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All At Sea
EAMONN McCANN wonders why the Catholic Church is represented at the United Nations.
Eamonn McCann, 21 Jul 1999
It was reported a couple of weeks back that the pope wants Vatican diplomats to intervene more decisively in world affairs to ensure that Catholic teaching is given greater weight in decisions on issues to do with human rights, aid programmes and population control.
In the same week, UN officials complained that a Vatican campaign had stymied efforts to fulfill pledges made at Cairo five years ago to reduce the numbers of women dying in childbirth and to improve the reproductive health of young people.
The coincidence of the two reports prompted me to ponder why the Catholic Church has diplomats accredited to various countries and is represented at the United Nations and in a wide range of international bodies. After all, it s a church, not a country. The Protestants, the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, no other religion is involved in global politics in this way.
The common assumption is that the dual remit arises from the status of Vatican City as a State. But it s not as simple as that. Nothing to do with religion ever is.
In fact, it isn t Vatican City which is recognised at the UN and in the chancelleries of the world, but the Holy See, which at first sight is strange. Vatican City may be a State, albeit of the micro variety less than half a square kilometre in area and with fewer than 500 citizens but the Holy See is an altogether more nebulous affair.
Vatican City s statehood derives from the Lateran Treaty of 1929, negotiated between Pius XI and Mussolini. The purpose was to ring-fence Church property and central administration from the secular law of the surrounding society.
The Holy See, on the other hand, defines itself as the supreme organ of both the Catholic church and the Vatican City State . It might be imagined as the apex of a trinity, the micro-State and the institutional church being the two other components. It has no temporal or territorial existence of any kind. Nevertheless, the Holy See is mandated to conduct international relations as the juridical personification of the Church .
In itself, this isn t to be wondered at. Treating abstract constructs as material realities is the stock-in-trade of all religion. What s wonderful is that this arrangement seems fully accepted by governments and international agencies. The Holy See is represented at the UN and maintains diplomatic relations with 157 countries.
The Holy See has a seat at the UN as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer (NMSPO). There is no provision for any such status in the UN Charter. The designation originated in an ad-hoc way in the infancy of the organisation in 1946, to make provision for Switzerland which was affiliated to a number of international bodies being brought within the UN s remit but was prevented by its constitution from taking up full UN membership.
Five years later, in 1951, Pius XII, citing the Vatican City s affiliation to two international bodies, the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunication Union (the city-state ran its own postal service and radio station) claimed a comparable right, and appointed an auxiliary bishop from New York to attend the UN on a part-time basis. The bishop s status was uncertain. UN documents from the time refer to him as the representative of the State of the Vatican City .
By 1964, the presence of the pope s man at UN Plaza had become accepted as custom and practice. Then, Pope Paul VI wrote to Secretary General U Thant, announcing that the Holy See wished to appoint a Permanent Observer on the Swiss model. There was no discussion of the proposal at the General Assembly or in any other UN forum. Within three weeks, U Thant had replied, welcoming the Holy See as the organisation s second NMSPO. Ever since, nominees of the pope have been able to attend and speak, but not to vote, in the General Assembly, and to participate fully in UN-sponsored international bodies.
Thus, the Holy See operates as a member of the World Health Organisation, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency and so forth. It also attends and has played a prominent role in gatherings such as the Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and so on.
Given the UN s propensity to seek consensus rather than majority decisions, the Holy See has been able at assemblies of this sort, frequently in alliance with conservative Latin American and Muslim delegations, to block initiatives which it considers out of line with Catholic teaching. When it has failed, it has then mounted world-wide campaigns against the programmes and initiatives it had failed to defeat.
The Cairo conference, for example, in the face of Holy See-led opposition, launched a Programme of Action to address the critical challenges of interrelationships between population and sustained economic growth in the context of sustainable development . The five years since have been marked by a Vatican-inspired effort to prevent the programme being put into practice.
The Holy See was particularly upset by the Programme s stress on the right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children, and to have the information and means to do so , and by the conference s more explicit call for measures to ensure that women and men have information and access to the widest possible range of safe and effective family planning methods .
In a recent briefing document, the dissident group Catholics for a Free Choice detailed the Church s campaign of obstruction against the recommendations of Cairo.
The campaign was the context for the publication of John Paul s March 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) which condemned not only contraception but the treatment of infertility. The encyclical claimed that unspecified international institutions were engaged in a conspiracy against life .
In June the same year, bishops from Asia and the Middle East forthrightly condemned safe sex education, saying, We insist that the only reliable remedy to the spread of AIDS is fidelity within marriage and chastity outside marriage . They added that periodic abstinence was the only acceptable method of family planning.
Three months later the Brazilian bishops attacked a government health programme involving the use of condoms. Sickness isn t fought by degrading morals and hurling people to hell, they claimed.
In September 1995, the Vatican denounced any focus by UN agencies on the sexual and reproductive health of women and demanded that governments interpret all references in Cairo documents to sexuality to mean sex within marriage.
In March 1996, the church in Brazil rejected a marriage application on the ground that the man was paraplegic and therefore impotent.
In August 1996, Keynan President Daniel Arap Moi responded to pleas from Church leaders and cancelled all sex education in primary schools. Our religions are against this immorality , he explained.
In the same month, the Nicaraguan bishops declared that the country was suffering from anti-reproductive colonialism and that the terms reproductive rights , reproductive health and safe sex really meant abortion, promiscuity and the arbitary use of sex .
In July 1977, the Vatican newspaper, L Osservatore Romano, highlighted and welcomed a report by a consultant in bioethics saying that people with physical or mental disabilities shouldn t have sex. The disabled should collaborate with God to avoid creating further pain and sorrow .
In November 1977, the Holy See s UN deputation protested against the distribution of contraceptives in UN refugee camps.
In April 1998 the New York and Connecticut State Catholic Conferences launched a lobby to dissuade insurance companies from covering health plans which included contraceptive drugs and devices.
In June 1988, the Vatican condemned proposals to include enforced pregnancy in the International Criminal Court s list of war crimes, lest this provide a basis for women raped in wartime to obtain legal abortions.
The examples, chosen from a catalogue at least 20 times as long, have this in common: that they weren t random outbursts by reactionary clerics responding to this or that development; each was an element in a coordinated effort to combat attempts to put the Cairo recommendations into practice.
The Holy See operates in world forums after the manner of a State. But when it doesn t get its own way it self-transubstantiates into a religion and mobilises its agents and adherents across the globe to set the majority decisions which it disapproves of aside.
All of this activity affects the lives and legal rights not only of Catholics but of many millions of people of all religions and none.
What is at stake here is the health, contentment and life expectancy of an entire generation. Every day, 7,000 people under 24 become infected with AIDS; half of all rapes and sexual assaults in the world are inflicted on 15-year-olds and under; complications from pregnancy and childbirth is the most common cause of death among teenage girls.
These are world problems which the Catholic Church doesn t want confronted, other than with piety and prayer-beads.
The cynicism and dishonesty of the deception shouldn t shock us. But we should be shocked that they have been allowed to get away with it for so long. It s time these malevolent illusionists were kicked out of the world bodies they ve conned their way into. We should be shocked that they have been allowed to get away with it for so long. It s time these malevolent illusionists were kicked out of the world bodies they ve conned their way into. n