What started out as an implausable notion has recently morphed into a relatively serious attempt on the part of some Britons to arrest Pope Benedict when he visits the United Kingdom this coming September. They want to try him on accusations of "crimes against humanity."
Atheist activists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens say that some respected members of Britain’s legal community are advising them on the likelihood that such a stunt can withstand Vatican challenges. They're modeling their case after Britain's 1998 use of "universal jurisdiction" to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
And it would be a stunt, too, if it wasn’t for the fact that at the root of Dawkins’ and Hitchens' anger lies a tangled heap of unconfessed sins - or at least a woeful dearth of name-clearing proof - regarding decades and generations of alleged molestation by priests of youth in their care.
The Scandal That Won't Stop
Catholic sex scandals that rocked bastions of the faith here in America only a few years ago have now hit Europe with a fury. From Germany to India and Ireland, recent claims of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by none other than the current Pope himself have sparked widespread disdain for the Roman Catholic Church and calls for investigations, clarifications, explanations, and resignations. All of which have been greeted by the Vatican with either silence or the feeblest of vague press releases. A couple of Pope Benedict’s closest advisers have publicly come to his defense, but all they’ve done is add fuel to the fire, either by comparing Rome’s current problems to the Holocaust, or blaming pedophilia on homosexuals.
Which, since they’re the ones both facing the charges and suggesting the gay connection, may be the closest to the truth that Vatican officials have come. Obviously, some of the scandals for which priests have been accused would not have happened if the accused could prove that they weren’t closeted.
But although some might accept the unfounded all-gays-are-pedophiles argument as an explanation, none of this excuses the activities for which all of these priests have been accused. The situation would be much more clearly in the Vatican’s favor if these priests had been allowed to defend themselves in courts of law, but many of them haven’t. So the suspicion, anger, and resentment just grows deeper in the increasingly cynical court of public opinion.
Legal scholars point to several conditions of this push to arrest Pope Benedict as much ado about nothing:
First, as a head of state on a diplomatic visit, the Pope enjoys a high degree of diplomatic immunity which the Queen's government would severely imperil itself by infringing upon.
Second, Pope Benedict was living and working in Germany during the period when he is accused of being complicit in covering up some of the abusive priests, so British law probably wouldn’t apply.
And third, the basic question of how the Crown would make such charges stick in a court of law remains murky at best and unlikely at worst. At the time, Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict's pre-pontifical name) was neither a head of state nor responsible for creating policy - only administering it. That's a far cry from being in a position to commit crimes against humanity.
So, would the ruination of ecclesiastical and political relations between the United Kingdom and the Vatican be worth the trouble?
The Crown vs. the Pope?
Still, to a degree, the prospect of arresting the Pope – of all people – presents and intriguing scenario, doesn’t it? Mainly because to many Roman Catholics, the Pope isn’t just a person, he’s an emissary of God’s with divine authority and privilege. To have British courts – which technically act on behalf of the Queen, who in herself has no power at all (but she used to be a “sovereign”) – try the Pope would be the fantasy culmination of centuries of religious strife and vainglorious history for England. How many martyrs to how many faiths would be spinning in their graves to have the Pope on trial by the Queen’s government?
Of course, the Roman Catholic faithful would be utterly horrified that the Pontiff would be subjected to such humiliation and degradation, not only in a court, not only in England, but by a government of a faith which splintered from their church. Were he to be found guilty, Pope Benedict would almost certainly become some sort of sainted figure for Catholics, who surely would ascribe deific accolades to him that we heretofore have never seen. Who knows the type of violence that could erupt with a guilty verdict? Look at the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland, which would certainly flare up with tortuous bloodshed.
And what of the Pope himself, who although currently enjoying relatively good health, is not a young man? Legal challenges and wrangling could go on for years, and were he to die even of simple old age before any resolution is reached in his case, what might that mean to long-term stability between countries in the Commonwealth and the UK and Rome?
Even if none of this comes to pass, might Dawkins and Hitchens have already made their point? For the first time in recent memory, a group of people are calling on legal action against a Pope for indiscretions which have been widely publicized in the international press, generally confirmed by a variety of participants, and unconvincingly disparaged by the Vatican. Roman Catholicism has been declining in membership and influence for years, and they’re not handling this latest blemish to their reputation to anybody’s satisfaction.
If they’ve got nothing to hide, the Catholic church is doing a good job of hiding that fact. When Jesus Christ was challenged to prove Himself, He quoted scripture, and nobody could deny His righteousness. If the Pope has divine ex cathedra, why can’t he do that?
Maybe Rome and Toyota have the same PR firm… Dontsay, Nuthin & Hyde?