Sovereignty Watch: Vatican Refuses Service of Process in Abuse Case

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that the Vatican has refused service of process in a widely-followed priest child abuse case. 

The Vatican has refused service of a federal lawsuit over its handling of the notorious sex offender Father Lawrence Murphy – a move that could delay the Milwaukee lawsuit for months if not years, victims’ advocates said Monday ….  But a California-based lawyer for the Vatican dismissed it as a procedural step in keeping with U.S. laws on diplomatic relations that allow states to choose how to be served in lawsuits.

What’s the diplomatic aspect of this?  The Vatican is a sovereign state, complete with a seat at the UN, diplomatic immunity for its officials, and it benefits from doctrines of foreign sovereign immunity.  The service was attempted in the ordinary way for private parties, through the mail.  With the Vatican having refused service, the plaintiff must now go through the State Department.  This will almost certainly lengthen the time before service is completed.  There is another complicated legal question here as well, as to whether the Vatican is the right party in the lawsuit, or whether instead it should be aimed at one or another legal entities of the Catholic Church in the US responsible for supervision of the priest at issue, and which actually own the assets of the Church in the United States.  For the Catholic Church as for many American religious denominations, the legal and asset ownership structure of the religion across the various congregations, parishes, dioceses, etc., is hugely complicated and tangled. 

The broader question is whether it is justified for the Vatican, alone among religious denominations in the world, also to be a sovereign state.  The argument is that it is simply a historical fact that the Holy See was and is a state, independent of its status as the head of a religious denomination.  If there was a point for a question about its status in the modern world, it was at the point of the formation of the UN, when there was a question of membership criteria for joining.  But even at that point, it was a state, and a state that otherwise met the criteria for membership in the UN. 

In the past, I probably would have said, well, it is not rational or strictly logically justified, but particularly at the UN, many things are simply the result of historical contingency and not worth doing battle merely for the sake of symbolic consistency.  Today, however, one striking aspect of the international system is that states are increasingly reflecting a world in which religion, and particularly Islam, is resurgent.  Resurgent in a particular way – viz., as an identity that is taken by many people as beyond rational discussion as to the content of belief, akin to immutable identity characteristics such as race.  The number of explicitly religiously founded states – the Islamic Republics of X or Y – is rapidly gaining in numbers and in legitimacy as a concept.  Secularism is less a feature of international law and diplomacy than it was, and it is largely in retreat.  So in that sense, the Vatican as sovereign state is a form of back to the future.

I am far from happy about this, because I think it erodes the underlying legitimacy of liberalism.  Liberalism is not necessarily an insistence on affirmative secularism (in, say, the French meaning), but it is about the functional (at least) separation of church and state, the private and the public, as the conditions for religious toleration.  That is rather than the apparently preferred alternative in today’s increasingly religiously-defined international community – “multicultural internationalism” gradually taking over from “liberal internationalism,” and global “communalism.”  Global communalism takes as its aim the (presumably peaceful) coexistence of global religious communities, where religion is taken as the primary identity of individual as well as state.  It thus contrasts with liberalism’s insistence that in the public sphere, at least, religion is not the identity that publicly matters as far as the state is concerned – however important privately to individuals, it is not the identity with which the state is concerned.  That is precisely the sense that is eroding, in my experience, in the so-called international community.

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