Hitchens Strikes Out

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Christopher Hitchens, the controversialist, bon vivant, intellectual and self-appointed Inquisitor of all religions but especially of Holy Mother Church, has come out swinging against Elena Kagan and the Obama administration for taking the side of the Vatican in a law suit that seeks to remove the legal protection the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The Vatican and the Obama administration agree that the Vatican is covered by the act. Hitchens, and the plaintiffs, think it should not be and that American bishops and clergy should be considered personnel of the Vatican. Full disclosure: Mr. Hitchens and I have shared more scotches than I can remember. Our views on many subjects could not be more different, but he has always been very kind to me. More than that, he has never written a boring sentence in his life, and that counts for a lot in my book.

In the course of his article, he takes a half dozen potshots at the Church none of which break any new ground. I would only wish that he, and others in the press, would admit what has been amply demonstrated by now: Whatever problems you have with Pope Benedict XVI, he has been one of the heroes in this whole, ugly sex abuse mess. We now know that he challenged very powerful forces surrounding Pope John Paul II, mostly unsuccessfully, to demand more thorough investigations of allegations regarding Cardinal Groer of Vienna and Father Maciel of the Legionaries of Christ. We know that most of the cases reaching his desk since 2001 were met with swift adjudication. And, we know that as Pope, while others have blamed the media or gays or celibacy for the horror of clerical sex abuse, he has spoken with candor about the sins and crimes of the clergy. So, Hitch, lay off Benedict.

On the issue of the Vatican’s legal status, Hitchens is on to an issue that confuses him and the confusion helped Ronald Reagan succeed in establishing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See in 1985. Ambassadors are not accredited to the Vatican City State, the 103 acres of the west bank of the Tiber, but to the Holy See, that is, to the Pope as the supreme head of the Catholic Church, and the Holy See is quite insistent on this point: Its juridical status in international law derives from its religious claims, not from its territorial claims. Reagan did not emphasize this point for obvious reasons. The Holy See’s practice of sending legates to local councils and synods is usually seen as the beginning of what we now call the international diplomatic corps. Yes, back then, the Pope ruled the Papal States, but his ambassadors were sent in the name of the Holy See to councils that discussed theology and only later to secular rulers. Just so, I actually thought there were significant constitutional issues about the establishing of formal diplomatic relations, even though I do not doubt their usefulness.

Where Hitchens is wrong is in seeing the Church as a kind of international corporation, albeit one devoted to religion rather than to profits. While it is true that the Pope appoints bishops worldwide, once appointed, they govern in their own right. They are not branch managers of Vatican, Inc., but successors of the apostles called both to govern their own particular churches. Yes, they share in the universal governance of the whole Catholic Church, but not in the kind of managerial way we associate with a corporation. Also, and maybe this is just a persona hang-up, but I hate it when people call the Church “international.” The Church is, in the event, older than the nations, so the adjective seems not to fit precisely.

Hitchens is also wrong when he argues that if a theologian strayed, the Vatican, especially Pope Benedict, would be all over him in a heartbeat. Actually, the Vatican would be all over the theologian’s opinions, not the person, and if there was a need to take disciplinary action against a theologian, it would actually come from the local bishop. Yes, the Vatican would have ruled on the theologian’s opinions necessitating the action, but it is the local bishop who removes the mandate to teach in a Catholic institution, not the Pope.

But, the one point in the article that is really beneath Hitchens is his charge of dual loyalty regarding Catholic Supreme Court justices. The charge of dual loyalty has not been raised against Catholics in American politics since Paul Blanshard’s tirades in the 1950s and in some, very few, circles during John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960. The charge against his younger brother, Edward, was that he was not loyal enough to the Vatican! Jews have more frequently, and more viciously, charged with dual loyalties and Mr. Hitchens need only consider the caliber of people who make such charges to re-think leveling them against anyone, anytime.

It is a shame that Mr. Hitchens does not turn his considerable gifts to a more worthy target. I suggest Calvinism.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters