A Call for Earthly Justice
Holding the Catholic Church accountable for its crimes.
Reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's extraordinary and limpid new work Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (a history informed by a general, if Anglican, sympathy for its subject), I came across the following passage from Cardinal John Henry Newman's classic statement of belief, his Apologia Pro Vita Sua:
The Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die from starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
In a few days, Joseph Ratzinger will make one of the most portentous voyages of his papacy, landing in Britain to announce the beatification of the author of those remarkable words. I am not writing about Catholic dogma today, and in any case do not have the space to discuss the hysterical, totalitarian fanaticism of Newman's statement, coming as it does from a learned man celebrated for his relative "moderation." I thought I would simply ask how the church would emerge if anything remotely like Newman's criterion were to be applied to it.
As we have recently been forcibly reminded, the Roman Catholic Church holds it better for the cries of raped and violated children to be ignored, and for the excuses and alibis of their rapists and torturers indulged, and for a host of dirty and wilful untruths to be manufactured wholesale, and for the funds raised ostensibly for the poor to be paid out in hush money and shameful bribery, rather than that one tiny indignity or inconvenience be visited on the robed majesty of a man-made church or any limit set to its self-proclaimed right to be judge in its own cause.
Earlier this year, as Roman Catholic authorities from Ireland to Germany to Australia to Belgium to the United States were being confronted with the fallout of decades of sexual assault and subsequent denial, I asked a simple question in print. Why was this not considered a matter for the police and the courts? Why were we asking the church to "put its own house in order," an expression that was the exact definition of the problem to begin with? Why had almost no offending priest or bishop faced justice, and even then usually after a long period of protection from the church's own "courts"? I followed this up with a telephone call to Geoffrey Robertson, a British barrister with a second-to-none record in international human rights cases. (If it matters, the last time we had both cooperated was in a campaign against the British Act of Succession, an archaic piece of legislation that explicitly discriminates against Catholics.) This was one of the best dimes I have ever dropped. After a group of generous humanists and atheists agreed to pay his extremely modest fee, Robertson produced a detailed legal brief against the papacy and has made it widely available for the use of all interested or aggrieved parties. Titled The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse, it has just been published in the United Kingdom by Penguin Books. (It will be available in the United States in October.)
As if almost timed to coincide with its publication, and with the impending arrival of Ratzinger on British soil, the recent disclosures of the putrid state of the church in Belgium have thrown the whole scandal into an even sharper relief. Consider: The now-resigned bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, stands revealed by his own eventual confession as being guilty of incest as well as rape, having regularly "abused" his male nephew between the ages of 5 and 18. The man's superior as head of the Belgian church, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has been caught on tape urging the victim to keep quiet. A subsequent official report, commissioned by the country's secular authorities, has established that this level of morality was the rule throughout the hierarchy, with the church taking it upon itself to "forgive" the rapists and to lean upon their victims. Very belatedly, a few months ago, the Belgian police finally rose from their notorious torpor and raided some ecclesiastical offices in search of evidence that was being concealed. Joseph Ratzinger, who had not thus far found a voice in which to mention the doings of his Belgian underlings, promptly emitted a squeal of protest—at the intervention of the law.
Robertson's brief begins with a meticulous summary of the systematic fashion in which child-rape was covered up by collusion between local Catholic authorities and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, an office that under the last pope was run by Ratzinger himself. (So flagrant was this obstruction of justice that many senior Catholic apologists have now started to blame the deceased pontiff in an effort to excuse his deputy and successor, all the while continuing to put forward Pope John Paul II as a candidate for sainthood!) The brief continues with a close examination of the Vatican's claim to be a state, and its related claim that statehood confers legal immunity on the pope, even in gross cases of abuse of human rights. Without undue difficulty, Robertson shows both claims to be laughably void and based, furthermore, on a history of disgraceful collaboration with dictatorship and sheltering of wanted criminals.
Cardinal Newman himself was rather dubious about the late-19th-century proclamation of papal infallibility. He also asked to be buried in the same grave as his lifelong companion, Ambrose St. John. The Catholic authorities have now rudely disinterred the bodies, finding nothing that had survived decay or could serve as a relic. This is grotesque enough, but not as grotesque as the air of persecuted innocence that they wear when confronted with their obscene offenses. Now at last there is a careful guide to legal redress, which can be taken up either by a victim or by a prosecutor and used to bring a man-made outfit, and its chief executive, within the rule of law. The sun and moon don't need to fall and the species doesn't have to die in agony in order to expiate this sin—a little application of simple earthly justice is all that is required. Will it really continue to be withheld?
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Pope Benedict XVI by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images.