In the News 2008
Washington Times

U.N. visit highlights the pope’s unique status



Today’s U.N. visit by Pope Benedict XVI underscores the Vatican’s anomalous status in world affairs.

He will be received with even more pomp and protocol than most heads of state, and his address in the U.N. General Assembly chambers is not part of a larger thematic debate.

However, the pope is a religious figure, and the Vatican is not a country.

The Holy See – the government of the Catholic Church – has a unique status within the highly regimented U.N. system; it is the only religious organization recognized as a ” non-member state ” by the U.N. General Assembly.

This designation effectively gives the Catholic Church all the rights and privileges of, say, Brazil or Vietnam or Italy itself, except for a seat on the Security Council and a vote in the General Assembly.

It is assessed a very small share of the U.N. regular operating budget, just under $10,000 a year, and its diplomats have the right to address any U.N. committee meeting, conference or event – access most nongovernmental organizations would kill for.

Unlike other religious organizations, the Holy See is a party to important international conventions, ranging from the protection of diplomats to the rights of children. It can even co-sponsor resolutions and serve on the executive committees of U.N. agencies, funds and programs.

The Holy See – which shares this designation with only one other entity, the Palestinian government – is a far more active participant in U.N. affairs than a great number of nations, many diplomats here acknowledge.

It is particularly active on human rights, freedom of religion, poverty relief and reproductive issues, with diplomats lobbying delegations and helping draft language that they think will not violate Catholic beliefs.

” The Holy See participates in so many negotiations at the U.N. on dozens of subjects and what they bring to the negotiation is a kind of moral authority, ” said Austin Ruse, president of the Washington-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, an NGO that is closely aligned with the Vatican’s positions.

” They don’t bring money or power, they bring moral persuasion, and they are every effective. ”

The General Assembly recognized the Holy See as a permanent observer state in 1964, based in part on the Vatican’s early membership in international organizations that govern the conduct of broadcasters and postal services.

” This was not a privilege we asked for, ” said Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s de facto ambassador to the United Nations. He told The Washington Times that observer status allows the church to participate in discussions as a conscience, without the political, military and economic obligations of full member states.

The Holy See has been practicing a formal diplomacy since the fourth century and currently maintains relations with 176 nations.

The Catholic Church’s super-status is not without controversy, of course.

Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), a progressive Washington-based NGO that campaigns to ease the Vatican’s rules against condoms, abortion and an all-male hierarchy, attempted in 1999 to have the Holy See’s status downgraded to that of an ordinary NGO.

“The Holy See has a right to a voice to the United Nations, but it should only be as loud as other religions, ” said Jon O’Brien, CFFC president. ” It has a special platform and an inappropriate status. ”

This article originally appeared in the 18 April 2008 edition of the Washington Times.

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