Prosecuting the Pope’s butler

What is interesting about the Paolo Gabriele case is that it has put into motion the lay judiciary process of the Vatican State.

When we manage to shake off completely the Church’s long dark shadow over anything that is done in this country, it will not only free Maltese citizens but will also liberate the Maltese Curia itself.
When we manage to shake off completely the Church’s long dark shadow over anything that is done in this country, it will not only free Maltese citizens but will also liberate the Maltese Curia itself.

The trial of Paolo Gabriele, the Pope's former butler, brings up an interesting discussion on a number of very intriguing issues. Gabriele was accused of aggravated theft after having leaked sensitive internal Vatican City administrative documents that revealed fraud and intrigue in the running of the Vatican state. More than one thousand documents - some copies, some originals - were seized from Gabriele's flat by Vatican police and exhibited in the trial.

What immediately struck me was the fact that the trial is a purely secular process in the manner that criminal cases are pursued in any sovereign state, which in this case is the Vatican City. This is not the Catholic Church passing moral judgment on Gabriele's actions but the state of the Vatican City persecuting Gabriele for breaking the state's criminal code. Whether Gabriele will be found guilty as charged is a moot point. Whether he will be sentenced to prison - even though the Vatican City today has no prison - is just grist for the media mill, as much as the speculation that the Pope will pardon Gabriele if he is found guilty.

What is interesting is that this episode has put into motion the lay judiciary process of the Vatican State, something that has not happened for many decades. When Pope John Paul II was shot and critically wounded by Mehmet Ali Ağca in St Peter's Square, Vatican City, in May 1981, it was an Italian Court that tried and sentenced Ali Ağca to life imprisonment. As a matter of fact, he was - much later - pardoned by the Italian president at the request of the same Pope whom he attempted to assassinate.

How come that on that occasion, the Italian State was involved in the prosecution of Ali Ağca while in the current so called 'Vatileaks' case the Italian State was given the short shrift and the Vatican City state is running the show solo?

The official reason, of course, is probably that Gabriele is a citizen of the Vatican City while Ali Ağca was not. But Ağca's crime was carried out within the precincts of the Vatican City and therefore in a location that is within its sovereign jurisdiction; hence the fact that Ağca was not a citizen of the Vatican City is legally and technically irrelevant. The real difference that I can surmise is that the crime with which Paolo Gabriele is accused concerns the nitty-gritty of the internal running of the Vatican City as a State and the Vatican wanted to avoid asking the Italian State to get involved in what is essentially a case concerning the hanging out of the Vatican's dirty clothes.

Whatever it is, the concept of protecting whistleblowers does not seem to be part of the Vatican criminal code! It would be very interesting to learn the Church's official position on the morality of genuine whistleblowers, as Gabriele depicts himself. Even if Gabriele was morally justified to do what he did so as to uncover some funny business going on in the State of the Vatican, he could still be in breach of that State's criminal code.

This means that the Vatican state can find a Vatican City citizen guilty of a crime when this citizen would have done nothing that is essentially morally wrong. I don't find this confusing at all. For me, this situation encapsulates the essence of the separation between Church and State - a situation where the criminal code of the state and the moral code of the Church do not necessarily overlap.

There is a crucially important difference between the sovereign state of the Vatican City and the Catholic Church - a difference that many often overlook. Vatican diplomats are trained to keep this difference always in mind, especially when they are dealing with countries where Catholics are a minority. The confusion starts creeping in when the countries concerned are essentially Catholic countries - by tradition and culture.

What is so intriguing in all this is that in many Catholic countries, such as Malta, the local Catholic Curia does not fully realise the implications of the vital importance of the separation between Church and State for the society we live in. The Maltese Curia's stances on issues such as divorce, cohabitation and IVF have revealed over and over again that it looks at the separation between State and Church as being a very uncomfortable notion, sometimes even refusing to fully accept it in spirit, albeit officially paying lip service to the concept.

To me, what is really confusing is that the local Curia keeps on talking officially in a way that betrays its tacit insistence that the State should impose the morality of the Catholic Church on all its citizens. I can never agree to this, irrespective of whether I freely choose to follow and observe the moral norms expounded by my Catholic religion.

We might still be a long way off but, in the long run, when we manage to shake off completely the Church's long dark shadow over anything that is done in this country, it will not only free Maltese citizens but will also liberate the Maltese Curia itself.

Perhaps some inspiration from the secular tradition of France will help.

Franco's Samson moment

Franco Debono's political career is nearing its pathetic end. He might be planning to have his Samson moment by voting against the government's budget next month, bringing down the temple and ending up irretrievably buried under the debris caused by his action. He will never be heard of again as, unlike Samson's, his name will not become legendary.

Yet, he probably thinks all this will be the heroic fulfillment of the great personal sacrifice he has made to save our democracy. In his attempt to hide the real motivation behind his actions, he will never be freed of his illusions.

Alas, there may be others who might steal Franco's limelight, or some of it. This is patently unfair because, as he would point out, it was only Franco who courageously stood up and fought against all the windmills that he could imagine blotting the landscape.

Way back in 1998, we had a government that lost its parliamentary majority over an issue that concerned a proposed yacht marina. Today, the current administration can lose out on a proposal concerning the management of some car parks.

Mediocrity is the name of the game.


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