Now you Holy See him, now you don’t...

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Observing the kerfuffle down South about the closure of the Irish Embassy in Vatican City, my old joke came back to mind: Now you Holy See him, now you don’t.

One minute, Benedict XVI is a Head of State, like the emperor Akihito, Bashir Assad or George W. Obama.

Then, in an instant, shazam!, he’s the leader of a religion, on a par with the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Reverend Ron Johnstone.

Maybe he cannot be in two places at the one time, but he can be two personages in the one place.

How come? How did it come about that, uniquely among religious organisations, the Holy See can simultaneously bestride the world of diplomacy and politics?

The explanation commonly given is that the Pope has Head-of-State status in his capacity as ruler of Vatican City, the 108.7-acre independent jurisdiction enclosed within Rome. This is a misconception.

If Vatican City were a State like any other, its internal regime would be a human rights scandal. The State might well be subject to sanctions. It rigidly excludes non-Catholics and women from any formal or influential role in its affairs. The Head of State is chosen in secret by a tiny number of men from an unelected elite. Its laws are not open to democratic scrutiny or contestation. Saudi Arabia, China and, certainly, Iran are beacons of freedom and equality by comparison.

True, the numbers directly affected by this style of governance are small - fewer than 1,000 citizens. Nevertheless, the regime is in clear breach of the standards by which States are generally judged. But the Vatican is never cited for these violations at the UN or when the Pope meets with representatives of other States: one reason being that it’s not Vatican City which is recognised as a State at all but the Holy See, an altogether less corporeal affair.

The Holy See has existed in one form or another since the early days of Christianity, whereas Vatican City came into existence only in 1929, as a result of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Mussolini’s fascist regime. Whatever the confusions in the outside world, the two entities have always made their separate existences plain. They have different official languages - Vatican City Italian, the Holy See Latin - and issue different passports, for example.

The Holy See refers to the global government of the Church - the Pope, the curia, the radiance of cardinals and the bevies of bishops. It has no territorial expression.

One of the advantages of this elusive split personality is that the Church can switch from one alias to the other as needs arise. Responding to attempts by lawyers for victims of clerical child abuse to compel it to answer for its role in facilitating sex criminals who have done a runner from justice, the Church has been able to revert to its status as a State and to claim diplomatic immunity. In the US, Church lawyers cite the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

There are signs, however, that this stratagem might not wash much longer.

In Washington last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Church claiming immunity in the case of John V. Doe versus the Holy See. The ruling was on a matter of procedure, not on substance: but even so, it was a step on the way to removing the protection of the FSIA from the Church.

Among the first to welcome the ruling was attorney Daniel Shea, representing one of three boys who say they were seriously molested by seminarian Juan Carlos Patino-Aragano. The seminarian fled from Texas after being indicted. Shea argued that Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the relevant congregation within the Church, had been involved in “a conspiracy to hide Patino-Aragano’s crimes and to help him escape prosecution.” He quoted Ratzinger’s May 2001 letter to bishops warning that Church investigations of clerical sex abuse were to be reported directly to his office, not to the secular authorities.

The Church argued in reply that Ratzinger/Benedict could not be called to account by US courts because he represented in legal terms not the Church which employed Patino-Aragano but, rather, a State which has diplomatic relations with the US from which flowed an entitlement to immunity and which, anyway, was not Patino-Aragano’s employer.

The Church’s split personality suits its broader ambitions, too. It has used its status at the UN - which it simply assumed and which has never been endorsed by vote of the General Assembly or of any other expression of UN members’ will - to throw its weight around at international gathering like a minor super-power, making common cause with Protestant fundamentalist interests and Islamic States, particularly in relation to women’s rights.

The only sustained challenge to the Church’s devious behaviour appears to come from lay Catholic groups in the US - which tend to be led, interestingly enough, by Irish-Americans.

Meanwhile, the US and Western countries generally have reacted with fury to the acceptance of the representatives of Palestine into UNESCO.

Read more from Eamonn McCann in the Journal on Tuesday