Tortured reasoning: the UN case against the Vatican

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 06, 2014

In the Wall Street Journal, two former officials of the US Justice department make a powerful argument against the claim that the Vatican should be held responsible, under the UN Convention against Torture, for sexual abuse by Catholic priests. David Rivken and Lee Casey see the obvious wisdom in the Vatican’s argument that the Holy See exercises legal control only over the tiny territory of the Vatican City-state, and crimes in other countries are the responsibility of the local governments. But there are other important points to be made.

First, while sexual abuse is reprehensible, it isn’t torture, as that term is ordinarily understood. If the UN expands the definition of torture to encompass other forms of cruelty, it could erode support for the existing pact, which is based on an international accord that this one particular form of behavior—torture—should be stopped.

Critics of the Church charge that sexual abuse by priests was widespread because of Catholic teachings and Vatican policies. But the UN would be setting a bold and dangerous precedent if it claimed that religious beliefs promulgated in one place (in this case the Vatican) were the cause of criminal acts in another.

Finally, does the UN want to be in the business of deciding which religious doctrines are acceptable, and which encourage anti-social behavior? (Some people consider circumcision a cruel procedure; would the UN commission entertain a claim that it is torture?) The Center for Reproductive Rights, one of the groups pressing the UN for action against the Vatican, argues that the Church engages in “psychological torture” by banning contraception. Rivlin and Casey observe:

By that preposterous logic, any religious faith—or secular doctrine, for that matter—could be condemned for practicing torture if it seeks to motivate adherents to lead their lives in particular ways.

Which means that, since all religions try to motivate individual behavior, all religions can potentially be classified as forms of torture.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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