"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Who says ecclesiology is just theology?

I've just read that "[a] federal judge in Kentucky has ruled that sex-abuse plaintiffs can proceed with a lawsuit seeking damages from the Vatican." That ruling was made on the ground that "the American bishops were acting as agents or employees of the Holy See when they allowed known abusers to remain in clerical ministry. In his ruling the judge reported that lawyers for the Church had declined to contest that claim. If the Holy See can demonstrate that US bishops are not Vatican employees, he said, the ruling could be reconsidered."

So far, it appears that the plaintiffs' lawyers have successfully argued that, for legal purposes, the Catholic Church is Catholic Church, Inc. This is very bad news for the Vatican. On such an ecclesiology, the bishops are "employees" or "agents" of the Holy See, so that the latter becomes legally liable for the actions or omissions of the former—just as a foreign bank would be liable for fraud committed in the United States by its agents therein. So, in order to defend itself in this suit, lawyers for the Holy See (or perhaps just the U.S. bishops' lawyers, on appeal), would have to argue that the bishops are not "employees" or "agents" of the Holy See. The only way they could plausibly do that, it seems to me, is to present an understanding of Catholic ecclesiology superior to the one implicit in the case being made by the plaintiffs' lawyers.

I think they can and should. But whether they do or not, a lot of money and a dangerous precedent for international relations now seem to be riding on a theological debate conducted before a secular judge. Do any of our lawyers out there have anything to say about that?

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