The Vatican at the United Nations: A Cause for Concern
Frances Kissling, President, Catholics for a Free Choice
Human Rights Tribune, September 1999

Usually, United Nations proceedings are conducted in an atmosphere with enough diplomatic nicety to put the most afflicted insomniac to sleep. Imagine then reactions when a senior government minister from the British delegation to the Cairo +5 Review accused another delegation of playing a "deeply obstructive role," and of being in an "unholy alliance with reactionary forces." Clare Short, the UK’s international development secretary, accused the Holy See of just that, and of steering a "morally destructive course" that would lead to an increased incidence of illegal abortion, unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.

Importance of Separation of Church & State

Such passionate words illuminate the importance of the separation between church and state. Especially now, when religious fundamentalism threatens pluralism, tolerance and women’s human rights, the UN must maintain a clear separation between religious beliefs and international public policy. Recent efforts, under the banner of The "See Change" Campaign, aim at just that. The postcard campaign to change the Vatican’s status at the UN has brought together non-governmental organizations from every region of the globe.

While advocates of separation of church and state have long understood the inappropriateness of treating the Catholic church as if it were a state, it is only the recent over-reaching of the Vatican in the UN on the critical issues of population, development and reproductive health that have caught the eye of the less observant. Five years ago in Cairo, the world’s nations came together at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development to endorse a 20-year plan for dealing with those crucial and complex issues. In Cairo, delegations crafted a rights-based approach that linked population and development, and put the needs of women and men, rather than demographic targets, at the heart of public policy initiatives.

While the vast majority of nations favoured Cairo’s Programme of Action, a handful of UN member "states" — the Holy See the most voluble among them, joined by a few Muslim-influenced states and several countries with large Catholic populations — endeavoured mightily to block consensus. In the end, these would-be obstructionists had to settle for stating reservations to the final document. After Cairo, however, the Vatican did not simply fold its tent.

Vatican has Both Voice and Vote in UN Conferences

Roman Catholic church leaders have worked in public policy arenas around the world to block implementation of policies they have suspected of expanding access to reproductive health care. And, during recent UN meetings to review progress made on population and development, the Holy See delegation was among the most active.

While permanent observers, such as the Holy See, cannot vote in the General Assembly, in most UN conferences they are granted the full status enjoyed by UN member states, including not only a voice, but also a vote. During debate, the Holy See, alone among the world’s religions, can make as many interventions as a member state.

In recent years, the United Nations has become an important venue for policy discussions on public health issues, including sexuality and reproduction. Yet the church’s religious tenets regarding sexuality and reproduction make it next to impossible for the Holy See to participate in policy debates with the same public health concerns that inform state policy. Instead, the church attempts to conform public policies to its religiously based views. For example, the Vatican opposes the use of condoms to help protect against the transmission of HIV/AIDS and the use of contraception, even for married couples, and refuses to recognize sexuality outside lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. With the Holy See’s rigid insistence on its positions as divine truth — even positions that have been rejected by the majority of Catholics and by every other major world religion — the church’s UN role is increasingly under suspicion as inappropriate and untenable.

Obstructionism from the Holy See

This problem was especially acute at the recent UN meetings of the Cairo +5 process. The Holy See delegation opposed numerous proposals, including calls for the provision of emergency contraception to refugees, the promotion of condoms as protection against HIV/AIDS, the inclusion of sexuality education in school curricula, and the training and equipping of health care workers to ensure that where abortion is legal it is safe and accessible.

The Holy See’s attempts to obstruct general agreement on these matters were joined by only a few countries, principally the Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Argentina, and Guatemala. Notably, however, a number of countries with large Catholic populations, including Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Peru, spoke out in favour of policies that directly contradicted church positions and Holy See interventions.

Non-governmental organizations especially challenged the Vatican. Both the Youth Delegation and a wide coalition of women’s organizations issued open letters questioning Vatican positions in light of the church’s teachings, especially its strong commitment to the poor and marginalized, many of whom are women.

The "See Change" Campaign

The Holy See’s attempts to block consensus fueled an already active campaign by NGOs to change the Vatican’s status at the United Nations. The "See Change" Campaign has been endorsed by hundreds of NGOs, including Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network, National Coalition of American Nuns and the American Humanist Association. With the premise that the Roman Catholic church should participate in the United Nations in the same way as do the world’s other religions — as a non-governmental organization — the campaign calls on the UN Secretary-General to review the church’s current status.

Change is essential. Why should the Vatican be on a par with countries that have a genuine citizenry, women, men, and children who are directly affected by the health care decisions made at the UN? The Vatican, many believe, has gone too far and concrete examples of what can happen when the separation of church and state is violated have captured the imagination of many. The "See Change" Campaign is an effort whose time has truly come.


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