Why the Pope Can't Be Tried At the ICC

Pope Benedict XVI is again under attack by the forces of secularism. The Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), in conjunction with other human rights lawyers, filed a complaint last week against the Vatican in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. These claims are backed by a 20,000-page document in which they show tens of thousands of cases of rape and child abuse by priests in Europe and the United States. Is this new attempt going to succeed? I think not. There are historical as well as legal bases to argue this.

The Catholic Church is going through a crisis of virtue within its priesthood and a crisis of faith and confidence in the holiness of its mission. The action taken by the SNAP is another attempt to further weaken and demoralize the Roman Curia by humiliating the Pope, but it is an attempt that is doomed to fail.

However, the current attack against the Catholic Church has some unique features of its own, namely that the SNAP, by filing a legal complaint to the ICC, has made a mistaken inherent assumption. The Vatican is not a sovereign state, but just the “headquarters” of a global religious faith. In this sense, the Catholic Church has active members preaching the Christian Gospel around the world. But Catholic churches do not qualify as embassies or branches of a Vatican’s civil/ecclesiastical bureaucracy. And the ICC only has the authority to prosecute crimes committed by official states, which the Catholic Church is not; also because the Vatican hasn’t signed the ICC charter for those same reasons. Thus, if it accepts this complaint by the SNAP the court would be overstepping its jurisdiction, and offending the Catholic Church’s reason of existence: that the Holy See and the Pope are not political actors but servants of a Godly mission.

Beyond that, the complaint is directed against the Pope and three other high-ranking officials. SNAP’s argument is that, as the heads of a bureaucratic organization, these individuals share the responsibility for the action of their subordinates. Again, the problem is that the Catholic Church is not a state, so it does not qualify as a civil sovereign bureaucracy with legitimate monopoly of violence over any territory. 

The mission of the Catholic Church is not administering public goods, but spreading a particular message; that of the Gospel. The Catholic Church cannot be subject to the legal provisions of the ICC or any other secular justice because its origin is much older than that of any modern states from which the courts acquires their authority, and because the Catholic Church’s structure and nature transcends the rational principles of modern legality. The reason for its existence is based on passages from the Bible, and the supposedly authentic Donation of Constantine I, something that cannot fit coherently with modern rationality, the reason of why subjecting it to the ICC is absurd. If it were for modern rationality the Catholic Church shouldn't even exist. But it does out of a world outlook that puts into question the credibility of that rationality.

However the attempt is clever, because if it succeeds, it would set the legal framework for speaking of the Vatican as a state and hence treating the Catholic Church as an infiltrated foreign power. This explains why the Vatican rejects offers from the United Nations to become a voting member in its assembly. That would be an acknowledgment of its status as sovereign state, and it would be a complete denial of its mission, which “is not of this world” (John 18:36).

The crisis of the pederast priest has to be resolved. The Pope himself has acknowledged this many times in his sermons and letters. On May of this year the Pope released a letter to all the Bishops of the Catholic Church giving guidelines in how to address this obnoxious internal cancer that is spreading all over. The reaction of the Catholic Church-heating media was condemning the Pope for being too mild. Respect for the things holy seem to be completely gone in our times, and the consecutive attempts to deal with it with a complete secular approach, irrespective of the faith of the millions that still hold to their traditions, is a prove of the unlimited pride and contempt that prevails in our nihilistic times.

Photo Credit: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov