Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Should the Pope be Banned from the UK?

Posted by Ethan Clow on August 19, 2010

One of the on-going discussions that we’ve been having on Radio Freethinker has been the Pope and the recent allegations and revelations about the childhood sexual abuse committed by priests of the Catholic Church. Our latest round of debate has been the Pope’s upcoming visit to the UK. You can listen that episode here.

Back on Episode 57 we discussed whether or not the Pope should be considered a criminal. The origin of the debate was that Pope Benedict, formally Cardinal Ratzinger, was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1982 until becoming pope in 2005. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was the council responsible for dealing with any case relating to misappropriate behaviour of priests. As the man in charge of this group, Ratzinger was in the most potent position to punish or at least stop pedophile priest from harming more children.

Instead, many priests escaped punishment, their crimes were not publicized and in several cases, these pedophiles were able to continue harming children.  How this linked back to Ratzinger is that he was the person directly responsible for investigating these cases and based on several allegations, he failed to do so. He may have even been directly responsible for allowing a priest to escape punishment. As in the case of Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy who allegedly molested over 200 boys while serving at a school for the deaf in the U.S.

In September the Pope will be visiting the UK which is the subject of intense debate. People in the UK and many outside it are wondering why the British government is rolling out the red carpet for the Pope when he in the middle of a storming controversy over the abuse of children the world over.

A lot of people and a number of organizations in the UK are doing the best they can to have the visit cancelled or even have the Pope arrested upon arrival.

Why would someone want to ban the Pope? There are lots of reasons why someone might want to keep the Pope out of your country:

–          Pope Benedict opposes women’s ordination (a misogynist position to take)

–          The Pope says artificial contraception is a sin (how unfortunate for those who wish to have children but can’t do to medical reasons)

–          The Pope rejects potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research (Since he’s not a scientist one wonders on what ground he could object)

–          Benedict XVI has denounced the use of condoms, even to stop the spread of HIV. He has also claimed that condom usage may “increase” the rate of HIV infection (Does he have any scientific evidence to back up his claim?)

–          In 1992, When he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he authored a Vatican document that condemned homosexuality as an “objective disorder” and a “strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.” (How does he know homosexuality is evil?)

While these are all intolerant, ill-informed and deplorable views, they are however opinions the Pope is allowed to have. Whether or not he should be allowed to state these as facts is another question. However it would seem a violation of freedom of speech to ban someone from coming to a country because they hold vile opinions. The Pope is representing some of the worst views our civilization has held, rather than ban him though, a stronger message, embracing the notions of free speech and open discourse, would be to voice one’s objection to these draconian ideas.

If the Pope is going to be banned, we’ll need a different set of reasons than what he says.

Money is a good place to start.

The UK tax payer is paying for the visit, a visit that will cost around 24 million pounds. About 12 million will be paid by the British government. Not only is the Pope’s visit a “state visit” (he is the head-of-state of the Vatican) but it’s also a faith based visit with lots of religious activities planned. Surely the UK tax payer can expect assurances that public money will not be used to advance a religion that many of them don’t ascribe too.

Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols addressed that point,

“I would like to stress from our point of view that not a penny is expected from public funds for those aspects of the visit which are an expression simply of the Catholic faith.”

Economics aside, is the Pope a criminal?

This is the huge issue. If the British people are being asked to pay 12 million of tax dollars on a diplomatic visit by a head-of-state, they deserve to know if that head of state is guilty of criminal charges.

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been spearheading an attempt to have criminal charges placed on Ratzinger. Hitchens wrote in a recent article in Free Inquiry (Vol. 30 No. 5) that the Vatican announced that any legal action against the Pope will result in a claim of “sovereign immunity.”

In the research I did, I could not find a definitive answer to whether a claim of “sovereign immunity” would hold up. Hitchens doesn’t consider the treaty that created the Holy See legitimate, which is probably not a widely held belief, however some sources indicate that “sovereign immunity” can only protect head of states from other nations courts, but not international courts. While other sources say that the only way to gain true diplomatic immunity is to have confirmed by the UN.

Part of the difficulty is knowing what exactly Ratzinger is the head of state of, The Vatican, or Vatican-City is sometimes thought of as a sovereign state, created by a treaty between the Vatican and Mussolini in the Treaty of Lateran. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, two law professors evaluated the Vatican’s claim to statehood based on four criteria in international law. They argue that it has neither significant territory nor a permanent population. It has a functioning government, but no justice or education system, and only ceremonial defence. As to the fourth criterion, an ability to engage in international relations, the authors write this is “decided by whether other states treat it like one.” See the National Post article for more details.

The Pope is considered the head of state of the Holy See, which encompasses all of Catholicism. Presumably, that includes Vatican City.

From my visit to Vatican City

By most legal definitions of what states are, neither Vatican City nor the Holy See qualify. However, for some reason, they both seem to have a separate and distinct legal status as independent states.

Ultimately I think we need to ask ourselves a few questions. Should the main goal of all this be to figure out this complicated mess of international law and treaties, trying to define what the Pope can legally be charged with, or should this be more of a symbolic effort to embarrass the UK into taking a concrete stand on spending tax payer money on a religious figure who not only could be the subject of criminal investigation, but also considered a perpetrator of crimes against humanity?

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