Row over birth control fuels attack on Vatican’s UN voice
Richard Reeves
(UK), August 8, 1999

A furious row has broken out in the Catholic Church over the Vatican’s nation status at the UN, with critics accusing the Pope of using the seat to try to block access to contraception for women in developing countries.

After outspoken criticism by Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, who accused the Vatican of being in ‘an unholy alliance with reactionary forces’ over contraceptive rights in poor nations, liberal Catholics have launched a campaign to downgrade the Vatican’s presence in international negotiations.

‘Why should an entity that is in essence 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome with a citizenry that excludes women and children have a place at the table where governments set policies deciding the very survival of women and children?’, said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, which is spearheading the initiative, Seechange. ‘By the standards used to give the Vatican a seat in the General Assembly, Eurodisney deserves a seat on the Security Council.’

Along with Switzerland, the Vatican, under the national title of the Holy See, has permanent observer status at the UN, can comment on resolutions and has voting rights at certain conferences, including those concerned with population issues. But the Holy See also has a powerful influence over predominantly Catholic countries in the developing world, and government sources said Short’s intervention resulted directly from the pleas of health Ministers in some poorer countries for someone to stand up to the Pope.

The spokesman for the Holy See, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, dismissed the campaign 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.’

But Kissling said it was 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 said. ‘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. This United Nations is not the place for that kind of absolutism.’

Supporters of Seechange include more than 100 Catholic organisations, women’s health pressure groups and representatives of other religions. But the Catholic Church in England and Wales defended the status of the Vatican, whose state has a population of less than 1,000. ‘The Vatican is not the only odd state; what about Luxembourg and Andorra? If you question the status of the Vatican, why not those too?’

A spokesperson for the UN headquarters admitted the Vatican’s presence was ‘largely for historical reasons’, but said there were no existing motions to change the Holy See’s status.