When I read The Ecstasy Of Owen Muir at the age of 14 what stood out was the opulence, vanity and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. How, I wondered, had it become so much bigger than its boots? And how had Catholicism become such a schmick business, such a powerful entity, such a gross version (in my mind at least) of the doctrine of Christ?
As you might imagine, and despite the comic nature of the book, the raw, ideological fury of someone so young was the catalyst for remembering the novel; that and the fact it was such a wonderful read. Ring Lardner Jr who penned the opus and other wonderful work such as the screenplay for the movie M*A*S*H, was in jail for refusing to tell the House Committee on Un-American Activities whether he was a Communist, when he researched the material for the story. But, despite his name having been blacklisted so that for much of his career he wrote under pseudonyms, it was the content in The Ecstasy Of Owen Muir that made publishers nervous. The work was rejected over and over again, one publishing house telling Lardner that parochial schools might boycott their textbooks if they released the story. Eventually it was published in Britain.
Regardless of this dallying, the power and wealth of the Catholic Church (not to mention other institutions bred from religion) has long been written about and discussed. What has gone on in the recent exposing of sexual abuse cases perpetrated by priests and the consequent cover-up of those cases, however, shows a further disregard, not only for secular state authority but for human beings. Trying to understand how this could have happened is as important as trying to understanding why it’s tricky to disassemble the power of the church and their continuation of the practice of cover-up.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is very interested in both queries in his small book, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse. As it turns out, the Vatican is not interested in crime; their core business is all about sin, and what Robertson makes clear is that to the Catholics the victims of all sin are God, the church and the soul of the sinner. Crime is, on the other hand, an earthly offence: it has, as Paula Kirby points out in her comments about Robertson’s book, ‘earthly victims (tens of thousands of them, in the case of child sex abuse by priests)’. But the church – simply put – is disinterested in earthly victims: what is a crime against a mere child compared with a crime against God?
Robertson quotes the leading commentary on canon law:
The place of law is in the Church of Christ where the drama of our redemption is enacted; the code of law is to assist the people in the reception of God’s saving mysteries.
And as Paula Kirby points out:
As soon as we understand that canon law deals only with sin and ‘the drama of redemption’, and that its foremost preoccupation when it comes to child sex abuse is the soul of the abuser, closely followed by the perceived need to protect other souls which might fall away if the church were brought into scandal and disrepute, everything about the shameful non-response of the Vatican falls into place and becomes clear.
Everything? The complexity of the situation brings me back to why I began this post with Ring Lardner Jr. The Vatican, as it turns out, is very attached to its earthly interests, including wealth, material comforts and political influence. This is particularly so with regard to its claim to statehood, and we should not be fooled that such a claim is merely academic. Statehood means diplomatic immunity according to Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, and who, for decades, has been involved in the cover-up of child sex abuse.
Statehood for the Vatican began with the Lateran Treaty – the Faustian pact between Mussolini and the Vatican which handed 1.2 square miles of Italy to the church in exchange for their support of Mussolini’s policies. Robertson’s well-known contention is that the case for rejecting this claim to statehood is strong enough to ask a court to adjudicate on the matter. Refusing to provide information requested by the Murphy Commission (the enquiry into the church’s handling of sex abuse in Ireland) is a good example of the Vatican’s willingness to use its earthly province to avoid scrutiny. Further to that, the hypocrisy of their reasons for the refusal is disquieting. The request for information from the commission was turned down on the grounds that it had been made directly to the Vatican rather than through diplomatic channels, and, as such, violated the dignity of its statehood.
What’s most erroneous in regard to the Vatican’s claim on statehood is the violation of their responsibilities that, because of their statehood status, they are meant to uphold. One pertinent example is the failure to submit reports in compliance with the Conventions on the Rights of the Child and Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Other examples include their interference in the internal affairs of other states and the failure to meet the independent and objective criteria of statehood laid down in the Montevideo Convention of 1933; grounds alone, Robertson says, to denounce their claims to being a state.
The hope Robertson holds is that because the sex abuse has occurred on such a huge scale, there is good reason to consider it a crime against humanity, and there are several countries, Belgium for instance, that might just have the pluck to arrest the Pontiff for such a crime were he to visit. The question of a Catholic statehood would then come under scrutiny early in the proceedings. If overturned, the Vatican’s immunity from prosecution would be overturned also, allowing authorities to demand access to their records.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as I sit here finishing this post decades after reading Lardner’s novel, all I can think of is a scene from Lardner’s book in which Owen Muir is watching a priest apply a significant layer of make-up in preparation for some kind of public interview. What’s startling about this memory, for me, is the symbolic connection between that scene and the lengths to which the Catholic Church (not to mention other churches) has gone to in sanctioning the systematic, state-endorsed rape and abuse of children. The question remains, is this because of the clergy’s earthly wants or their so-called spiritual ones?
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!