Through an entity called the Holy See, the Roman Catholic church enjoys unique governmental status at the United Nations, where the Holy See is a Non-member State Permanent Observer. While there are numerous UN observers (intergovernmental organizations, liberation movements, and specialized agencies of the UN system), the Holy See and Switzerland are the only two currently holding that status as "states."

The following are facts about the history and reality of the church’s status at the UN.


The Roman Catholic church is a religious society without a political identity under the law.

Vatican City is an independent city-state within Rome that serves as the site of the church’s government and is itself governed by the head of the church, the pope.

The Holy See is the "central government" of the church, and refers to the pope, the Roman Curia, and the College of Cardinals together.1 The Holy See, also called the Apostolic See, refers to the pope’s "authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty" in both "spiritual and temporal governance and guidance" of the church, including Vatican City.2 In this sense, it is the pope’s "see," or diocese (the authority and jurisdiction of a bishop), that includes not just Vatican City but also Rome.

The Holy See holds sovereign authority over Vatican City and carries out international relations on the city-state’s behalf of the Roman Catholic church.3 Through its status as Non-member State Permanent Observer, the Holy See is active in the UN and maintains diplomatic relations with member states.4


The Holy See owes its participation in the UN to the membership of Vatican City in the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which the city-state joined because of its operation of postal and radio services.

Early in its formation, the UN invited the UPU and ITU and their members to attend UN sessions on an ad hoc basis.5 Consequently, the Holy See began attending the General Assembly, the World Health Organization, and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 1951 as an observer. In 1956, the Holy See was elected a member of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and became a full member of the International Atomic Energy Agency.6


In international law, statehood traditionally rests on four criteria: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.7 The UN Charter, while requiring statehood for membership, does not define a "state."

Despite its designation as Non-member "State" Permanent Observer, "the Holy See is not a state."8 It is a religious entity without defined temporal territory. Diplomatically, however, many countries treat the Holy See as a state because of the influence of the pope, as leader of Catholics worldwide.

Unlike the Holy See, Vatican City claims statehood. At less than half a square kilometer and with fewer than 1000 residents—only about half of those being citizens—it is the smallest entity in the world claiming statehood.9


Permanent Observer status is a matter of custom; there is no provision for it in the UN Charter. The custom originated in 1946, when Switzerland named a "permanent observer" to the UN and the UN secretary general accepted this designation.10 To become a Permanent Observer, a state must be a member of at least one specialized agency of the UN system (such as the International Atomic Energy Agency), must be "generally recognized" by UN member states, and must apply to the UN secretary general for the status.11

Permanent Observers cannot vote in the General Assembly, but as a matter of custom they have full access to meetings and documents. Permanent Observers may address the General Assembly and participate in its debates.12


Observers can take part in UN conferences. These conferences are increasingly central to the work of the UN and often determine the allocation of resources. The UN agency organizing each meeting decides what level of participation to allow observers, and non-member states typically are granted full status enjoyed by UN member states, including a vote on any question.

The UN works hard, especially in conferences, to avoid relying upon votes, preferring to operate by consensus in adopting documents such as programs of action by which UN conferences address global issues. The practice of operating by consensus gives states with minority views—even lone dissenters—a stronger voice in proceedings than they would have otherwise.

Additionally, recent General Assembly resolutions have called for all "states" participating in conferences to be accorded "full voting rights."13


Taken together, the above factors have enabled the Holy See to exercise a presence equal to that of any member state—including some power to block consensus—at recent conferences such as the 1992 Conference on the Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro; the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo; the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, in Copenhagen; and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing.


The Holy See claims to speak for the Roman Catholic church. As described by church officials, the Vatican’s role at the UN is unique:

"As a full member of the international community, the Holy See finds itself in a very particular situation, because it is spiritual in nature. Its authority—which is religious and not political—extends over one billion persons scattered throughout the world and belonging to the most diverse ethnic groups and geographic regions. Its strength . . . consists in the respect that its words, its teaching, and its policies enjoy in the conscience of the Catholic world—a respect that is widely shared by many people who do not belong to the Church. The real and only realm of the Holy See is the realm of conscience."14


Archbishop Renato R. Martino, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN—as the ambassador for a Permanent Observer state is called—also speaks of a religious mission. Asked about the Catholic church’s role in the UN, when there is no "voice" for Protestant religion, Islam, or Judaism, Martino quoted a Muslim supporter: '"The Vatican has a right to be present"' partly because, "'if you would ask the Moslem to come forward and speak, we would not know who would be the one to speak,"' whereas there is "one voice" for the Catholic church. Martino added that the Catholic church’s "'one voice is a message of salvation, found in the Scriptures and lived in the tradition of the Church over the centuries. It is an objective truth that remains changeless . . . ."'15


  • In 1995, Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) initiated a petition asking the UN to consider the UN status of the Holy See. Hundreds of NGOs from around the world signed the petition, along with approximately 2,000 individuals who signed the petition at the Fourth World Conference on Women and the NGO Forum.

  • In 1999, CFFC launched The "See Change" Campaign to change the Holy See’s status at the UN. This initiative includes an international postcard campaign to the Secretary-General of the UN and is endorsed by a large coalition of women’s, religious, and reproductive rights organizations.


"Of course the nature and aims of the spiritual mission of the Apostolic See and the Church make their participation in the tasks and activities of the United Nations Organization very different from that of the states, which are communities in the political and temporal sense."

—John Paul II, address to the General Assembly, 1979

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1 The Official Catholic Directory, 1995 (New Providence, NJ: P.J. Kennedy & Sons with R.R. Bowker, 1995), p. xix.
2 The Catholic Encyclopedia, (New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 268; Hyginus Eugene Cardinale, The Holy See and the International Order (Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1976), pp. 257-59.
3 Cardinale, pp. 82-85; Tiyanjana Maluwa, "The Holy See and the concept of international legal personality; some reflections," Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa, Mar. 1986, pp. 24-25.
4 Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, "The Holy See and the United Nations," undated article, in distribution, June 1995.
5 Cardinale, p. 256.
6 Cardinale, p. 233.
7 Cardinale, p. 81; Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, citing Restatement (Third) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States, § 201 (1986).
8 Cardinale, p. 259.
9 William Schabas, "Notes on the Legal Status of the Vatican City and the Holy See," 1994.
10 UN Public Inquiries Unit, "Information on the Status of Permanent Observer Missions to the United Nations," Oct. 1994.
11 "Legal Opinions of the Secretariat of the United Nations," United Nations Juridical Yearbook, 1962, pp. 236-37;
12 United Nations Public Inquiries Unit "Image and Reality," April 1993. United Nations Public Inquiries Unit, Image and Reality: Questions and Answers about the United Nations, How it Works, and Who Pays for It, Apr. 30, 1993.
13 Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (New York), "Church or State? The Holy See at the United Nations," July 3, 1994.
14 Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, June 1995.
15 Dialogue, National Catholic Register, Feb. 5, 1995.


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