Arrest the Pope?; Hitchens and His Diatribes

Commentators Call Intent Laughable, Publicity Stunt

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By Edward Pentin

VATICAN CITY, APRIL 15, 2010 (Zenit.org).- "This is a bizarre idea to say the least," said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican press office director, when questioned on a plan hatched by atheists to arrest the Pope. "It looks like the intent is to make a public opinion splash."

He was responding to news reports that two prominent British atheists, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, had commissioned a U.N. jurist to arrest Benedict XVI "for crimes against humanity" when he comes to Britain on a State visit in September.

They claimed the Holy Father could be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on media suggestions that he mishandled two cases of clerical pedophilia in the 1990s when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, despite no evidence to indict the Pope, and strenuous denials by the Vatican.

Father Lombardi, who humorously pointed out that it would be "very curious for the Pope to be arrested during a state visit," wasn't the only one to mock the plan. One columnist derided it as "pathologically absurd," and a fair number of atheists commenting on the story online saw it as a cheap publicity stunt and voiced their disapproval. More importantly, legal experts lambasted the jurist -- Australian-born barrister Geoffrey Robertson -- for misrepresenting the statutes of the ICC and the role of the European Court of Human Rights.

Robertson, who is known to have campaigned against the Holy See's permanent observer status at the United Nations, argued in an April 2 blog for The Guardian newspaper that the Vatican is not a state recognized by international law, and that its statehood could be challenged at the European Court of Human Rights. As a head of state, the Pope is immune from prosecution.

Lawyer Neil Addison, director of the Thomas More Legal Centre in England, dismissed Robertson's legal argument as "rubbish." "The legal status of the Vatican as an independent state may be regarded by some as ridiculous and it can be described as anomalous but it is nevertheless a legal fact and it is frankly fatuous for a lawyer to suggest otherwise," he said. "When a lawyer writes an article or blog and invokes the law then people are entitled to assume that they are quoting the law accurately, not just engaging in personal prejudice and polemic masquerading as legal fact."

Addison and James Bogle, a barrister and chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, signed a joint statement April 12 that detailed further flaws in Robertson's argument. "There is not a single criminal offence under British law which could conceivably be alleged against Pope Benedict," they wrote, adding that invoking the name of the ICC was "a serious misrepresentation of the role of that Court" and that the European Court of Human Rights has no power to determine statehood.

They stressed the ICC was created to deal with the "most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole" such as genocide and war crimes, and to assist places where "the rule of law has broken down." Crimes against humanity, they added, only arise "when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack."

They concluded: "There is no foundation for such a claim against the Pope and it is risible."

The statement also made a further serious point: The stunt could incite religious hatred, which is a criminal offence. They warned that vilification of the Pope may ultimately lead to harm against other innocent Catholics. Benedict XVI, they stressed, is entitled to the protection of the law, to be treated as a visiting head of state, "and not to be placed in danger by foolish publicity stunts orchestrated by those with an ulterior motive and ideological agenda."
   
Bogle told ZENIT April 14 that no authorities will take the stunt seriously because "it lacks even the very slightest substance." And he added it was a "matter of embarrassment that a senior British lawyer would want to allow himself to be associated with such a silly idea. But there it is, that's what he's done." Robertson was also criticized by Sir Ivor Roberts, a respected former British diplomat, who called his argument "bogus" in an April 13th article in the London Times.

Dawkins has since distanced himself from the stunt, seeming even to put the blame on Hitchens. He said his intention was merely to encourage a legal challenge to try to prevent the visit rather than to actually arrest the Pope. Hitchens said he hoped the threat of arrest would force the Pope to cancel his visit. One commentator dismissed them both as "professional atheists with books to promote."

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Life and Times of an Atheist

Christopher Hitchens' diatribes and anti-Christian rants are well known.

A British-American journalist and polemicist who once described Blessed Mother Teresa as a fanatic and a fraud, he attracts both respect and contempt for his scathing assaults on an array of contemporary subjects and personalities.

But few people have questioned why he holds such strong views against the Church and religious belief in general. A look at his past, however, offers some clues.  

Hitchens is a former Leninist who describes himself as an atheist, an -- "antitheist" -- and a believer in the philosophical views of the Enlightenment. As a child, he says he was a "navy brat," the son of Royal Navy Commander, who rebelled against his father's conservative attitudes. His mother was of Polish-Jewish descent, a woman of a more liberal and cosmopolitan mind, to whom he was closer.

From the age of seven his parents sent him away to various boarding schools, and from the ages of 13 and 17 he attended a Methodist boarding school in Cambridge. Religion seemed to figure very little, except in a perceived negative sense of obligation and discipline. He went to Oxford University to study philosophy, ending up with a third class degree.

During school and university, Hitchens, a child of the 60s, experienced a life of decadence and immoral behavior, which he struggled to abandon. In a soon-to-be-published autobiography, excerpted recently in the London Times, he describes in some detail what he calls the "sadomasochism" he experienced at school, participation in lewd encounters at a young age with fellow pupils of the same sex, further homosexual encounters at university, and his attraction to Trotskyism.

But perhaps his loathing for Christianity can also be partly attributed to his close relationship with his mother (he was her eldest and, according to him, favored son) and tragic events in 1973.

Aged 24 and working for the New Statesman, a left-wing English magazine, Hitchens discovered that his mother had been having an affair with a "defrocked" Anglican vicar. After hiding the affair for sometime, Yvonne Hitchens suddenly disappeared with her lover without telling her husband. A couple of days later, Hitchens read media reports that she had been found dead in an Athens hotel room along with her lover. The two, it transpired, had died in a suicide pact. The Anglican vicar of Athens conducted their funeral, "making no attempt to disguise his distaste at burying a suicide," according to a May 2008 interview in Prospect magazine.

Hitchens maintains his mother's death hasn't shaped him, nor played a larger significant role in the way he has developed his beliefs and attitudes.

Elsewhere he has spoken of his own "innate" dissenting character, and his aversion to becoming a "party-liner" -- something he learned from his Trotsky days. His polemical writings partly derive from a quote of George Orwell, a favorite author of his, that the prime responsibility of a writer is "being able to tell people what they did not wish to hear."

Yet it helps if the polemics don't backfire. Hitchens was an outspoken advocate of the 2003 Iraq War, which some international lawyers deemed illegal. A case could arguably be made, therefore, to have himself brought to the ICC for war crimes on the grounds of being a leading cheerleader for an illegal war. After all, he now seems to be a keen proselytizer for international law, at least when it suits his ideological goals.

Such a counter approach, along with prayer, is perhaps the most effective method of responding to someone like Christopher Hitchens and his anti-Christian diatribes.

As a political strategist once advised: "While you're explaining, you're losing. The answer is to put the other side into a position to explain. That's the thing."  

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org