Why is the Vatican a State?

[This was written a few years ago when the pedophile priest scandal was at its peak.  The scandal seems to have died down, but the questions that were raised have not gone away.]

The central office of the Catholic Church, The Vatican, is considered a nation.  No other religion is accorded this honor.  Why does the Catholic Church deserve such recognition?

This is not a matter of great antiquity or longstanding tradition.  It happened in 1929, less than ninety years ago.  The hallowed figure who bestowed the honor was none other than Benito Mussolini, that fat little fascist Hitler wannabe.  Not exactly a matter of great pride to Catholics, one would think.

Why would a church even want such a thing?  Churches are supposed to be concerned with spiritual matters.  The affairs of state…maintaining diplomatic channels, state visits, etc. would seem to be worldly matters unrelated to the salvation of the flock.

Why is the Catholic Church so special?  Is it recognition of the pivotal role that the Church played in history?  Like the Crusades and the Inquisition?  The persecution of nonbelievers and the grisly auto da fes?  Certainly these are not unique qualifications.  Most religions have had their pogroms, massacres, wars and atrocities.  But that hardly seems to qualify the Church for the special honor of statehood.

Why only the Catholic Church?

In an Op-ed in the Los Angeles Times[1], two UCLA law professors, assert that, despite all the hoopla, the Church “isn’t truly a sovereign nation (and) to allow it to play one on the international stage perverts the meaning of statehood.”

It borders on absurdity to consider a piece of land smaller than the Mall in Washington, DC, with an all-male population of 800, a nation.  It lacks most normal government functions such as administration of justice, education of the young or provisions for national defense.  It even relies on the city of Rome for its water, police and firefighting services.

But, at the moment, it is very convenient for the Pope that the Vatican is considered a nation.  The growing investigation into what he knew and when he knew it with regard to the child abuse scandal is raising the question of Papal liability or even criminality in covering up the actions of pedophile priests.  However, his legal advisors have noted that the Pope cannot be prosecuted or sued in American courts.  They declared that, “The Pope is certainly a head of state, who has the same juridical status as all heads of state,” which grants him immunity from foreign courts.

Should the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, or any other church, be above the law?

Regardless of how that question is answered, a more important question is:  Should the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church hide behind a legal contrivance to avoid taking responsibility for the crimes of his employees, and possibly even his own actions in conspiring to hide those crimes?  He may be able to avoid criminal prosecution, but isn’t it more than a bit hypocritical to preach morality to the flock and then violate that moral code flagrantly?

“Do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the message from the Vatican.

At the risk of belaboring the point, consider this little thought experiment:  If the pedophiles had instead been employees of the ACLU or some other secular organization, what would Catholics, as well as evangelical Protestants, have said about it?  Imagine the torrent of fatuous fulminations that would have resulted, deploring the immorality of nonbelievers, and the “proof” that religion was required to maintain the morality of the people.

[1] http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-raustiala11-2010apr11,0,2243351.story

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