The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State?

To: Members of the Media
January 23, 2001


In recent days around the globe increased scrutiny has been paid to the role the Holy See plays at the United Nations. In November, three Dutch policy makers spoke out in favor of The "See Change" Campaign-the international effort to open a review of the "state" status of the Catholic church at the United Nations. Days later, a senior Italian Member of Parliament followed suit, as did two Belgian MEPs.

Why would politicians, non-governmental organizations and human rights groups voice concern about what appears to be a seemingly benign power force at the United Nations?

The Dutch deputies Lousewies van der Laan, Elly Plooij van Goorsel and Joke Swiebel issued a statement arguing that the Vatican's privileged position at the UN forces the organization into serious policy concessions on women and youth. "The consequences of these concessions are especially visible in poor countries where thousands of women die as a result of illegal abortions, and millions are contaminated by the AIDS virus," they said. In Italy, Marco Pannella, a co-founder of the Radical Party, called for the Vatican's status as a separate country to be abolished.

These comments are part of a quietly growing campaign in which people from every part of the world are beginning to look carefully at the role and position of the Holy See at the United Nations.

We want to share with you the enclosed briefing paper, The Catholic Church at the United Nations, which examines the position of the Holy See at the UN, where it has the status of a Non-member State Permanent Observer.

The evidence presented in this paper raises serious questions about the legitimacy of that status and more importantly raises interesting facts about how that privileged status was obtained.

This paper is produced by The "See Change" Campaign which believes that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world's other religions do-as a non-governmental organization.

Some Basic Questions

1. Why does the Catholic church have this position?

Extensive research into the historical record shows that the Holy See owes its participation in the UN to an accident of history-the membership of Vatican City in the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunication Union. The Vatican is a member of these unions because it owns postal and radio services, and took advantage of invitations for members of these unions to attend early UN meetings. Contrary to some claims, the Holy See was not invited to participate in the UN. It initiated the process to become recognized as a state by international bodies. The Holy See wished to be admitted to the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, and reportedly "regretted its exclusion" due to concerns about its statehood status and the possibility that it would have undue influence on the votes of Catholic member states. In October of 1944, the pope inquired of US Secretary of State Cordell Hull what the conditions of membership would be for the future United Nations. Hull replied that "the Vatican would not be capable of fulfilling all the responsibilities of membership."

2. How does the Vatican use its position at the UN?

The Vatican does a lot of good work at the UN. However, when it comes to women's rights, gay rights, reproductive rights and preventing the spread of AIDS, the Vatican falls back on religious dogma to oppose even the most basic proposals: When women were raped during the conflict in Bosnia, the Vatican used its position at the UN to condemn the provision of emergency contraception. Even though millions in Africa are infected with HIV/AIDS, the Vatican uses its position at the UN to block approval of condoms and safer sex initiatives. Some members of the church hierarchy even tell people that condoms cause AIDS. While women in Latin America die from pregnancy-related complications, the Vatican opposes even the mention of safe abortion, as well as emergency contraception.

3. What has happened in the campaign so far? What does the campaign hope to achieve?

Hundreds of organizations from more than 80 countries and tens of thousands of individuals worldwide have signed on to support the campaign. Advocates of the campaign are driven by many different concerns. Some are outraged that the Catholic church is given preferential treatment at the UN over other religions. Others are concerned about the impact of Vatican policies on poor women and families around the world. Yet more are concerned about the legalities of the situation, the fact that the Vatican claims to represent one billion people around the world whose interests are already represented by their own countries' ambassadors. Whatever their motivations, the campaign has united religious and humanist groups, reproductive rights groups and development groups, from countries in the north and south, rich and poor.

During the past 18 months, policymakers, politicians and activists throughout the world have debated the status of the Roman Catholic church in the UN:

Clare Short, UK secretary of state for International Development, argued that the Catholic church "is playing a deeply obstructive role [at the UN] where, if it had its way, a million people would get the HIV virus, there would be more and more unwanted pregnancies, more and more illegal abortions, more and more mothers dying as a result of illegal abortions."

Pierre Sane, former head of the international human rights organization Amnesty International, spoke about "the unholy alliance formed by the Holy See, Iran, Algeria, Nicaragua, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Pakistan [that] has attempted to hold ransom women's human rights."

The signers in this campaign understand and acknowledge that there are many other serious issues that the UN needs to address. However, women's health and rights are serious issues, people die as result of what does and does not happen in these areas and it is appropriate to question the role of religion in institutions such as the UN. Already the Campaign's leaders note increased awareness of the Holy See's role at the United Nations and its attempts to influence policy as a major campaign achievement-one that is set to remain on the political agenda in months ahead.