I’m a little late getting to this, but I wanted to say a few words about Fernández Martínez v. Spain, the church autonomy case the European Court of Human Rights decided last month. By a vote of 9-8, the court held that Spain did not violate the European Convention on Human Rights when it declined to renew the contract of a public school teacher who had been offering classes in Catholicism.

Because of the close vote, some commentators have expressed worries about the case’s implication for church autonomy in Europe. I think those worries are overstated. The closeness of the vote turns on the peculiarities of the Spanish public school system, in which state employees offer religious instruction. The dissent of the Russian judge does cause concern, however. Judge Dedov’s opinion suggests a bias against Catholicism unlike anything I can remember in a judicial opinion.

In Spain, public schools offer religious instruction at state expense. The teachers are state employees. But the Spanish government has entered into agreements with four religious communities—Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim—which provide that schools will select instructors in those religions from candidates the communities certify as suitable. With respect to classes in Catholicism, the local Catholic bishop must approve instructors. Fernández Martínez lost his job when the local bishop refused to approve him. The bishop withdrew his approval when Fernández Martínez, a Catholic priest who had decided to marry and raise a family, appeared at a public protest in favor of optional clerical celibacy.

Fernández Martínez argued that the refusal to renew his contract violated his right under Article 8 of the Convention “to respect for his private and family life.” The court disagreed. The interference with the claimant’s right was justified in this case, it held. Spain had acted to protect the important principle of church autonomy, specifically, the right of the Catholic Church to designate which people could offer Catholic instruction in the public schools. Although the instructors were state employees, they were also representatives of the Church. It was not unreasonable for the Church to assert that Fernández Martínez’s conduct affected his credibility as a Catholic representative.

All this seems straightforward. So why was the vote so close? The eight dissenting judges expressed some unfortunate skepticism about what they called “absolute” church autonomy. To my mind, though, the key factor seems to have been that Fernández Martínez was a state employee, paid from public funds. As a result, the dissenters believed, the state had an obligation to him independent of the Church’s decision. It “is not the Bishop’s decision that should be scrutinized,” the dissenters wrote, “but the [state’s] reaction to that decision.” For example, the state might have tried to find Fernández Martínez another position that would not involve teaching Catholicism. Instead, the state had simply let him go.

In short, the closeness of the vote reflects the peculiarities of the Spanish system, in which teachers of Catholicism are state employees, rather than the principle of church autonomy itself. (I recognize that the Spanish system may not be so peculiar in the European context, but that’s a subject for another post.) On the other hand, one of the dissents does raise serious concerns. In a personal dissent, which no other member of the court joined, the Russian judge, Dmitry Dedov, argued that mandatory priestly celibacy was itself a human rights violation the court should not tolerate.

Mandatory celibacy has been a “well-known and serious problem” in Catholicism for centuries, Dedov wrote, citing Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. It had caused a great deal of grief and led priests to abuse children “in many countries.” One could not justify holding people to a vow of celibacy, even a voluntary one:

The Convention protects freedom of religion. . . . But it does not entitle religious organizations, even in the name of autonomy, to persecute their members for exercising fundamental human rights. If the Convention system is intended to combat totalitarianism, then there is no reason to tolerate the sort of totalitarianism that can be seen in the present case.

“I believe,” he concluded, “that optional celibacy is the best way out of this problem and that it could also—I hope—serve as a preventive measure against clerical sex abuses of children in the future.”

I suppose Judge Dedov, who attended a Soviet university in the 1980s, is in a position to know something about totalitarianism. But, really, his dissent is an embarrassment. No one asked Judge Dedov for his views on clerical celibacy. The merit of religious doctrine is not a matter for secular human rights judges to address, and certainly not in a simplistic and gratuitously insulting way. (The Thorn Birds? Really?) And to assert, without offering evidence, that Catholicism’s rules on clerical celibacy have themselves caused the sex abuse crisis—a crisis that has, no doubt, many causes—is not what one expects from a judge.

In a human rights court, litigants from religious communities have a right to think the judges will treat them fairly and, to the extent possible, decide cases without bias. Judges are not there to offer musings on comparative religion. Judge Dedov’s dissent suggests he has a personal problem with the Catholic Church. He should take that problem somewhere else.

Articles by Mark Movsesian

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