Lobby Talk: Targeting Vatican’s U.N. Status
Ron Eckstein
Legal Times, Week of August 16, 1999

Reproductive rights groups have never had to look very far to find adversaries: From local school boards to state legislatures to congressional foes, there are plenty of forces with which they are at odds at any given time.

But a D.C.-based coalition of abortion-rights organizations is campaigning on a new front that at best seems quixotic and at worst risks alienating large numbers of sympathizers.

A collection of more than 250 groups from around the world is lobbying to change the diplomatic rank of the Vatican at the United Nations. They seek to downgrade the Holy See, as the governing body of the Catholic Church is known at the United Nations, from its extraordinary status as a "nonmember state observer" to the more routine level of a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

The coalition’s roster is heavy on women’s health and reproductive rights advocates, but also includes a variety of religious, human rights, and AIDS groups. Through mass mailings, grass-roots organizing, and education efforts, they are striving to persuade world leaders that the Vatican’s stature is undeserved.

In its current capacity, the Holy See may participate in debate at the United Nation’s General Assembly, just like the world body’s 185 member nations, and may vote at its policy-setting international conferences; NGOs may do neither of these things. Coalition members, which vehemently oppose the Vatican’s stances on contraception and abortion, contend that the Church’s observer status affords it undue influence in secular political decisions.

"The time has come to challenge this facade of the Vatican as a state," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, the Washington-based nonprofit organization spearheading what it has dubbed the "See Change" campaign. "Why should an entity that is in essence 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle o Rome, with a citizenry that excludes women and children, have a place at the table where governments set policies? If the Vatican is a state, then EuroDisney deserves a place on the Security Council."

The United Nations recognizes only one other nonmember state observer, Switzerland, alongside its 185 member nations. All other Christian sects, as well as the other major faiths, are represented among the more than 1,500 NGOs recognized by the United Nations. They all can contribute information at U.N. conferences but have no vote on U.N. policy.

So while the See Change advocates a separation of church and state, the central question is whether the Vatican is a state.

The campaign’s supporters argue that an entity must possess four things to be considered a state: a defined territory, a government, the capacity to enter into relations with other states, and a permanent population. While they don’t believe the Vatican truly satisfies any of these criteria, they take particular issue with the last item. Members note that Vatican City, less than half a square kilometer in size, has no permanent citizenry, but rather represents Catholics who are citizens of other countries.

The Holy See’s defenders laugh off assertions that the Vatican is anything but a state.

"The Vatican has been trading diplomats since the fourth century and now has diplomatic relations with 176 member states of the U.N.," counters Austin Ruse, director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a group based in New York City that lobbies the United Nations on abortion and conservative family issues. "The Vatican has territory and represents people all over the world. The Catholic Church and the Holy See speak for Catholicism and nobody else does."

The See Change campaign is urging U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to conduct an official review of the Vatican’s status at the United Nations and, ultimately, to change it. But even supporters acknowledge that the campaign doesn’t have the slightest chance of success. The majority of member states would have to vote for a resolution downgrading the Holy See’s status, something that has never been attempted.

"We have had delegations from other countries say they are glad we are doing this because they couldn’t" Kissling says. "We don’t realistically expect any government to pick a fight with the Pope. What we hope to do is cause some political leaders to speak out on this question and to keep the Vatican in check and be more cautious."

So far, only one public official, British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, has spoken out in support of the campaign.

The Vatican has participated in U.N. activities since the international body was set up in 1945, originally participating in conferences as part of the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunications Union, since it issues stamps and runs a radio station. The United Nations invited the unions and their members to attend sessions on an ad hoc basis, and as a result a Vatican delegation began attending meetings of the General Assembly, the World Health Organization, and other U.N. organizations in 1951 as an observer.

The Vatican’s U.N. delegation officially became known as the Holy See in 1957, and received permanent observer status from Secretary General U Thant in 1964. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II have addressed the General Assembly.

"This is just not the status a religion—and particularly one so out of touch with public sentiment—should hold," Kissling says. "What is the right role for religion in the public policy process?"

The current See Change campaign is the second incarnation of the effort to downgrade the Holy See’s U.N. status. Women’s health organizations first circulated a petition questioning whether the Vatican’s standing was appropriate during the U.N.’s 1995 Beijing conference on women. Kissling said close to 10,000 people signed the petition asking then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to review the Holy See’s status, but the effort waned and ultimately fell by the wayside.

The movement was revived earlier this year at the five-year anniversary of the U.N.’s Cairo conference on population.

"The Vatican was taking high-profile positions and serving as an obstacle to consensus," Kissling says. "There was a lot of pressure on us to do something. We are a Catholic organization that has had a strong role in U.N. conferences in this decade."

The See Change campaign gained momentum during the Kosovo crisis, after the Holy See argued against the distribution of emergency contraception to Kosovo refugees who had been raped. In May, a spokeswoman for the Vatican said the "day-after pill is not permitted by Catholic morality because it is abortive. A murder does not become less grave because of the circumstances in which it takes place." That prompted outrage from family planning and women’s rights advocates; groups fired off news release after news release, calling the Vatican callous and out of touch for making dogma more important than easing human suffering.

Defenders of the Church’s position claimed that it was the other side that had lost perspective.

"Only organizations driven by fanaticism would think [people] being victimized by Slobodan Milosevic are in dire need of condoms," William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said at the time. "What these people need is precisely what Catholic Relief Services offers, namely food, clothing, shelter, and medicinal supplies."

The Kosovo fallout, supporters of the See Change campaign believe, demonstrates precisely why there should be a strict separation between theology and policy at the United Nations.

"The Holy See is the only religious entity in the U.N. as a state. To ensure that the U.N. does not promote one particular religion, entities such as the Roman Catholic Church should be permitted to participate in this forum as nongovernmental organizations, not as nonmember states," says Anika Rahman, director of the international program at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York City.

Donohue doesn’t buy this.

"There are certainly theocratic states other than the Holy See which are members of the General Assembly: England, Sweden, Israel," he says.

And defenders of the Holy See claim that NGO status would not be appropriate.

"NGOs are not related to a specific governance, and they are specific to one issue," explains Bishop James McHugh of Rockville Centre, N.Y., an adjunct member of the Holy See mission to the United Nations. "The Holy See is the governing body of the Catholic Church and is active on all issues."

Of the roughly 250 organizations to endorse the See Change campaign, roughly 60 percent are in North America or Europe, Kissling says. The National Organization for Women and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America are the best known of these.

The campaign itself is a grass-roots education and letter-writing endeavor. Catholics for a Free Choice has sent mailings to its supporters containing a postcard to be sent to Secretary-General Annan. Bulk mailings have been sent to the other organizations to pass on to their supporters. Booths have also been set up at various events, such as concerts, to dispense postcards to the public.

Kissling does not want to speculate on how many postcards have been sent out until the campaign ends, probably in about a year.

There is currently no fund-raising component, with all of the necessary money coming from the capital of Catholics for a Free Choice. The group is paying the salary of one full-time employee and a couple of part-time workers to help out with the See Change campaign.

Paid advertisements are being considered for a number of liberal and women’s magazines, and newspaper ads may coincide with the U.N. General Assembly’s meetings in September. Members of the coalition are starting to work on recruiting high-profile actors, writers, and musicians to become spokespersons for the campaign.

Knowing that the See Change Campaign has almost no chance of success, the Vatican will not launch a counter campaign. Those friendly to the Holy See, however, are ripping into Catholics for a Free Choice.

Bishop McHugh says "at least two committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have made statements opposing Catholics for a Free Choice, calling them a small and radical group which only speaks for itself."

Donohue, of the Catholic League, calls the group "an enemy of the Church" and a "front group for anti-Catholic activists." He says his group may write op-ed pieces for newspapers, but is unlikely to raise money to fight for the Holy See.

"We have learned there isn’t much chance of this happening, so we haven’t put many resources into this," Donohue says.

The Catholic League is asking its 350,000 members to write the United Nations and ask it to revoke the NGO status of Catholics for a Free Choice.

"From its inception, Catholics for a Free Choice has misrepresented itself as a Catholic organization. To be a Catholic and lobby for abortion is as incongruous as it would be for a Catholic to lobby for slavery," Donohue says. "It is time for the U.N. to give Kissling the boot:’

Kissling takes the criticism in stride: "The kind of people who tend to say those types of things are not priests or bishops, they are ultra-conservative Catholic lay people who have no moral authority in the Church to say Who is a Catholic and who is not.