And Who Are They To Judge The Pope And The Vatican? The United Nations Committee On The Rights Of The Child, That’s Who

And why does a United Nations committee have any authority over the Holy See? Because the Vatican (or the “Holy See”) as a sovereign entity, of its own free will, ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, they subjected themselves to the eventual judgment of the UN Committee charged with monitoring adherence to that international agreement.  Delegates from the Vatican met with committee members publicly in mid-January, and now the Committee has issued recommendations.  The Vatican’s pinched and clipped (from initial official response: sure, we’ll take a look at your recommendations when we have a chance, but we “regret” that you are infringing on our “religious freedom.”  And we are not really in charge of local priests or bishops, anyway (we don’t believe you, said the committee).

The Committee found the Vatican wanting on these (and other) grounds:

1) The Vatican still refuses to acknowledge unreservedly that children are “the subjects of rights” (that is that they have inalienable rights) not conditioned by the compatibility of the UN Convention (which the Vatican ratified in 1990 without anyone threatening them with military invasion) with internal laws or rules of the Vatican State.  This is a key point, because the Vatican seems to still want to have it both ways by being a sovereign city-state, belonging to the international community of nations, and yet hanging on to a shield (canon law) against any moral, let alone legal, accountability.

2) The Vatican, contrary to the non-discrimination provisions of the UN Convention, continues to use the discriminatory expression “illegitimate children” and furthermore continues to contribute to social stigmatizing of and violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender adolescents, as well as children raised by same-sex couples.

3) The Vatican continues to frustrate movement toward equal opportunity for both girls and boys by continuing “to place emphasis on the promotion of complementarity and equality in dignity, two concepts which differ from equality in law and practice provided for in article 2 of the Convention and are often used to justify discriminatory legislation and policies.”  Therefore the Committee “urges the Holy See to adopt a rights-based approach to address discrimination between girls and boys and refrain from using terminology that could challenge equality between girls and boys…[and] remove from Catholic schools textbooks all gender stereotyping which may limit the development of the talents and abilities of boys and girls and undermine their educational and life opportunities.”

4) “The Committee is particularly concerned that in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry.”

5) The Vatican has denigrated the principles of respect for the views of the child, including children’s rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion, and the rights of the child to be heard in relevant legal proceedings.  The Vatican has not cooperated with efforts to address the root causes of anonymous abandonment of children by “providing family planning, reproductive health, as well as adequate counselling and social support,” and has instead condoned a culture of silence and shaming, e.g. the Magdalene laundries of Ireland.  The Vatican has “not taken the necessary measures to protect and insure justice for girls…forced to work in slavery…deprived of their identity…and…imposed with an obligation of silence…no action has been taken…to cooperate with law enforcement authorieties those who were were responsible for the abuse as well as all those who organised and knowingly profited from the girls’ unpaid work.”

6)  The Holy See “still does not consider corporal punishment” and ritual beatings of children, which remain endemic in some Catholic institutions and countries, to be prohibited by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

7) The Vatican, despite claiming to “hold inviolable the dignity and entire person of every child,” has enabled the “vast majority of abusers and almost all those who concealed child sexual abuse to escape judicial proceedings in States where abuses were committed.  Moreover, “due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where such crimes occurred… Reporting to national law enforcement authorities has never been made compulsory.”

8) The Committee “recommends that the Holy See consider seeking expert advice, among others, from the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on violence against children and the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

In sum, the UN Committee is saying that the Catholic Church is still in deep denial and in need of multiple interventions, since it seems unable and unwilling to clean itself up.  The Committee “welcomed” the impending revision of family-related provisions of Catholic canon law (which I agree sends a promising signal) but the overall tone of the report is harsh, judgmental, and bleak, if not completely despairing.  It has already provoked defensive reactions from some Roman Catholics in and out of Rome, who assert, for example, that a) the UN is out of its depth and b) the Church has already made a lot of unacknowledged progress. John L. Allen, now of the Boston Globe, argues in his February 5 column that the UN committee report may prove counterproductive by giving ammunition to those still fighting change.  Perhaps, but one might wish to hold the archbishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church to a higher standard of maturity and humanity than Allen (no doubt through long experience) does. The terse initial response of the Vatican, after reading through the Committee report, seems clueless and quibbling–who really cares about curial protestations of “religious freedom” in light of “the case of a nine-year-old girl in Brazil who underwent an emergency life-saving abortion in 2009 after having been raped by her stepfather”–a case in which the local archbishop “sanctioned the mother of the girl as well as the doctor who performed the abortion, a sanction which was later approved by the head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation of Bishops.”  If you read commentaries claiming that the UN is poking its head where it does not belong by criticizing the official Catholic position on abortion, I would suggest bearing in mind the actual circumstances in Brazil (among other cases) that led the UN committee to urge “the Holy See to review its position on abortion which places obvious risks on the life and health of pregnant girls and to amend Canon 1398 relating to abortion with a view to identifying circumstances under which access to abortion services can be permitted.”  That is not a demand, as the Vatican’s “permanent observer” at the UN in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, asserted today, for a blanket “acceptance of abortion.”

The UN Committee is not infringing on anyone’s religious liberty here: the Vatican is free to listen to the report’s recommendations or not.  Tomasi said that “trying to ask the Holy See to change its teachings is not negotiable.”  But the UN Committee is not negotiating, they are making action recommendations based on their own mandate, influenced by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights drawn up after World War Two, and perhaps by a fashionable cosmopolitanism.  Maybe the Catholic Church should consider incorporating more Enlightenment-based, secular-human-rights-based, and cosmopolitan thinking into its doctrines and canons, especially if that would help minimize future abuses of vulnerable children.  But in any case nobody is taking away Catholic freedoms, including the freedom to repent and change.  When the Vatican replies to the committee report by “reiterat[ing] its commitment to defending and protecting the rights of the child, in line with the principles promoted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child and according to the moral and religious values offered by Catholic doctrine,” but then complains that the Committee has tried to interfere with the Church’s exercise of its religious freedom, one can only wonder, whose freedom really counts here?  And do the “moral and religious values” the Vatican references include any sense of proportion regarding how far short of common decency the Catholic Church fell in its treatment of sexual abuse victims?  If not, if still not, who is really schismatic, heretical, and heathen today?

Pope Francis has been rightly praised for the invitational tone of his papacy, which was certainly a welcome change.  Just by his fresh and improvisational tone, he diverted the eyes of much of the world’s media–and I do not mean to fault him yet for this–from the grim scandals of sexual abuse.  But this UN document is unsparing, even though is not accompanied by any enforcement mechanisms or sanctions (to paraphrase Stalin, the UN committee has no tanks or divisions at their disposal).  It is a message from one “moral high ground” to another. It is unprecedented in reach, in that it is the first overall indictment of the Vatican so far as I know from an agency with a global mandate, based on an international statement of moral principles with which the Vatican voluntarily undertook to comply.  Pope Francis may or may not reply directly to this report (somewhat as the head of Goldman Sachs may or may not deign to reply to papal condemnations of the inequities attendant on globalized finance capitalism). But the moral challenge is there, if he is ready to address it more directly than he yet has.


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