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‘Catholics are indoctrinated from their childhood that priests take the place of Jesus Christ and are to be obeyed at all costs, and never questioned or criticized.’ A church that puts its children from this early age under the spiritual control of its priests, representatives of God to whom they are unflinchingly obedient, has the most stringent of duties to guard against the exploitation of that obedience to do them harm. That duty includes the duty of handing over those reasonably suspected of child sex abuse to the secular authorities for trial and, if convicted, for punishment. It is this duty that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a.k.a. Benedict XVI, has for the past thirty years adamantly refused to accept.

Last month the Irish Times reported that two German lawyers, Christian Sailer and Gert-Joachim Hetzel, had submitted charges of crimes against humanity naming Pope Benedict XVI to the International Criminal Court. The document accuses the pontiff of preventing members of the Catholic church from using contraceptives, and hence stopping the spread of HIV, as well as the systematic cover-up of the abuse of children.

I wonder if the lawyers read this book by Geoffrey Robertson, which given its subtitle ‘Vatican Accountabilty for Human Rights Abuse‘, sets out to explain the legal protections and privileges enjoyed by the Catholic Church and the Holy See. ‘Privilege’, is quite an appropriate word, given its etymology in old French: ‘private law’. As it happens, news of the book’s publication was greeted with vociferous defence of the head of the Church by sites such as Protect The Pope, which states that a commentator for the site had refuted many of Geoffrey Robertson’s misguided accusations and erroneous legal conclusions in his legal analysis, ‘A Worldwide Conspiracy? (sic).

Not only does Robertson’s account identify the extent of the horrific crimes against children in the care of Catholic priests across the world, it also seeks to define what is meant by canon law, as well as the Vatican’s status as a nation state and non-member of the U.N., which grants various protections. As a QC, Robertson concentrates on identifying what liability for the crimes committed by priests the Church is responsible for. He argues that the abuse of children is both a crime and a violation of tort law. Given the global occurence of these offences, it falls to the Church to defend itself in a court of international law for crimes against humanity. As Robertson points out, Vatican representatives at the U.N. have repeatedly used their position to lobby against the spread of equal rights for men and women, as well as efforts to combat the HIV virus in third world countries. That it enjoys such a privileged position – one denied to any other religion, charity, or human rights organisation – is due to a treaty signed with Mussolini for their mutual benefit in 1929 is just another piece of uncomfortable history for the Church to ignore. It is also, Robertson claims, a very tenuous basis for the Vatican’s statehood.

The contempt of the Catholic Church for accounts of child-sex abuses in the media, described variously as ‘an American problem’, or a conspiracy mounted by homosexuals, or Jewish newspapers, or even as Pope Benedict memorably phrased it ‘petty gossip’, shows just how much the institution itself is an enclave that sets itself apart from the rest of the world. Hence the importance placed on canon law and the secrecy with which the Vatican protects its findings on the rates of child molestation occurences. Pope Benedict even went so far as to congratulate Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyas for hiding an abuser from the police. The testimonies of bishops responsible for the conduct of priests in their diocese through inquiries in the States, or from the Murphy Report in Ireland, reveal a disastrous combination of gross ignorance in some instances and the willingness to ‘smuggle’, paedophile priests across state lines, or even internationally, in others.

It was actually through commentary on the Murphy Report featured on Irish satirical site Bock the Robber that I discovered that my own parish priest in Rathcoole, Fr. Noel Reynolds, had been identified as a paedophile long before being appointed to the village I grew up in.  Proof of the efficacy of canon law.

Geoffrey Robertson has written a powerful indictment of the Church’s policy of obfuscation, outlining a series of legal arguments that define the case against the institution and the flimsy pretexts of its defence.

There is a more radical way of thinking about war: in merely formal terms, in terms of internal consistency, by reflecting on its conditions of possibility – the conclusion being that you cannot make war because the existence of a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration, allied to the nature of the new technologies of war, has made war impossible and irrational. War is in contradiction with the very reasons for which it is waged.

If you have ever read The Name of the Rose perhaps you remember the passage when the character William of Baskerville explains to his young companion that the Latin language only survived the Dark Ages courtesy of Irish monks, who preserved what they could of it, along with numerous religious texts. Of course they could not retain the entirety of the language itself, so Umberto Eco alleges, the Irish invented it.

My people made up Latin. I do not care if that is not true – I love the anecdote.

This collection of essays represents some of Eco’s philosophical work, as opposed to his scholarly fictional novels. The theme of the pieces is broadly moralistic, with discussions of the 1991 Gulf War, the Italian press and a definition of fascism, taken from a speech given to an audience at Columbia University on 25 April 1995.

There is also an exchange with a Jesuit cardinal on the nature of God that draws heavily on Eco’s own personal reflections on religion. Eco’s warm and quizzical tone in the letter reveals a man more interested in the flow of the debate, than in achieving victory. While he has broken from his Catholic faith, he admits to still experiencing a shock of blasphemy when he witnesses a failure to abide by the strictures of faith in others. This is an admission of how much his Christian background informs his worldview, regardless of his own development as a thinker. He proposes to his correspondent Carlo Mario Martini a thought experiment. What if an alien species were to observe the human race arrive at the creation of a fictional Jesus Christ and live according to principals of compassion and love on the basis of that conception. Would that not justify the role of religion, despite existing in a universe that was an ‘accident’, of creation without any divine presence?

His assessment of the Italian media points out that politics and television have developed an increasingly close relationship, where the pursuit of soundbites and closely managed personalities have replaced the desire for factual investigation. He traces the emergence of televised media in Italy, its influence on the political arena, with Silvio Berlusconi particular symptomatic of the new order. He even predicts the role the internet could play in individual households, encouraging an insularity in its users that would remove any interest in a broader understanding in current affairs:

But a homemade paper could say only what users are interested in, and would cut them off from a flow of potentially stimulating information, judgements, and alerts; it would rob them of the chance to pick up, leafing through the rest of a conventional newspaper, unexpected or undesired news.

Eco’s assessment of the changing face of war bears almost more relevance today than it did during the 1991 conflict in the Gulf. I am reminded of how when the second invasion of Iraq by allied forces began, all of Bill Hicks’ early nineties material was funny again. His writing on the media proliferation, with managed coverage of the conflict versus the fracturing of war narratives due to multiple sources of media, feels prophetic in the present day era of uncensored video clips on youtube, or the multiplicities of websites with wildly divergent views on the war. Eco’s take on this is far more accessible to a general readership than, say Jean Baudrillard‘s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

His paper on the history of fascism is fascinating in how he defines what Italian fascism was not, drawing once again upon his own childhood growing up in Mussolini‘s Italy. While it shared with other totalitarian systems certain traits, such as the cult-worship of a dictator, Italian fascism, Eco insists, had no distinct philosophy, merely endless triumphalist rhetoric. What he terms Ur-Fascism is in fact a rejection of the values of The Enlightenment, embracing irrationalism.

Eco’s writing is both personable and not overly erudite, edifying the reader, while also charming. A fantastic introduction to the Italian philosopher.


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