David Quinn’s Ecclesiastical History

The Vincentian educated David Quinn recently wrote on ‘Church history’. The article in question was printed in The Irish Independent on Friday 17th February [link], and part of the ongoing coverage of Ireland’s shuttering of its embassy to the Holy See.

Quinn’s argument is stated as follows:

only someone lacking the faintest knowledge of church history could think such a thing [that the Vatican City is a ‘vanity’] because all down the centuries rulers have sought to bend popes to their will.

I’m an atheist with a research interest in Church history. David runs a Catholic family values think-tank, The Iona Institute, and abhors gay marriage for the purported damage it does to children. Let’s compare expertises: just how good is David Quinn’s ‘faintest knowledge of church history’?

So, we proceed. The errors manifest themselves as soon as the first paragraph:

Many people no longer seem to have a clue why the Catholic Church should also have a state that is called the Holy See. Some of us seem to imagine it is purely for reasons of vanity.

The Catholic Church possesses a state known as the Vatican City State. The Holy See is not a state – it is a sovereign, international legal personage. The Holy See is the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Pope and the Patrimony of Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18 in your Vulgate Bible; but one might also invoke the [faked] Donation of Constantine as popes used to do.)

In the United Nations, as a permanent non-member state observer, the Holy See rejected the suggestion they be seated as ‘The Vatican City State’ because that would ‘unduly stress the temporal aspects of the Pope’s sovereignty.’ [In correspondence with the UN Sec. Gen. U Thant in 1963-4. Cf. cit. in Y. Abdullah (1995) and J. Fantau (2011).*]

As the Church readily admits, then, the Holy See is not dependent on a territorial entity for the acceptance of its sovereignty claims.

Some might comment on the vanity of the Bishop of Rome assuming he’s top dog in Christianity and Jesus Christ’s anointed representative of representatives. The Council of Chalcedon c. AD451 was witness to just such accusations of hubris by rival bishops. Cf. Klaus Schatz, SJ, Papal Primacy: from origins to present (Collegeville MN, 1996).

I, however, have no difficulty in accepting the legal reality which comes to us by way of historical accident. Nice strawman though, Mr. Quinn.

St Peter's Basilica: Image via MorgueFile.com

A portion of Paragraph 3, quickly:

Imagine how much Henry VIII would have loved to force Pope Clement VII to sign his annulment papers.

As a commenter helpfully points out on the Indo website – what about the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Charles V (he who sacked Rome in 1527), pressuring Clement VII to not sign them as Catherine of Aragon was his Aunt? (link) (link) (link)

Henry VIII’s divorce is not really much of a demonstration of papal resolve (it led to the creation of the Church of England in the end: bit of a foreign policy and ecclesiastical disaster.)

Paragraph 4 now:

The reason the Papal States evolved was to try and preserve the independence of popes although even these couldn’t always offer protection because rulers could still invade them if strong enough, as Napoleon did.

Quite uncontroversial here – the Holy Roman Emperors, the occasional Catholic Monarch, and even Muslim Sultanates threatened the independence and land-holding sinecure of the Papacy on numerous occasions. The Leonine walls surrounding the Vatican City today date from their erection against Saracen pirates in the 9th and 10th Centuries AD.

The principle sin of omission here, however, is in the notion of an interminably benighted, persecuted, Papacy.

That’s rather not the case: popes asserted power (both soft and hard varieties) against temporal overlords on seminal occasions. There is, for example, the Investiture Controversy of Henry IV (Holy Roman Emperor) and his meeting with Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1076. Here, Henry begged the Pope’s forgiveness because the German princes were proceeding with coup against him on the pretext that he had been excommunicated.

The Holy Roman Empire’s claims on Italy were never secure again (despite Frederick Barbarossa’s attempts to seize the cities of the peninsula in the late 12th century).

Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch Humanist (and defender of the Church against Martin Luther’s attacks), might also have informed David Quinn about the rapacious ‘warrior pope’ Julius II. Pope Julius maintained an extensive apparatus of state and it was during his tenure at the turn of the 16th century that the Swiss Guard we know today began to be recruited.

Julius (and predecessor Alexander VI) waged a vicious campaign in the Romagna (around modern day Bologna and Forli) to suppress independent papal vassals (and interpose themselves against Milanese, Sforza family, encroachment.)

Erasmus wrote the satirical pamphlet, Julius Excluded from Heaven (1514): describing how Julius’ worldly ways would lead to a comedic confrontation at the gates of heaven with St. Peter.

In the pamphlet, St. Peter remarks  ‘what’s that stink (of sin)?’ and Julius tells Peter that he should move aside and cease mocking superior ‘papal authority’.

The Papal States were restored in their entirety at the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna which undid the Napoleonic conquest [Article 103]. The Papal States did not need to be restored: the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire (1806) was affirmed, after all. So the Pope was certainly not the victim of statist bullies on that occasion.

Compliant Papal sops to Europe’s rulers had included the suppression of the entire Society of Jesus (Jesuits) through the latter half of the 18th and early 19th centuries (later lifted, of course.) Ironically, the Jesuits were unfettered in Protestant nations (such as Prussia) where Papal fiat was not recognised. (see – Christine Vogel, The Suppression of the Society of Jesus; 1758-1773)

Paragraph 5 & 6:

One reason the popes opposed the unification of Italy was because they feared that if the Papal States were destroyed so would their independence. They feared they would be dominated by the new Italian state.

After a standoff lasting several decades, Mussolini agreed to recognise the independence of the Holy See, the successor to the Papal States.

The function of the Papal States, David temporarily seems to grasp, is to act as an assurance of sovereignty – not the statement of sovereignty in itself.

And, again, what he does not tell us is revealing. The Holy See retained diplomatic relations with Catholic (and non-Catholic) countries throughout the ‘papal captivity’ (1870-1929). A law of the Italian Kingdom’s legislature – The Law of Guarantees (1871) – stated that the Pope was to enjoy international relations unmolested by Italy.

The Law of Guarantees was still in effect when Mussolini came to power (1922-3): the Kingdom of Italy at no stage denied the Holy See’s sovereignty claims (merely their territorial ones.)

The popes sulked about this, of course, as they derived their sovereignty under divine right and not laws of the Italian parliament.

Mussolini arguably got an even better deal for Italy when the Pope was bound over to neutrality with respect to international relations in 1929 [Article 24 of the Lateran Treaty]. Dear oh dear.

Paragraph 7:

The alternative to an independent Holy See is a pope who lives in the Italian state and is subject ultimately to the whim of the Italian state and to whatever laws it passes. The possibility of a strongly anti-clerical government being elected in Italy in the future can never be ruled out, nor can the passage of politically correct ‘human rights’ laws such as exist in places like Canada where the simple expression of church teaching on issues like homosexuality could end up being deemed a ‘hate crime’.

The pope already is at the whim of Italian law (the Lateran treaty had to be re-affirmed in 1984 – an anti-clerical Italian government could abrogate the treaty.)

Furthermore, even if Italy did undo the territorial independence of the Holy See (i.e. the Vatican City State), the international legal personality of the Holy See would remain widely recognised. Papal sovereignty thus would remain rooted in the sphere of customary International Law with all its attendant rights and privileges.

In the event of a case in the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice the bets are on the Holy See successfully arguing that the Pope could not be subjected to Italian depredations.

Furthermore, as of yet homophobia is not either a war crimea crime against humanity or an inter-sovereign dispute which the ICJ can provide a remedy to. In short, no need to worry David: the Holy Father can be as homophobic as he likes.

The remainder of the Quinn piece departs from history and diplomacy to cover present-day realities amply covered elsewhere (he praises Baroness Warsi; a recent eulogiser of Britain’s relationship with the Vatican.) Just two points to take up from that lot, if I may:

Paragraph 13:

In fact, the Vatican asked the commission to use the normal diplomatic channels when writing to it and legal advice obtained by our Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed the Vatican was perfectly entitled under international law to do this.

After informing readers in paragraph 12 that the Holy See did not obstruct the Murphy Commission into Child Abuse, he now explains to us why they did the *entirely different thing* of not responding to requests for information (?): because the law was on their side in that instance.

Someone tell David that it being legal don’t make it right.

The penultimate paragraph:

The Holy See may be tiny but under John Paul II it had the power and influence to help bring down European communism, an epochal event.

Convince me that the Soviet Union would not have fallen but for John Paul II. Don’t take it as read. You’ll have difficulty showing this, by the way. If you concede that he was less than instrumental in an ‘epochal event’ then I’m afraid his activities are but an interesting footnote and not a vital explanation for the end of the Cold War.

Same time next week folks (abuses of history in the print media permitting.)

* – these journal articles are behind a paywall – but the Google results page helpfully shows the excerpted text.