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Religious Extremism Cloaked in Diplomacy

The Holy See at the United Nations

Over the last 20 years, the Holy See has played an increasingly destructive role at the United Nations. Diplomats, policymakers and advocates alike have drawn attention to this role, but no solution has been forthcoming. The tension arises from the Holy See’s claim to statehood, which grants it special status at the UN, and its dogmatic views on the provision of reproductive healthcare services and the family—views that place it squarely in the way of policymakers who wish to guarantee rights and provide services to people around the world. While the debate about the Holy See’s status at the UN is not new, a resolution is available to those with the political and diplomatic will to seek it.


Legal scholars have long attempted to answer the “Roman Question”—what to do about the Holy See, a Janus-faced creature with one profile as religious authority and a second as secular power. The intractable nature of this discussion has kept the Holy See exactly where it is—comfortably ensnaring diplomats in loopholes while wielding an unjust and sometimes harmful influence on the international stage.

The Holy See’s impact has been most painfully felt in the area of reproductive health, where it has used its prestige and resources to stymie attempts at the United Nations, state and local levels to provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare services. Often cloaked in language that seems to respect women’s needs, these obstruction tactics accomplish the exact opposite—without access to abortion, contraception and other basic services people die, and value systems that undermine women’s well-being are fostered. Policy resolutions that have been weakened by the Holy See’s objections flow into other legislative bodies as well. Dana Rosemary Scallon, a former member of the European Parliament, said in 2002 that the EU adopted language about reproductive health that made no reference to abor¬tion because of the UN Programme of Action the Holy See helped shape in 1994.

The Papal See…and then the Holy See

The papacy has long had to defend its temporal and religious nature. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it was Pope Leo IX who started in 1054 the practice of referring to the Donation of Constantine as evidence for the dual nature of the papacy. Although this bequest in which the Emperor Constantine I transferred the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope was unmasked as a forgery in the 15th vying for the throne of St. Peter as others did for any throne in Europe. Warrior popes—which should be an oxymoron— were embroiled in the wars of the day and played a significant role in the bloody Crusades. In 1095, Pope Urban II used his influence to enlist most of Western Europe in a war to capture the Holy Land that would bring bloodshed to every region that stood in the way. And historian Steven Runciman said there “never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade,” instigated by Pope Innocent III in 1202.

French writer Edmond About spent some time observing the curious workings of the Papal States for his 1859 book The Roman Question. He described a pope who, though “not an evil-disposed man,” presided over a territory where the educational system was poor; the force of law practically dysfunctional; the tax system in disarray; and whose inhabitants were “all crying out loudly against him.” About traced this situation to the odd social structure where “the legislative, executive, and judicial powers are united, confounded and jumbled together in one and agreement established the Holy See within the area of Vatican City, which, as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan remarked recently, is only “about the size of an 18-hole golf course”—and that was an exaggeration.

Over the next several decades, the Holy See began participating in international organizations such as the World Health Organization and the International Telecommunication Union, but its most significant move came when it joined the UN as a Nonmember State Permanent Observer in 1964. This rarely used designation it once shared only with Switzerland, which became a full member in 2002. No other religion is situated at this elevated status, which grants the Holy See much more direct access to UN proceedings than other religions participating as nongovernmental organizations. Since 2004, the Holy See has had some of the privileges of a member state at the UN, such as being able to speak, reply and circulate documents in the General Assembly.

Though today the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission website lists diplomatic relations going back to the 15th century, whether the various incarnations of the Papal States are the same “Holy See” that claims to be a state now is highly doubtful. After all, the modern concept of a state is relatively recent— evolving alongside the Renaissance out of feudalism—and by no means static. “New” states can spring up after the withdrawal of colonial powers. What exactly makes a state a state?

A State is as a State Does

Pope Benedict at the UNThe two most common definitions of statehood have nothing to do with history, but look at either what attributes a state has, or diplomatic recognition by other states. According to the criteria from the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, an entity is a state if it has: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with the other states. While the Holy See conducts diplomatic relations and provides official leadership, it is 108.7-acre Vatican City that possesses a small territory and an even smaller population. Many residents never obtain citizenship, and those that do have their citizenship revoked upon termination of their employment.

Thus, the Holy See’s status in the international arena is completely reliant upon the constitutive model of statehood—the diplomatic recognition awarded by other states. In 1964 UN Secretary-General U Thant based his decision to allow the Holy See’s entrance as a permanent observer on the fact that it enjoyed diplomatic recognition by most UN member states. As powerful as it is, diplomatic recognition can be revoked in certain situations: many countries withdrew recognition from South Africa towards the end of the apartheid era. Countries have also unilaterally granted diplomatic recognition to emerging nations, a s Germany d id to Croatia in 1991.

Accepting that the Holy See is a state brings with it certain expectations. According to Martin Dixon’s Textbook on International Law, “States are legal equals and the legal system which regulates their actions inter se must reflect this.” One of the United Nations’ foundational principles, the Rule of Law, demands that all states are accountable to the same laws and human rights norms. Also explained as the “avoidance of arbitrariness,” the Rule of Law is important enough to the United Nations that it is embedded in the UN Charter. In other words, states around the world should all follow the same rules when dealing with each other and at the UN, because they are all basically the same.

At the United Nations, however, the Holy See has cultivated itself as a class apart. It signs treaties as a state, but with numerous caveats about its self-styled “peculiar” kind of state. What such a highly qualified signature actually means became clear when the Holy See signed on to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, warning that it did “not intend to prescind in any way from its specific mission which is of a religious and moral character.” Subsequently, the Holy See did not submit a mandatory progress report due on the Rights of the Child in 1997, and although it was supposed to be released last year, the document is now 15 years late.

Nevertheless, the Holy See does ostensibly agree that responsibility is part of what keeps the whole international mechanism going. At an address to the General Assembly in October 2008, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Celestino Migliore said “state responsibility” and the “responsibility to protect” might be an “essential aspect of the exercise of sovereignty at the national and international levels.”

The crucial difference is that, unlike other UN actors, the Holy See has a ready exit if it is called to account: it can face its critics as a religion. Supporting freedom of religion is one of the UN’s basic tenets, so when Holy See representatives speak about their divine mission or unique grasp of “natural law” it’s like dividing by zero. This gambit short-circuits the usual back-and-forth of diplomacy and lets the Holy See claim almost anything to be true. The diplomatic finesse employed by other UN actors is a poor match for the Holy See’s tendency to sketch out doctrinal stances with broad strokes. How is an organization that protects religion to counter the Holy See’s invocation of the Book of Genesis in its reproductive health policy: “If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”?

And things don’t add up on other levels beyond the rhetorical. All member states have a definite population, but when the Holy See decides to speak as a religion, its numbers jump from 1,000 Vatican City residents to 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. This creative mathematics is impractical. Which U N representative truly reflects the will of the people—the national ambassadors, or the Holy See? When these two voices claim to speak for women’s needs, they often cancel each other out. Where the 1995 Beijing Declaration pledged to ensure the rights of women and girls as “inalienable,” the Holy See rejected this very premise, saying, “Surely this international gathering could have done more for women and girls than to leave them alone with their rights!”

The Holy See in Action: Doctrine and Division

The Holy See goes to great lengths to insert itself into UN processes dealing with reproductive health precisely so that women are not left alone with these basic rights. In 1994 the Vatican sent special envoys to Tehran and Tripoli to drum up support for the Holy See’s planned anti-reproductive rights stance at the forthcoming International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo—a collaboration with radical regimes that Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland likened to “sup[ping] with the devil.” Pope John Paul II also sent letters to every head of state worldwide warning that the wrong policy decisions at the conference could bring about an impending “moral decline resulting in a serious setback for humanity.”

A similarly focused approach characterizes the Holy See’s behavior at international conferences, where a painstakingly constructed consensus can be shaken by those inclined to do so. At one such conference, Holy See delegate John Klink spoke five times in an hour to object to confidential sex counseling for adolescents, and the final document had a narrower view of women’s reproductive choice as a result. The Holy See’s many objections at Cairo delayed the conference for a full week in order to exclude abortion from the definition of “reproductive health.” Instead of a commitment to safe abortion access for all women, the resulting Programme of Action merely stated, “In circumstances in which abortion is not against the law, such abortion should be safe.”

Women who happen to live in countries where abortion is illegal are not the only ones the Holy See has failed to advo¬cate for at the United Nations. Representatives have repeatedly fought against comprehensive contraception access. The Holy See declared in 1989 that it “interprets the phrase ‘Family planning education and services’ … to mean only those methods of family planning which it considers morally acceptable, that is, the natural methods of family planning.” In a 2011 statement on the “Women, the Girl Child and HIV/AIDS” resolution, the Holy See further clarified its position: “Regarding the term ‘family planning’ the Holy See in no way endorses contraception or the use of condoms.”

The fact that these are unpopular opinions doesn’t stop them from making an impact. When the Holy See objected in 1999 to the UN’s provision of emergency contraception to rape victims in Kosovo, there was an international outcry. Reflecting in 2008 on the early years of the UN aids response, Adrienne Germain, former president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, said, “I remember when people literally gasped when the Holy See said no condoms for AIDS. It got to the point where the member nations said if they didn’t stop obstructing on condom access at these meetings, they should leave.” The Holy See’s extreme stances distracted from the issues at hand—women living in a war zone and the spread of a deadly epidemic.

Holy See statements about reproductive health are rife with pseudoscience, such as claims that a rights-based reproductive health model turns women into victims, or that abortion has been documented to harm a woman’s mental health. Faced with allegations like these, other UN actors must choose between refuting each and every claim or moving forward. As a result, falsehoods like “as a matter of scientific fact, a new human life begins at conception,” were entered in the minutes of a 2011 General Assembly session.

A Call for Responsibility

The word “responsibility” appears frequently in Holy See statements, particularly related to family planning. Ironically, the Holy See sets itself up to define what “responsible sexuality” means for individuals, but it has not yet defined what its own responsibilities are. The very lack of structure inherent in its “peculiar” nature gives the sense that it can duck from one side of the statehood line to the other, as it sees fit, with the expectations in either case ultimately less demanding for the Holy See.

This has international law repercussions beyond the United Nations. In the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis, legal systems all over the world have come knocking at one door—trying to prosecute the Vatican as a religious organization. But the Holy See has answered at its other door with arguments jealously defending its sovereign immunity as a state. So far only one case has breached this defense—a UK High Court ruled in 2011 that the Portsmouth Diocese “may be vicariously liable” for an abuser priest. But the knocks will continue.

The Holy See must also constantly defend its unique status at the United Nations, but in addition to its trump card—the Janus-headed king up its sleeve—its diplomatic savvy is undeniable. After all, it took four prisoner popes to do it, but eventually the Vatican wore down Italy into giving it back a slice of its old territory. At the UN, the Holy See’s representatives have deftly exploited confusion about its statehood, but the answer to the Roman Question doesn’t lie in a tangled history or a spiritual-religious hybrid that trips up existing legal frameworks. The Holy See doesn’t act like a state, or possess the qualities of a state, so it is not a state. Only a web of diplomatic relations keeps the Holy See in its current position at the UN, and those threads can be rewoven in another configuration, as they have been for others in the past.

It so happens that many people think the Catholic faith can be defended even better at the UN as an NGO. Imagine what a powerful gesture it would be for the Holy See to voluntarily join the ranks of the other religions as an NGO, to walk away from the never-ending defense of its “peculiar” nature, and concentrate on partnering with other religious leaders to bring solace to a troubled world. As the Irish Times wrote in February, such a move would probably do wonders for the Holy See’s public image, so badly in need of repair after the sexual abuse crisis and the recent clampdown on dissent.

If the Holy See decides to continue to use its diplomatic influence for other goals, everyone—individuals and states—should feel free to ask why. Everyone has the right to question why the Holy See is allowed to stand in the way of the UN’s efforts to advance reproductive health, when the provision of these services could save lives and improve the health and well-being of individuals the world over. Right now, it’s hard to justify Pope Paul VI’s elo-quence before the General Assembly in 1965—when he said that as representative of the Holy See he was at the United Nations as an “expert in humanity.”

Kim Puchir is communications associate for Catholics for Choice and editorial associate for Conscience magazine.
This article is based on a forthcoming publication from Catholics for Choice on the Holy See’s role at the United Nations.