An old story is being brought forward as the real reason why Pope Benedict XVI has resigned the papacy. Namely: he is looking for immunity against prosecution for 'crimes against humanity' for his role in covering up rampant sexual abuse of children perpetrated by Catholic clergy. None of this makes much sense, not the least of which is immunity being a reason for abdicating. If immunity was the issue, not abdicating would be the likely solution.
Richard Dawkins tweeted the story sometime last night: 'The Pope seeks immunity: The end of the Vatican could be near'. The title doesn't actually reflect the content. From what, or whom, is the pope seeking immunity? The article is not clear. It focuses in on a single word ('defenseless'), interpreting it as broadly as possible. Defenseless against what? Prying eyes? Over-zealous prosecutors? Well, no one in particular, seems to be a better answer than the one suggested. A man of Benedict XVI's stature, in a position that is an inevitable lightning rod for controversy, will need security. The measure is entirely precautionary.
Reuters indicated last Friday the ICC has declined to pursue charges against the pope ('Pope will have security, immunity by remaining in the Vatican'). Again the title of the article suggests more than the article offers. The steps taken on the pope's behalf can, and no doubt should, be interpreted as nothing more than steps to ensure that an elderly statesman is allowed to retire in peace.
Dawkins and a few conspiratorially-minded friends (for example, here and here), nevertheless, persist in their conviction that a former pope should need security at all is evidence of an admission of guilt. The only new feature to the story, however, is a sensational 'news exclusive' put forward by The International Tribunal into the Crimes of Church and State. Never heard of it? Neither had I. It appears to be the work of one man, Kevin Annett--which means it doesn't (yet) qualify as an international tribunal.
There is, of course, a much longer story that can be told. The Catholic Church is under criticism and pressure from the wider world to bring its internal policies regarding criminal behavior into line with criminal codes in the various jurisdictions within which it resides. Ideally, the Church would report any offender to the public authorities. So if a priest was found abusing a child, that priest would be hustled off to a court appearance, rather than another diocese.
During the Late Medieval Period, very similar tensions arose between the Church and governments native to the places it maintained residence. The Church was the nearest thing to an international body at the time. It maintained its own government and court system. Legal precedence and continuing influence allowed it to keep public lawmakers at bay. So if a priest disrupted the peace in any way, the Church claimed jurisdiction in the matter. The priest usually got off with a light sentence, and was hustled off to some other corner of Germany or Italy or France.
Late Medieval political theologians like Marsilius of Padua worked to regularize questions of legal jurisdiction. Rather than having two communities interacting with each other in their day-to-day affairs, but subjecting themselves to separate legal regimes and systems of government, Marsilius argued that lines between the two had to be drawn in terms of ends appropriate ends of government. Church government was government over the souls of people. Public government was government over the bodies of people, i.e. their mortal affairs like property, commerce, judgment of criminal behavior, and so on.
Should a priest commit a public crime, Marsilius thought the priest should also stand in public court. No special preference for judgment in ecclesiastical court ought to be accorded the clergy. That makes a good deal of sense, Marsilius believed, and accords well with Christ's command to 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is the God's.'
The problem is that Marsilius' writings presage the eventual division of Christendom into Catholic and Protestant parts, which in turn presages the marginalization of the Christian faith in the public life of nations. Marisulius' writing resurface, in fact, just as Henry VIII prepares to nationalize English monasteries and declare himself head of an English Church. The Tudors, it turns out, had PR savvy.
My best guess is that the institutional reformation of the Catholic Church, opening up the ranks of the clergy to public scrutiny, will take a good long time. An meritocratic aristocratic form of government, like the Catholic Church, is also a very conservative form of government. Response to the contingencies of an institutional crises must be negotiated in the context of authority structures that privilege commitment to the established order. Critics of the Catholic Church forget what sort of continuing influence a long communal memory can have on a present state of affairs.
Nor is this necessarily a bad thing; though priorities must be clearly kept in mind. When Caesar has to point out sin in ecclesiastical ranks, there is a problem.