Arresting the Pope


While I absolutely love Richard Dawkins and especially love Christopher Hitchens, I’m not sure whether I think of their recent movement to arrest the pope is brilliant or stupid.

Following the latest news about the pope’s negligence surrounding abuse victims, Hitchens has been especially vocal. I especially loved him on fellow atheist Bill Maher’s show, but he’s also written some stuff for Slate (“Cardinals’ Law: Two questions for the pope” and “The Pope Is Not Above the Law”).

The thing is, as atheists we sometimes forget (maybe?) what an important figure the pope is to religious people (and especially Catholics). It’s not the cardinals who pick the pope — it’s god itself who pushes the cardinals to choose the right person. It’s not like the pope is an everyday person who can break laws. There is even this idea of papal infallibility that essentially gives the pope a free pass from anything he does.

I’m not saying that any of this is right, but to believers it can be. If a secular authority (e.g. British government, American government) were to arrest the pope or charge him for a crime, they would for all intents and purposes be saying that god broke the law. As an atheist (along with Dawkins and Hitchens) I don’t think there is such a thing as a god who could break the law, but that’s not how most of the world sees it.

As an atheist it’s easy to see this as a legal matter where the pope was negligent at best and possibly criminally so… but to anyone who believes in the authority of the pope, I can imagine that this becomes a very religiously existential dilemma. And as we’ve seen time after time, people often chose the insane religious belief when given a choice (gay rights, women’s rights, etc.).

That’s what I’m not sure what’s going on with Dawkins and Hitchens. I know they are smart enough to realize that this is a futile movement and that pushing it might damage atheists even more. But in the end they actually are doing the right thing even if justice isn’t served. I guess my question that I’d love to see one of them answer is: How serious are you about this? My guess is they are doing this more for effect, but Hitchens argues so fervently that I think he actually has some hope this might happen — and if that’s the case it makes me sad that he’ll be disappointed with so-called secular governments again.

So my point: As sympathetic to this idea as I am, I’m also sympathetic to the fact that for believers to actually arrest or charge the pope with a crime would entail a religious crisis as big as anything in recent memory. To arrest the pope would be saying: that the god they believe exists may be wrong about something; or that god doesn’t actually make the pope the pope; or that god is evil; or worse yet for them: that god doesn’t really exist.

One thought on “Arresting the Pope

  1. Well written, Jason, and I think this is an interesting topic. As a (very) ex-Catholic (i.e., agnostic/atheist), I would like to think that if a country/world could put a political leader on trial (Noriega comes to mind), then a religious leader would be fair game. It is no stretch at all to say that the human toll which the pope has been complicit in/overseen as head of the church is far worse than drug trafficking, racketeering, money laundering. But as you say, it would be a far different world than the one we currently live in for that to happen.

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