Taking Aim at Holy See: Group Wants UN to its Limit Credentials
Charles W. Bell
New York Daily News, September 4, 1999

Even by the fragmented standards of the United Nations, the Holy See and Switzerland make up an unusual bloc—they are the only two entities that are nonmember states with permanent observer status.

That is, they are recognized as nations with a permanent right to limited UN membership, which, among other things, allows them to speak and vote at certain meetings. But not at the General Assembly.

Now, a wide coalition of mostly women's groups is asking the world organization to reduce that number to one. They want the UN to yank the Holy See's credentials.

(Neither the Holy See nor Switzerland has ever applied to become a full member of the UN, which has 183 members. The Holy See's status became official in 1964, after Pope Paul VI appointed its first UN envoy.)

It's a nasty little brawl, and, on the eve of the opening of the new General Assembly, it's getting nastier.

Behind it is the Vatican's campaign against contraception, abortion and most sex education, and its role in shaping UN policy on those issues.

Leading the campaign to downgrade the Holy See's status—to nongovernmental organization, the lowest of five types of permanent observer—is Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington-based organization opposed to most church rules on sexual issues.

Its challenge hinges on one question: Is the Holy See a church or a state?

"The time has come to challenge the facade of the Vatican as a state," says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

She dismissed the Vatican as 100 acres of office space and tourist attractions, with no women or children as citizens, and wondered why it should play a part in setting policies affecting women and children.

She and other critics contend that, actually, the Holy See is only the Pope, his cardinals and the Vatican departments that run the church.

That, they say, does not make it a nation.

Some critics even cite Oct. 22, the Holy See's official holiday, as proof that it is not a nation. Oct. 22 is the date Pope John Paul was installed in 1978, and critics contend that this only makes it a personal celebration.

The Vatican disagrees, of course. Among other things, it says, it maintains diplomatic ties with 53 countries. It also has its own money, postage stamps, flag, license plates and so on.

Not long ago, visitors to the Catholics for Free Choice Web site were asked, "Should the Vatican (be) expelled from the United Nations?"

The results favored expulsion, 58% to 42%, the organization said, drawing a charge from a Vatican spokesman that the survey was an attempt to silence the Catholic Church.

Critics said this only proved what they had been saying—that there was no difference between the Holy See and the Vatican, and that the UN thus conferred membership on one particular religion.

The Holy See's diplomatic mission in midtown, a few blocks from the UN, is led by Archbishop Renato Martino, who has two official titles: permanent observer and apostolic nuncio (or, papal representative to a specific government and also to churches in his region).

He has avoided public involvement in the dispute.

Kissling said this week that 285 groups from around the world have joined the campaign.

Will it succeed?

"In the long term," she said, "the answer is yes. It's a David and Goliath kind of battle. Is it likely in the next couple of years? No."

The battle heated up five years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, where critics accused the Holy See of disrupting progress on discussions of birth control, sex education and related subjects. Then, this summer at a New York meeting to review results of the Cairo conference, the Holy See again raised objections to several of its proposals.

"The Vatican's positions, sad to say, only increase the suffering of the world's poorest women," says Kissling.

Catholics for a Free Choice, it turns out, also has UN credentials, as a nongovernmental organization. This allows it to address some conferences, to watch the proceedings and to lobby.

And to risk a Vatican counterpunch.

"In 1995, the Vatican challenged our credentials," says Kissling. "A committee was appointed, and after it studied the issue, it dismissed the Vatican complaint."