Do Not Arrest the Pope: New Atheists’ Call for the Pope’s Arrest Isn’t Likely to Produce Justice

Frances Kissling presents the opposing view here —ed.

According to a recent Times Online article (provocatively headlined “Richard Dawkins calls for arrest of Pope Benedict XVI”), Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, both leaders in the “New Atheist” movement, “have asked human rights lawyers to produce a case for charging Pope Benedict XVI over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.” The hope, apparently, is to be in a position to have the Pope arrested during his visit to Great Britain in the fall, making use of “the same legal principle used to arrest Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator, when he visited Britain in 1998.”

I should note that although Dawkins is the figure most prominently featured in the article, on his Web site, Dawkins credits Hitchens with being the one who “first proposed the legal challenge idea to me on March 14th” and who “made the brilliant suggestion of (barrister) Geoffrey Robertson” to pursue the case. If there is a brainchild for this nascent “arrest the Pope” movement, that honor would be Hitchens’.

So, what should we think about this New Atheist call to have the Pope arrested? Let me begin by confessing to having had occasional fantasies recently of seeing Pope Benedict XVI arrested for obstruction of justice. But these fantasies have mostly been idle ones. My own attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church and its leadership has long been conflicted; those who maintain that the Church is nothing but a source of evil ignore its commitment to the poor and its history of producing many truly saintly people.

But there is also a history of self-importance that gives credence to Karl Barth’s assertion that “the fundamental doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is the doctrine of its own semi-divinity.” Efforts to shield that doctrine from challenge—by, among other things, concealing shameful truths about the church that call the doctrine into question—may yet prove to be one of the Church’s gravest sins.

And here lies the source of my Pope-arrest fantasies. The Church as an institution has behaved as if it is above the law, and whether justified or not it is easy to treat the head of the Church as the personal embodiment of this kind of grandiosity, and so to view the idea of the Pope’s arrest as a variant of that appealing narrative of the mighty brought to task for their crimes.

But in my more sober moments, I wouldn’t want to see these fantasies play out in reality unless a sustained, impartial investigation produced substantial evidence specifically implicating then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the Church’s criminal cover-ups.

What pedophilic priests have done over the years is a moral horror. That the hierarchy of the church has too often been more concerned about protecting its reputation than about mitigating this horror is a grievous offense. And I think there is evidence to suggest that Ratzinger may have made decisions that were motivated more by concern for preserving the Church’s prestige than for the safety of children.

That is, to my mind, a serious moral indictment. But it is not, as such, a legal one. While I have no doubt that the Church has perpetrated criminal cover-ups, parsing out individual legal blame for institutional offenses is always tricky. Who knew what, and when? Who said no, who said yes, and who didn’t resist strongly enough? Who should have blown the whistle, and whose failure to do so amounted to criminal complicity?

The complexity of such questions, and the paucity of unambiguous facts, makes it hard to confidently call Ratzinger criminally liable, regardless of what might be said about his moral character (and whether it warrants the astonishing moral authority which the mantle of the papacy carries).

But Hitchens and Dawkins display no such qualms. Their words, quoted in the Times article, seem to be premised on Cardinal Ratzinger’s criminal complicity. “This is a man,” Dawkins says, “whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.” Is he right?

Getting a clear answer isn’t easy. A recent report reveals that while Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, “a suspected pedophile priest was transferred to a job where he later abused children.” But how much Ratzinger knew about or played a role in the case remains unclear. Some have argued that a 2001 letter signed by Ratzinger in his role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith constitutes obstruction of justice insofar as the letter mandates that internal investigations of grievous crimes by priests—including sexual offenses—be held strictly confidential for a period of ten years (or, with respect to offenses against minors, ten years after the victim’s 18th birthday).

But in tandem with a move earlier this week in which bishops were explicitly instructed to always report sex abuse cases to local authorities, Vatican officials reiterated there insistence that the 2001 document’s call for “pontifical secrecy” extends only to internal Church proceedings and was never meant to bar church officials or victims from reporting abuse to local authorities. This insistence is given some credibility by the Vatican’s endorsement of a policy, introduced by U.S. bishops in 2002, which explicitly required American bishops to report abuse cases to the police.

There is certainly something deeply unsettling about Ratzinger’s signature on a letter arguing that the “good of the Universal Church” should be taken into account before too quickly defrocking (or “laicizing”) a convicted pedophile. But there is no issue here of a cover-up. The priest in question had been convicted of misdemeanor lewd conduct and sentenced to three years’ probation—a shockingly light sentence for a priest pleading no contest to charges of tying up and molesting two boys in a church rectory, but that can hardly be pinned on Ratzinger. If Ratzinger is guilty of something here, it is of a serious lapse in moral judgment rooted in inappropriate priorities, leading him to delay a clear moral imperative—defrocking a child molester in order to protect children—for the sake of weighing its impact on the institution of the Church.

But in the face of all of these reasons to be concerned about the Pope’s role is the sex abuse crisis, there is also evidence to suggest that, before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was actually a leading figure in the Vatican faction fighting for a stronger response to abusive priests.

And so it is hard to say exactly what level of criminal culpability, if any, the current Pope bears. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the crimes within the Church might justifiably inspire one to call for the Vatican to open its doors to an impartial third-party investigation. But that’s not what Dawkins and Hitchens are calling for. Dawkins claims to be “especially intrigued by the proposed challenge to the legality of the Vatican as a sovereign state whose head can claim diplomatic immunity.” And although he concedes that the Pope may not “end up in the dock,” he hopes “that we shall raise public consciousness to the point where the British government will find it very awkward indeed to go ahead with the Pope’s visit, let alone pay for it.”

In short, the aim of what Hitchens and Dawkins have initiated is not to uncover information in an effort to learn the truth about the extent of Pope Benedict’s personal involvement in criminal cover-ups. Their aim, rather, is to influence public perceptions and public policies in accord with the assumption that the current Pope is deeply complicit in the crimes they are accusing him of. More broadly, they want the Pope—a symbol of everything the New Atheists revile—to face a very public and very humiliating defeat.

And so, at the instigation of these leaders of the new atheist movement, Robertson and another lawyer, Mark Stephens, are developing a legal case on the basis of which they hope to “ask the Crown Prosecution Service to initiate criminal proceedings against the Pope, launch their own civil action against him or refer his case to the International Criminal Court.”

What will be the effects of these efforts? My answer, in brief: Nothing good.

To see why, consider the following. What happens when you combine the Church’s self-understanding (as the vessel in which God has entrusted His revelation to the world) and a history of enormous privilege and prestige, with the rise of secularism and the concomitant steady increase in challenges to the Church’s authority? What you get, predictably, is an institution that sees itself as unfairly besieged by external forces, especially by a secularist movement that fails to understand or appreciate the Church’s sacred mission.

The last thing anyone should hope for, I would think, is that the Church will respond to the current sex abuse scandal by treating it as just another sally from the forces of secularism. The evidence suggests that there are already strong impulses to do this very thing—to see the scandal as, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “primarily a campaign to vilify the Pope,” and thus to hide from the real enormity of the crimes and the Church’s role in them.

And while some of us might have fantasies of the Pope getting arrested, or even more modest fantasies of the Church opening its doors to a third-party investigation, the truth is that neither of these things is likely to happen. The best we can hope for is that more praiseworthy impulses within the Church will prevail—impulses to treat this crisis as a wake-up call, as a call to seriously introspect about the reasons why child sexual abuse is so rampant and the cover-ups so pervasive.

We can hope that church leaders will begin to more seriously reflect on the dangers of caring more about the Church’s reputation for virtue than about its actual virtue. We can hope that they will begin to take seriously the idea that increasing the authority and power of women in the Church will also increase the forces within the Church committed to protecting children (an idea that, interestingly, might be pursued even without changing the requirement that priests be men, insofar as canon law does not require that Cardinals be priests).

We can hope that more Church leaders and theologians will take seriously the profound analysis of the current crisis that was articulated so beautifully by Andrew Sullivan in a recent essay in The Atlantic—an analysis which shows how the categorical prohibition on homosexual expression can combine with a requirement of clerical celibacy to produce inordinate numbers of priests whose sexuality has become deeply dysfunctional by virtue of failed adolescent efforts to suppress it altogether.

But any impulse to reflect seriously on these and other ideas will be compromised if the opposing impulse prevails—by which I mean the Church’s deep-seated impulse to react defensively, to respond in terms of its subjective sense of being besieged by a hostile secularist movement. And it is precisely that unhelpful impulse which Hitchens and Dawkins are fueling with their current self-righteous stunt.

In fact, were I to identify two individuals alive today who more wholly embody the hostile secularist movement that the Church feels besieged by, I could think of none better than Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. As such, their initiative and leadership in this “arrest the Pope” campaign actually lends credibility to the perception that the current crisis is about an attack on the Church by its enemies, as opposed to being about the Church’s own profound failure to live up to its duty to protect the most vulnerable within its fold.

While Hitchens and Dawkins might be able to milk this legal maneuvering for increased book sales and further accolades by their own constituencies, they do so at a very high cost. The bifurcating ideology to which both men cleave—one that places enlightened atheism and benighted religion into two hostile and irreconcilable camps—is dangerously infectious. The more successful Hitchens and Dawkins are in pursuing their current efforts against the Pope, the more the Vatican will be pushed into a defensive posture rather than the introspective, self-critical posture that seems the best hope for bringing about real change.

I am not without hope that the fallout of this crisis in the Church will be, if not a new reformation, then substantial reforms aimed at protecting the most vulnerable within the Roman Catholic fold. I am not without hope that the crisis will inspire some deep and honest reflection on ways in which the Church’s structures, ideologies, and practices have helped to make this moral horror possible. I am not without hope that such reflection, if it is sincere and sustained, will bring about more substantial changes in the Catholic Church over time.

But none of that has any hope of happening if the new atheists succeed in co-opting this crisis to further their war on religion.