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James Carroll

Abolish Vatican statehood

St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City is filled during Pope John Paul II’s beatification in 2011.MASSIMO SESTINI/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

A moral contradiction casts a shadow on Roman Catholicism, and lately the shadow has lengthened. The church straddles two poles at once, and at times they pull in radically opposite directions. First, it is a community of believers seeking to embody the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet through accidents of history, that community is organizationally centered on Vatican City — a 110-acre territory where the Holy See, the ancient seat of papal authority, is headquartered. The Vatican is a sovereign state. And like every state, alas, politically empowered Catholicism yields now and then to the amoral pressures of realpolitik.

This contradiction was laid bare recently when the Holy See, acting in secret, threw the protective cloak of diplomatic immunity over Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski — the papal nuncio in the Dominican Republic and an alleged serial abuser of minors. In a show of toughness, church officials defrocked Wesolowski and promised to try him according to the laws of Vatican City. In effect, though, church officials once again shielded a predator priest from civil jurisdiction. Victims and officials in the Dominican Republic were left to stew.

The Holy See might have boxed itself into handling the accused diplomat in that odd manner. Before the United Nations last winter, representatives of the Vatican had insisted that it was morally and legally responsible only for abuse perpetrated by Vatican citizens — and not for abuse by thousands of Catholic priests around the world. Both then and now, the Catholic hierarchy has been hiding behind the political prerogatives of a sovereign state, violating broader norms of ethical responsibility. Vatican statehood is part of the problem.

Catholics and others may think of the Vatican as institutionally essential to the church, as if willed by God. But it’s not. Today’s Vatican City is an after-image of the once vast papal states that were lost in 19th-century revolutions. In its present form, this headquarters of world Catholicism was created only in the 20th century. Under the 1929 Lateran Treaty, an agreement with the Mussolini government whose terms ultimately received international recognition, the Holy See began to function from the newly autonomous state of Vatican City.


The Lateran Treaty, and the 1933 “Reichskonkordat” between Hitler and the Holy See, demonstrate the way Catholic leaders occasionally find it necessary to make spiritual compromises for the temporal benefit of the church. Both treaties protected church rights, but measurably reinforced the dictators, and gravely undercut Catholic moral authority. In neither negotiation were Gospel values on the table.


And Gospel values show up very little in the way church authorities continue to address the priest abuse crisis. Institutional survival has been the absolute standard since Cardinal Bernard Law was protected, and the strategy may be working. The broad public seems to have grown accustomed to the unending drumbeat of this scandal. Few Catholics sustain the sort of stunned indignation that greeted revelations a decade ago of rape by priests and cover-ups by bishops. Rome-based prelates have settled into a business-as-usual approach that blithely allows a clerical diplomat to avoid facing his accusers, and the sacrosanct principle of local legal jurisdiction to be thwarted. Meanwhile, once ubiquitous demands for a top-to-bottom reform of the inbred, misogynist, all-male, and forcibly celibate clerical culture are rarely heard.

The Vatican defrocked Wesolowski, but an opposite remedy suggests itself for the larger problem — in effect, a “de-stating” of the Holy See. Pope Francis, in matters of style and substance both, already points to the sort of major reforms that are overdue in the Catholic Church. If, under his instinctive program of declericalization, vestiges of medieval monarchical privilege for popes and bishops alike can be readily jettisoned, why not diplomatic immunity and the other exemptions and privileges attaching to political sovereignty?

Under the aegis of the United Nations, the once unknown international phenomenon of formally recognized nonstate agencies — nongovernmental organizations — has provided space for all kinds of humane initiatives, including religious ones. Pope Francis has dismissed the idea of the church as an NGO, but perhaps that’s precisely what it should be: the largest NGO in the world, an institution whose only claim to power lies in its capacity to maintain the trust of those it represents and those it serves.


Above all, the state prerogatives of a 110-acre enclave must not override the justice due to child victims — or the love and compassion that the Catholic faith demands.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.