Liberal Catholics challenge Vatican's role at the UN
The Religion Report, Radio National, Australia
Presenter: John Cleary, June 16, 1999

A liberal Catholic group, Catholics for a Free Choice, lobbies to downgrade the Vatican's unique diplomatic status at the United Nations.

Well now to a campaign by Catholic activists in the United States to downgrade the Vatican's unique status at the United Nations. The Holy See is the only religious body with permanent observer status at the UN. This position has not been seriously challenged since it was granted in 1964, that is until now. Catholics for a Free Choice, an organisation which opposes the church's stance on abortion and family planning, is heading a global campaign for change, on the grounds that religion and the State shouldn't mix. President of Catholics for a Free Choice, Frances Kissling, spoke to Toni Hasssan.

Frances Kissling: The Vatican is considered to be a non-member State permanent observer on exactly the same status as Switzerland, which means that it has a seat in the General Assembly, although it does not vote, and in specialised UN conferences it does have the right to not only fully participate and speak as if it were a country, but also to vote on various documents and to participate fully in the discussion of them.

Toni Hasssan: Now it has its historical roots: the Vatican was a nation in its own right till the mid-19th century.

Frances Kissling: Yes, that's right. And I think that that certainly is the basis on which, one of the bases on which that statehood status is conferred upon actually the Holy See is the entity that holds the Vatican seat.

Toni Hasssan: Are you also concerned that there are no other religious bodies, Christian or otherwise, that have the same privileges at the UN as the Holy See?

Frances Kissling: We think that no religious body should have the privileges that the Vatican has. However in the end we think that the best approach is to consider the United Nations just as a body of countries, not a body that includes both countries and religious institutions. But I think that for us, as we look at the way in which UN politics is developing, that increasingly, the kinds of questions that were not questions when the Vatican first became a member, that is questions around women's rights, around sexuality, around health care, particularly reproductive health and health as it relates to AIDS treatment and prevention, that in fact increasingly the Vatican rather than sitting there as a State is there putting forward the positions of the Roman Catholic Church, and very often these positions are not only sectarianly religious but are actually dangerous to the health of people in the world.

Toni Hasssan: Isn't it a two-edged sword though? Wouldn't you have to cut off the Vatican's ability to have some influence and positive influence as it has had with Castro or Gorbachev, other world leaders, who've actually visited the Pope in the absence of any other diplomatic forum?

Frances Kissling: Well I think that there is nothing that the Vatican does in a positive sense within the United Nations that it could not continue to do if it were merely recognised within the United Nations as a non-governmental organisation. There are other religious leaders who have had influence on peace and justice, I mean one good example of course would be the Dalai Lama who has been a major force for peace. I think that the Catholic Church is strong enough and substantial enough that it could make its contributions as a non-governmental organisation, the same as Anglicans, Episcopalians, Jewish people, have within the UN structure. In fact I think it could actually make a better contribution without pretending to be a State, because then it could fully rely upon its moral authority, its spirituality and its compassion for human beings, and speak from that religious base rather than attempting to speak as a State.

Toni Hasssan: Would Catholics for a Free Choice be waging this campaign if it were not for the Vatican's anti-abortion position?

Frances Kissling: I think probably yes. We have a very strong interest in the organisation, in separation of Church and State, and in that sense we think that this is a matter of principle. And on this issue I think that many of us are very much imbued with the model of church that was put forward by John XXIII in which we looked at the church as a pilgrim institution who is here as a spiritual force and at the service of people and indeed is not a western European government.

Toni Hasssan: Did this campaign catapault for you when the Vatican decided to argue against the use of contraceptives for Kosovo women who'd been raped in the war there?

Frances Kissling: This was a pivotal moment for the campaign. As soon as the Vatican opposed the UN distribution of emergency contraception in Kosovo, our phones started ringing off the hook, and organisations started coming out and speaking against the Vatican status in the UN. It crystallised for people the terrible conflict that occurs when religious teachings such as the Vatican's against contraception, serve as an element of international public policy.

John Cleary: The President of Catholics for a Free Choice, Frances Kissling with Toni Hasssan.

Presenter & Executive Producer: John Cleary

The Religion Report is broadcast Wednesday at 8:30am, repeated at 8:30pm, on Radio National, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network of ideas.