niceties? That’s the real question.

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