Time fast running out for the Vatican as a political power
TP O'Mahony
The Examiner (Cork, Ireland) August 21, 1999

TP O'Mahony on the political and social impact of the Catholic Church in the developing world

THE reiteration by Pope John Paul II of the Catholic Church's official opposition to artificial methods of contraception may no longer impact in any significant way on Catholics in the countries of the developed world, but the church ban continues to have adverse effects in parts of the Third World.

Whether or not local bishops and hierarchies choose to acknowledge it, the fact remains that the Catholic Church has lost the birth control battle in the countries of the western world.

Ever since the publication of Humanae Vitae - Pope Paul VI's highly controversial encyclical on birth control - in 1968, Catholic couples have gone their own way, opting to use the Pill and condoms to plan their families.

They no longer pay any serious attention to church pronouncements seeking to impose the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Officially this is not acknowledged, of course. In the current climate in Rome, any bishop who would have the temerity to say that the church's official line on birth control is honoured more in the breach than in the observance would find himself in trouble.

Yet the experience of millions of ordinary Catholics proves that in this crucial area the church's teaching is simply ignored. And for many couples for whom it might once have been an issue to bring up in the confessional box, it now no longer is.

They are simply getting on with their lives, and making arrangements for their sex lives and families that suit their consciences and circumstances.

Elsewhere though, beyond the confines of the developed world, the Vatican's attitude can still have significant impact, and can sway and influence the policies of governments and other international agencies and organisations in the whole field of family planning and population control. What this means in practice is that the availability of condoms is restricted or forbidden in parts of the world where they are most needed.

What gives the Vatican extra clout on the international front and in the UN context is the fact that it is recognised as a nation-state.

The official designation of this nation-state is the Holy See, but pressure is now building on the UN to review the Vatican's status.

That pressure is coming, in part, from Catholic groups and organisations - such as the Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) group in the USA - who object to this special status and the way it is used by Rome.

"Call it the Holy See, the Vatican, or the Roman Catholic Church, it is still a religion - not a country," says Ms Frances Kissling, president of the CFFC. And support for a change is coming from many quarters, with critics accusing the Pope of using the Holy See's seat in the UN to try to block access to contraception for women in underdeveloped countries. Among those who have raised their voices in protest over the Vatican's role is Claire Short, a member of Tony Blair's Labour government.

Ms Short, who is Secretary of State for International Development, has accused the Vatican of being in "an unholy alliance with reactionary forces" over contraceptive rights in poor nations. As a result of this latest attack and earlier criticism of the Vatican after the Cairo Conference on population and development issues in 1994, liberal Catholic groups have intensified a campaign to downgrade the Vatican's presence in international negotiations.

Although it occupies only 108 acres in the heart of Rome, the Vatican - under the description the Holy See - enjoys statehood status. This entitles it to a seat in the UN General Assembly, and also enables it to maintain a network of ambassadors (called nuncios or legates) and legations around the world.

All of this is a carry-over from the time when the Pope was not only the head of the Catholic Church, but also head of the Papal States - a vast area of central Italy in which the Pope maintained an army and from which he derived huge sums by way of tax revenues.

This situation continued until the 1870s when the Papal States were overrun by forces seeking to unify Italy and create a republic.

An unsettled situation continued until 1929 when the Lateran treaties - concluded by the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and Pope Pius XI - resulted in the creation of what is today known as the Vatican City State (or, for diplomatic and other purposes, the Holy See). Along with Switzerland, the Vatican has permanent observer status at the UN, can comment on resolutions, and has voting rights at certain conferences.

But insofar as it is acting as a country rather than a church, the Vatican is coming in for increasing criticism for its role in the whole area of family planning.

A Washington-based group - Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) - is spearheading a campaign to have the Holy See's status at the United Nations reviewed. CFFC publishes a magazine called Conscience, and its editor, Lisa M. Hisel, says that such a review is overdue.

Ms Frances Kissling, the CFFC president, maintains it is damaging for the Catholic Church, alone among world religions, to have special status at the UN.

"We think the Catholic Church works best when it acts as a religious organisation, not a government," she says.

"The UN is increasingly debating more and more personal matters, such as sexuality, AIDs and contraception, and these are issues on which the Vatican has an absolute stance. The United Nations is not the kind of place for that kind of absolutism."

Ms Kissling is openly critical of the role played by the Vatican in the UN and elsewhere in blocking family planning programmes.

She is particularly scathing about attempts by the Vatican to deny emergency contraception to women who have been raped in war.

"As if things were not grim enough for the Kosovar refugees, officials in the Roman Catholic Church are now trying to deny emergency contraception to women who have been raped in the crisis.

"These church leaders have attempted to justify this position, but their arguments are far from convincing.

"They attempt to deflect criticism by pointing to the many admirable efforts the Vatican makes on the part of all refugees.

"This, however, demonstrates the blind spot most church leaders have when it comes to women.The issue is not about refugees -it is about women."

The spokesman for the Holy See, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, has dismissed the campaign being mounted by CFFC and other groups as a clumsy attempt to silence the Catholic Church. "The Holy See has had both an active and passive right of legation since the 4th century. Its international juridical status is universally recognised."

One thing is certain-any attempt to alter this international status or the Holy See's special status at the United Nations will be fiercely resisted.