The Pope’s Butler: An Example of Civil Disobedience

Vatican City has its own Julian Assange.

In May 2012, Pope Benedict XVI’s former butler Paolo Gabriele was arrested for stealing and leaking papal documents to the Italian press. Gabriele, considered “an unassuming and devout servant,” professed that his motive was to expose corruption in the church, that the documents he stole contained damning evidence of evil church activities. His trial, currently taking place at the Vatican, is expected to result in a papal pardon.

In light of Philosophy 254’s discussion of civil disobedience, perhaps an analysis of the case could be undertaken to determine its qualification under Rawl’s narrow definition. According to Rawls, an act is considered civil disobedience if it is 1. Contrary to law, 2. Conscientious, 3. Political, 4. Public, and 5. Non-violent.

Gabriele’s actions of theft were sufficient to be considered contrary to law. His act was political in the three qualifications provides. It was justified by its appeal to expose moral corruption and decadence in the Church. The benefit of the act was intended for a wide majority, and especially for constituents of the Catholic Church. And its goal was to reveal the dishonesty of the Catholic Church and generate action to correct this depravity. That he gave the stolen evidence to an Italian journalist who published the book His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI demonstrated his intent to make the material public. And his actions were certainly non-violent. Thus, his act qualifies as civil disobedience in four of five counts.

The act’s conscientiousness, though, is not as obviously conclusive. Included in the Butler’s cache were a cheque for 100,000 euros, a small gold nugget, and a rare old book. Though Gabriele made attempts to explain these findings, one must wonder on whether his actions were for financial gain or out of political conscientiousness. As Rawl states, tax evasion for personal gain is not civil disobedience. Had Gabriele stolen the documents for monetary motivation, his act could not then be considered civil disobedience.

Assuming that Gabriele had committed his actions conscientiously, thereby fulfilling the civil disobedience requirement, one can then turn to whether or not the act was justified. His actions can be considered the last resort, as no other method other than theft could have uncovered the Pope’s confidential documents. It was meant to oppose the moral depravity of the Church (due to the nature of the trial, the exact corruption was not revealed). With the publication of the journalist’s book, the action was likely to succeed. Though perhaps one can argue that not everybody could commit a similar act, the condition states that “others can commit similar acts in similar circumstances.” Anybody in Gabriele’s position could do the same, indeed, he would ostensibly encourage them to do the same.

Thus, if Gabriele had intended his theft and release to be political, then his act was both an example of civil disobedience. And it was justified.


For more information on the case, visit:,0,2729435.story


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s