October 20, 2004

Catholic Jurisprudence v Catholic Law

Michael Williams pronounces the recent Kerry heresy trial developments a low down form of Vatican Double-Talk. He's wrong in this but it's not surprising as the understanding of how, exactly the Church is organized. It's a topic that's ably covered by a recent book, All the Pope's Men, a tome that, among many other public services, notes that left, right, or center, americans simply don't understand the Vatican at least as much as the Vatican doesn't truly understand America and the mutual incomprehension leads to an awful lot of unnecessary error.

The essence of the problem as I see it is that the letter writer seems to be claiming that in US terms he was issuing a parliamentarian's advisory opinion but it was received both as that and also as a judicial document that was on the express route to the Pope's personal desk who is head of legislature, executive, and judiciary in the Catholic world.

Now legislative work deals with general rules. Judicial work deals with individuals. It is legitimate to keep such things separate and when you are writing as a judge to think, act, and write differently than you would as a legislator or executive even without changing your core beliefs one iota. In fact, the US separates these powers out to ensure that in the normal course of business these things never get mixed.

The Catholic Church does not have a separation of powers doctrine. The organ which delegated the writing of this letter does the religious version of legislative work and judicial work. In such a structure, it's not double-talk to insist on knowing which hat you're supposed to be wearing at the moment. For an american unused to the possibility that one person can be have such multiple roles, it is an easy error to either not specify which role is demanded or not insist enough on the point that legitimate confusion results.

In this case, I think that Marc Balestrieri's real mistake was that he thought that it was possible for a letter in such a case to do double duty, to be both judicial and legislative document, fit for trial, and fit for a dissertation. And in a US context, he wouldn't be wrong. A parliamentarian's statement can be submitted at trial to buttress the prosecution. But if the parliamentarian's current job list includes being part of the appeal structure for that very case, it would be highly improper for him to comment. That's why we don't do such things in the US and why we so often piss off the Vatican when we think that they are organized as we are organized.

The fundamental problem is that there is no remedy for a Vatican version of Dredd Scott. The horrible logic of infallibility means that when something is pronounced on infallibly, you can never, ever take it back. To run such an ancient institution infallibly (in the Vatican sense which, again, americans most often don't get) would take a miracle. And that, I guess, is the entire point of the thing. It does take a miracle. Along the way it takes a lot of careful parsing and work to prepare the road for those miracles to continue.

Posted by TMLutas at October 20, 2004 03:49 PM