U.N. experts in Geneva were at it again last week telling the Holy See that Catholic teaching on abortion is a human rights abuse, revealing a chasm between the Church’s understanding of its mission and how U.N. officials perceive it. The episode is reminiscent of a time in history when secular leaders did not accept a separation of Church and State.

The American on the U.N. Committee Against Torture, Felice Gaer, told the Holy See that the Church’s position on abortion was a “concern” and that “women should have a right to choose.” Prohibitions on abortion are a form of torture according to Gaer—who ironically spent a decade on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

An expert from the country of Georgia tried to be nuanced, and accused the Catholic Church of having “publically shamed” women and doctors who commit abortions through excommunication, thereby torturing them.

This unholy reverse inquisition found its match in Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Apostolic Nuncio in Geneva, who responded calmly to his questioners. The experts ended up getting a crash course on the separation of Church and State.

“Abortion is a form of torture,” he said, capitalizing on the silence of the committee on late-term abortions in particular. His tone was abrasive—the only time during his grueling six-hour interrogation. He showed no intention of apologizing for the Church’s solicitude for unborn children, telling the committee that this line of questioning was a “direct violation” of religious freedom (see more here).

Unfortunately, the Archbishop’s enlightening interpretation of the U.N. convention against torture has almost certainly fallen on deaf ears.

The committee may have been hypocritical in its interpretation of the treaty with regards to abortion, but it was downright obnoxious in insisting that the Vatican is responsible of torturing children because of clergy sex abuse. Archbishop Tomasi hinted that this was part of machinations within the United Nations system to silence the Holy See in an interview ahead of the meeting in Geneva. The experts did nothing to dispel that accusation.

I have suggested before that it is precisely the position of the Church on abortion that draws the ire of the U.N.’s social engineers against the Holy See.

While many countries defend their laws protecting unborn children, the Holy See alone among U.N. member and observer states speaks out against abortion as a human rights issue. People that have made sexual autonomy the ultimate end of development efforts and the final goal of human progress cannot tolerate the resounding moral clarity of the Church’s teaching on abortion and accuse the Holy See of being misogynistic. By questioning the Holy See about clergy sex abuse they have reached a new low. This really is the equivalent of kicking someone when they are down.

No Pope has ever sought to escape liability or scrutiny on this issue, Tomasi explained. Benedict XVI and Francis have had no qualms about asking for forgiveness even where they had no responsibility and have reached out to victims with spiritual and other support. Dioceses have gone broke to compensate victims of sex abuse. And the Church has invested millions into child protection policies that are exhaustive, unprecedented, and exhausting even—if you don’t believe Tomasi, ask around your local parish.

The Holy See can do nothing to implement the convention in other countries “outside the jurisdiction of the Vatican city,” Archbishop Tomasi explained to no avail, adding that that the Holy See nonetheless goes above and beyond the call of duty to promote the convention through its “pastoral mission.” The committee did not listen.

They retorted that clergy swear fealty to the Pope, and that every bishop and priest in the world is answerable to the Pope. That is true enough. Therefore, they concluded, the Pope is answerable for any crime they commit. But the Pope only has jurisdiction over priests and bishops when it pertains to spiritual matters. The most he can do is defrock a priest or suspend him. He cannot put anyone in jail for a crime that takes place outside the Vatican City. Even canonical penalties are voluntary, in the sense that the Holy See has no police to enforce canon law.

This is what U.N. experts fail or don’t want to understand. They are unable to distinguish between spiritual and temporal power—there is no separation of Church and State in their worldview, only the State.

Understandably, they don’t get canon law either. Perhaps they should not be faulted for that. It takes a lifetime of training in theology and canon law to begin to understand its complexities. But they may—and indeed should—be faulted for disregarding basic principles of international law.

The Holy See acceded to the torture convention with the written understanding that it applied to the Vatican City State. The experts want to hold the Holy See accountable for the conduct of every priest and bishop in the world, something absurd from the standpoint of common sense and international law alike.

Reservations and understandings to treaties are routine when sovereign states accede to a treaties. The mode of accession to a treaty limits the application of the treaty. This is international law 101. The U.N. experts, many without a legal background, deliberately tried to portray this as a malicious attempt to escape human rights obligations through legal technicalities. The only explanation for this is political.

The experts also took liberties with the convention that fly in the face of any serious legal application of the treaty.

The definition of torture in the torture convention requires action or inaction by a state or state official. Archbishop Tomasi told the committee every priest cannot be considered a state official of the Holy See for purposes of the treaty. But the experts have gone beyond the definition of torture in the treaty on many occasions, and were not about to change their ways on account of a kind and soft-spoken elderly Holy See diplomat, especially on account of a Holy See diplomat.

The committee will publish its comments on the Holy See’s report on compliance with the torture convention by the end of May. It won’t be good for the Holy See. Expect more media coverage.

Stefano Gennarini is the Director of the Center for Legal Studies at the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in New York. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of C-FAM.

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Articles by Stefano Gennarini

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