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Catholics for Choice Statement on the 80th Anniversary of the Lateran Treaty

February 10, 2009

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, issued the following statement to mark the 80th Anniversary of the Lateran treaty between the Vatican and Italy on February 11.

“Eighty years ago, the Holy See and the Italian government signed an agreement that gave legal status to the area we know as Vatican City. Since that time, various popes have expanded the political reach of this tiny area, gaining recognition and influence at the United Nations and other international bodies. The anniversary gives us an opportunity to reconsider the role that the Vatican, or Holy See, plays in the world today, particularly at the UN.

“The Holy See is a Non-member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations. It is the only entity to hold such status since Switzerland became a full member in 2002. This status allows the Holy See to have some state privileges at the UN, such as being able to speak and vote at UN conferences. No other religious body is granted this elevated status; instead other religious bodies participate at the UN as nongovernmental organizations. Worse, the Holy See is represented at these meetings by the hierarchy, whose views are in no way reflective of the views of the one billion-plus Catholics the world over. And when others object to the hierarchy’s policies, the Vatican’s representatives denounce such objections as anti-Catholic or anti-religious.

“It is worth noting that the Holy See’s claims to statehood change depending on the circumstances. In recent years the Holy See has, when convenient, both asserted and renounced its statehood. Recently, and nearly simultaneously, the Holy See claimed statehood to ask for diplomatic immunity from sex abuse cases in the United States while denying statehood to refuse cooperation with the International Criminal Court. Often, when denying its state status, the Holy See instead claims to be a religious institution, accompanied by demands that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protect the actions of the church after claims that members of the hierarchy mismanaged allegations of sexual abuse.

“There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic church has made significant contributions to the well-being of Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world through the provision of many much-needed social services. However, if the UN and other bodies were to review its status as a “state,” there is no suggestion that the unquestioned good works of the Catholic church would stop. In fact, there is the possibility that they would increase, as so many of its officials would be freed from the diplomatic duties they currently perform.

“The Holy See’s opposition to policies that promote reproductive health, including especially its opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, overshadows the good work that many members of the church do. The impact of these policies is enhanced by the political role that the Holy See plays in the world. When the Holy See participates as a state in the international system, religious freedom is endangered, women’s lives are placed at risk and public health efforts are hampered. The time has now come to allow the Holy See’s contradictory position on its own statehood to speak for itself, and for the United Nations and other bodies to start treating the Vatican for what it is: the government of a religious institution.”