The Long Road To Papal Self Destruction

April 5, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

The legal back-and-forth over the Vatican’s position on the sexual abuse revelations seems to Americans bizarre.  While certainly the Catholic Church has a large contingent, we are a traditionally Protestant nation and after ditching the Anglican’s after the Revolution, the whole question of a Church being able to deny the right of civil authority to prosecute one of its representatives for criminal acts was swallowed up in the strident secularism that, despite the current revisionist rhetoric of a very loud activist minority, characterized the first century of the Republic.  Even American Catholics may be a be fuzzy on how the Vatican can try to assert diplomatic immunity for the Pope in order to block prosecutorial efforts.

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Creative Commons

But the fact is, the Vatican is a State, just like Italy, Switzerland, Germany, or the United States.  The Pope is the head of a political entity (technically, the Holy See, but for convenience I use the more inclusive term Vatican), with all the rights and privileges implied.  The Vatican has embassies.

They have not quite come out to assert that priests, being officials (and perhaps officers) of that state, have diplomatic immunity, but they have certainly acted that way for the past few decades as this scandal has percolated through the halls of St. Peter.  It would be an interesting test if they did, to in fact allow that attorneys generals, D.A.s, and other law enforcement agencies have absolutely no legal grounds on which to prosecute priests.  To date, the Vatican has not gone there.

So what is the political relationship between, say, the Vatican and the United States?

From 1797 to 1870, the United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States.  We maintained diplomatic relations with the Pope as head of the Papal States from 1848 to 1868, though not at the ambassadorial level.

With the loss of the Papal States in 1870, these relationships ended until 1984, although beginning in 1939 a number of presidents sent personal envoys to the Holy See for specific talks on various humanitarian issues.

Diplomatic relations resumed January 10, 1984. On March 7, 1984, the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson, who had served as President Reagan’s personal envoy from 1981, as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. The Holy See in turn named Archbishop Pio Laghi as the first Apostolic Nuncio (equivalent to ambassador) of the Holy See to the U.S.

The Pope, as head of the governmental body—the Holy See—has the status of head of state.  Arresting the Pope—even issuing a subpoena—is a problematic question under these circumstances, as he would technically enjoy immunity stemming from his position.

The question, however, more to the point is the overall relationship of the global Church to the Vatican and the prerogatives the Pope and the Holy See seem to believe they possess in the matter of criminal actions and prosecutions of individual priests, bishops, even archbishops.

That requires going back a long time.

At one time, the Holy Roman Church held secular power and controlled its own territories, known as the Papal States.  When this “country” was established is the subject of academic study, but a clear marker is the so-called Donation of Pepin.  The Duchy of Rome was threatened materially by invading Lombards, which the Frankish ruler Pepin the Short ended around 751 C.E.  He granted vast territories through the center of Italy, and north almost to Venice to the Pope, and later Charlemagne codified the bequest.  From that point, Rome was a secular power.

This lasted up till the time of Pope Pius IX.  In the face of growing nationalism and a move toward Italian unification under Victor Emmanuel, Pius IX fought a continuing diplomatic battle to maintain temporal power.  This was largely guaranteed by foreign troops, most especially French forces dispatched by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) in 1849.  Nine thousand French troops entered Rome and the garrison remain until 1870.

(An interesting sidebar to this episode emerged in the aftermath of the American Civil War.  The regular French garrison was supplemented by mercenaries and such a unit was the Papal Zouaves, made up of many nationalities, by also by a large body of ex-Confederate refugees who had made their way north to Quebec after Lee’s surrender and from there they signed on in service to the Pope.)

Pius IX lost these territories when France engaged in the Franco-Prussian War.  The garrison was withdrawn and Italian forces were easily able to invade and secure the Papal States.  In response, Pius IX did two things which came later to bedevil the global Catholic Church even to this day and set up the bizarre situation we see of a supposedly spiritual leader defending the prerogatives of a church as if he were a head of state under threat of impeachment.

The First Vatican Council had been called in 1869.  Pius IX, reading the writing on the various walls around him clearly, put forward on his own authority the constitution Pastor Aeturnus, which established the concept of Papal Infallibility.  There are several parts to this, but the one which concerns this issue is that of papal primacy.  In its final declaration, the relevant passage is:

“We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely  revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith  or morals  to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer  willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”

This was by no means universally accepted at the time and caused a bitter dispute among the Cardinals and Bishops.  In essence, with the loss of temporal authority, Pius IX claimed an absolute spiritual authority over all parts of the church, creating for Rome the contemporary centrality it enjoys today.

In practical terms, this ended the autonomy of the several branches of the Church around the globe.  Rome now claimed final say in all actions everywhere.  Bishoprics around the world up till that time had possessed the authority to make decisions for themselves (as long as they did not violate the established doctrine of the Church, decided upon by the Curia) and act independently.  This made perfect sense in the ages before rapid communication, when a message could take anywhere from one month to a year to reach its destination.

(Coincidentally, this was also the year the concept of the Divinity of the Virgin Mary was declared, in a Bull called Ineffabilis Deus.  This fed into the subsequent mania over sexuality in the coming century and a half, something which received less attention up till then.)

This of course was not the end of it.  Archbishops and local bishops continued much as they had before, largely because so many countries had the right to appoint their own church officials, a practice held over from the Middle Ages when rulers and clerics worked hand-in-glove in the business of governance.  Again, this had been a practical solution to a difficult problem, which only occasionally caused trouble (as in the matter of Henry II of England and Thomas a Beckett).  Now, however, the Pope had decided that all extensions of the Church should have fealty exclusively to Rome.

Hence the second item Pius IX began, but which was not completed until well into the Twentieth Century, namely the intense negotiations, state by state, the Vatican entered into with all the states which retained the old traditions to establish a new legal framework and understanding of how things would be conducted from thenceforward.

Pius IX’s successor, Leo XIII, took up the task of reorganizing the moribund diplomatic position of the Church.  In an encyclical, the Immortale Dei, he laid out the history and justification of Papal Authority in conducting Church affairs in the arena of international diplomacy and set the tone for the next fifty years.  Through the office of the Papal Nuncio, renegotiations of old understandings began and a series of “concordats” were drafted and signed turning absolute control of local Catholic institutions over to Rome and the only authority to which these institutions could offer any allegiance.

(This resulted finally in the infamous Concordat with Hitler which destroyed the only political party that had a viable chance of checking Naziism, all in the name of rendering unto Rome that which Rome saw as its innate prerogatives.)

With this has come the growing understanding that all Church matters are questions which only the Church has the authority to decide.  In many ways this was a powerful tool for the actions of clergy in oppositional movements to a given state—it freed the local bishopric from the rule of a head of state, who could hire, fire, imprison, or banish all clerics.  In some instances, this proved a socially good thing, to have a local priestly body loyal only to Rome and, by inference, the moral might of the Church.  It has in other instances proven problematical or disastrous (as noted above in Nazi Germany).  In any case, it established for the Church a view of itself that can only be described as above local law.

Naturally it was never intended that this would allow clergy to violate such laws, only that in the ordinary conduct of a moral and ecclesiastical representative no external pressure to conform to questionable local conditions could obtain.

But it also meant that if one of its own was found in violation of a moral law, the Church felt it had the prerogative to deal with the issue on its own, regardless of local mandate.  The whole point of Pius IX’s initiatives was to establish a sphere of authority distinct from secular issues in which the Church could act wholly on its own as the self-professed representative of God on Earth.  In the philosophical conceptions of Thomas Aquinas, on whom all this was based, secular matters were short-term, fickle, closer to fashion than eternal law, and the Church’s special obligation was to the latter.

Which inevitably meant it must defend itself from taint.  The best way to do this would be to conduct itself in such a manner than matters which could bring moral taint about simply did not occur.  Self-policing would be the best way to go about this.  Failing that, image is everything, therefore denial is the next best method, while behind a curtain of silence presumably the Church took care of the problem.

It may well be that in many instances this is exactly how it worked.  It cannot be known, because the curtain of silence has remained drawn.  Obviously, though, it has not worked at all, and now the Church faces the consequences of a policy at odds with reality.

When Pius IX declared Mary the perfect virgin, it had an unintended consequence on the psyche of men.  Of course this was in the days before any sound psychoanalysis so perhaps a lack of foresight can be excused, but by rendering Mary the role model she has become it created a condition of perpetually infantilized male conditioning wherein maturity in regards to women—and, subsequently, sex—is not only considered the norm but is promulgated through the parallel condemnation of anything that could be regarded as rational adult sexuality.  The very idea that sex is healthy and can be engaged in ethically and morally between consenting adults is an unspoken anathema to Catholicism (and, in more perverse and diluted forms, throughout protestant christianity where, because there is no cult of Mary, the subject has been more or less disregarded except as the kind of miasmic opprobrium sex has acquired through fractured moralistic denials of pleasure in general).  Men never find out what women are really like because they are encouraged to find fault with any female who does not live up to the image of Mary—which of course is impossible and absurd, both for the fact that it is an invented standard and because it denies the full personhood of individuals, male and female—and discouraged from exploring the realities of relationships that do not fit a preconceived model.

The contradictions inherent in this attitude have caused the Catholic Church recurrent headaches.  Pope John XXIII attempted to “correct” this in the Second Vatican Council, but he unfortunately died before its end, and Pope Paul VI intervened to derail the “rationalizing” efforts of his predecessor.  Partly, this was due to the tacit realization that, if marriage could not be defined as a preferable yet inferior alternative to celibacy (primarily for priests and nuns, but more generally as a principle of the pure christian), then there could be no moral barrier to a married priesthood, something that had been rejected since the Middle Ages (because of questions of inheritance more than anything else).  This was made more urgent because of the recognition that many priests around the world kept mistresses.

An observer of the Second Vatican Council, Father F.X. Murphy, wrote in the New York Times under the name of “Xavier Rynne”:

“According to Rene Laurentin, the problem of a married clergy for Latin America and other areas, along the lines of the Eastern discipline, had been before the Holy See since the days of Pope Pius X, but the Roman authorities had always felt that any concession here would inevitably lead to reconsideration of the status of those living in clerical concubinage in Italy and other countries, estimated variously in the thousands, and this they were not prepared to face.”   (Vatican Council II, 1968, Farrar Strauss Giroux)

In short, were they to rationalize this, all those priests would want promptly to marry their mistresses, overnight making public something which had been a more or less open (but denied) secret.

Paul VI’s preferences ran counter to the findings of a majority of clerics working in Vatican II—he refused to consider that the Church may have been wrong for centuries in its attitude toward sex and sexuality.  One result of this was the continued loss of priests.  New ones were not coming to the Church, many already in the priesthood were leaving, the majority to get married.  The dwindling pool of future priests necessarily included those who might not otherwise pass muster because of certain proclivities which were likewise ignored by the Church.

The whole notion of an infantilized priesthood—grown men who seem to have no problem with celibacy because they by nature shun the company of mature women (or, in the case of gays, mature partners) is a perhaps bizarre consequence of this entire process, but it cannot be dismissed.  Because pedophilia is not an easily-definable psychological condition.  It is not just that the pedophile sexualizes children and then preys upon them, but that the pedophiles entire psychological make-up with regards to matters of sex is askew in rather byzantine ways.  It must also be said here that it has not always been considered the crime it is today.

How might a justification for the sexual abuse of young boys be made?  In the same way that the rejection by Church dogma of condoms in combating AIDS can be made.  Neither position stands up logically, and yet we see today an almost criminal adherence to doctrine on the part of the Church in areas of the world heavily impacted by a disease which could be rendered manageable.

To be clear, there is no stated doctrine from the Church to the effect that sex with children is preferable to the “greater” sin of conjugal relations with adults.  No one ever wrote such a thing.  But it is one of those historically-known “open secrets” that boys (especially) have served as personal companions to clerics for centuries and no real condemnation has ever been made prior to the modern era.  To be fair, the secular practice was wide-spread as well.  It was kept quiet, of course, and generally only those with money and/or position indulged, yet it was real, it happened.

How might this follow?

Well, the argument in the case of condoms is straightforward, that sex with the intervention of artificial contraception is a violation of “natural” love, as stated in the Humanae Vitae of the Second Vatican Council, which at least expanded the acceptable arena of sex to include it as an expression of love instead of the previously-held doctrine that it was only for procreation.  It is therefore a priori a sin to interfere with the natural expression of conjugal love as established by God.  Even in the prevention of disease, it is not to be considered.  The only viable method for combating AIDS, therefore, is celibacy.

The construction is visible, even though flawed, that because of a prior establishment of evil in the use of something, no circumstance is sufficient to justify its use or remove its sinfulness.

Hence we come to the problem of sexuality as a whole and the issue of abuse of minors in particular, where the special pleading by which the Church traditionally sets limits and terms of sin and consequence plays into the culture of sexual infantilization of otherwise grown men, creating a situation in which, on an individual basis, someone might justify taking advantage of a sexually immature boy (or girl) because it is not as sinful as ordinary sex with a contemporary.

This takes it out of the realm of the too-easy demonization of such priests that they are homosexuals and that this is a homosexual problem.  This is not only wrong but wrongheaded.  What we are seeing is a culture in which degrees of sin take the place of more rational rules of conduct.

(Just to show what the problem is, let’s go back all the way to the Church’s traditional attitude vis-a-vis women, and this quote from Albert the Great (1206 – 1280) who was Thomas Aquinas’s teacher: “Woman is a misbegotten man and has a fault and defective nature in comparison with his.  Therefore she is unsure in herself.  What she herself cannot get she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions.  And so, to put it briefly, one must be on guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil.” Commentary On Aristotle’s Animals by Albertus Magnus.  You see?  Children are “innocent” therefore no danger to one’s immortal soul by their deceit.)

Just as the Vatican, upon passage of Vatican II, saw as its duty and prerogative to police itself with regards to all matters it deemed within its sphere (and based on the legal framework of the past century).  It had rigidly resisted all attempts by state governments to interfere with its internal policies and its own policing.

So when you hear William Donahue of the Catholic League defending the Pope publicly with what amount to the kinds of legal arguments for which President Clinton was roundly criticized (of the “What did he know and when did he know it” variety and the “meaning of a given word”) it ought to come as no surprise.  We are seeing the Catholic Church defending its prerogatives as a state, with traditions, laws, and privileges of a state.  The question becomes complicated over the actual diplomatic status of local priests, but the Vatican will surely jettison such men should the watchdogs of secular states draw too near to the center of power.

They have come, finally, face to face with the limits of their self-perceived ecclesiastical powers.  It has been assumed that the revelation, confession, and absolution of sin would “fix it.”  That the Church’s efforts to deal with priests who have indulged problematic behavior have failed is not so much a question of an indifferent, power-hungry institution protecting its right to be free of criticism (there is some of that, certainly) but of an entity institutionally incapable of reviewing its fundamental structures and affecting reasonable change in accordance with realities with which it never before had to cope.  Despite its denials to the contrary, the Church has not kept current with the moral growth of much of the world.  It has assumed, from its self-granted mantle of infallibility and its ongoing efforts to dictate to an increasingly empowered laity limits on personal behavior, that the secular world lacks the wisdom and the authority to question it.  (Basically, as long as everyone recognized the hierarchy and natural authority of the Church, everything should have been fine.  As soon as people began questioning both, and finding that in many instances the Church was out of touch if not wrong, there followed trouble.)

It was a long and curious trail that has brought them to this and it is puzzling that of all the issues that might finally bring it down, it is one that has apparently received the least attention historically from them.  But it should be understood that the bases on which they confront this matter are not arbitrary or new, but well-laid foundations meant to deal with other problems.  Their reactions must be seen in this context in order to make any sense at all.

Nevertheless, none of that can stand as justification.


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Category: children, Civil Rights, Communication, Community, Culture, Current Events, Good and Evil, History, hypocrisy, ignorance, Law, Noteworthy, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Sex, Social justice

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    More disturbing news regarding the Vatican's see-no-evil approach. Andrew Sullivan has characterized this recent revelation as "strike three" for the current Pope.

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