The “See Change” Campaign: Facts and Myths

The “See Change” Campaign was initiated by Catholics for a Free Choice in March of 1999 to request a review of the Holy See’s status at the UN as a Non-member State Permanent Observer. Growing from 70 initial endorsers to over 450 organizations worldwide, the campaign has been very successful in focusing international public attention on the unique status held by the Roman Catholic church at the UN. Press in countries from the US to Bangladesh have covered the campaign and individuals from all over the globe have signed postcards to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for a review of the Vatican’s status.

In reaction to the campaign, conservative members of the US Congress in February introduced resolutions commending the Holy See for its contributions to the UN and “objecting to efforts to expel the Holy See from the United Nations.” These resolutions have few sponsors, almost all of whom are anti-choice Republicans. Given the current climate in Congress and the role religion is playing in the presidential campaign, these resolutions may receive more attention and support than they deserve. These resolutions also misconstrue and misstate many aspects of The “See Change” Campaign. This fact sheet will provide accurate information on the campaign, its endorsers and the congressional resolutions.

Myth: The “See Change” Campaign is an extremist effort to expel the Vatican from the UN.

Fact: The “See Change” Campaign is a moderate, measured request that the secretary-general of the UN initiate a review of the unique status that the Roman Catholic church holds within the UN, where it is categorized as a Non-member State Permanent Observer.

Neither in the congressional resolutions, nor in any accompanying materials, do congressional sponsors include The “See Change” Campaign statement. A review of this statement will show that it is a moderate and measured request that the UN secretary-general initiate a review of the unique status that the Roman Catholic church holds within the UN, where, as the Holy See, it is categorized as a Non-member State Permanent Observer. At present, the only other entity with this status is Switzerland, which is undisputedly a state.

The “See Change” Campaign Statement:

“As a UN Non-member State Permanent Observer, the Holy See often enjoys unique status as a voting partner with countries at UN conferences. Granting government privileges to what is in reality a religious body is questionable statecraft. While the Holy See—the government of the Roman Catholic church—has made positive contributions through the United Nations to peace and justice, this should not be used to justify granting the status of a state to a religious institution.”

“Government participation in the UN should be reserved for actual states. The world’s religions have been well represented through non-governmental organizational status. With NGO status, the Roman Catholic church would be able to continue to participate in the UN—like the World Council of Churches—without ambiguity or privilege. We call upon the secretary-general to open an official review of the Holy See’s status at the UN.”

Myth: The “See Change” Campaign is comprised of extremist groups, prochoice groups, some extreme environmental organizations and anti-religious atheist groups.
(Sen. Bob Smith, US Senate, March 1, 2000).

Fact: Approximately 450 non-governmental organizations worldwide have endorsed the “See Change” statement.

In the US this includes major reproductive health organizations such as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL, as well as the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, Republicans for Choice, and the National Association for Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health. Other endorsers include human rights organizations such as the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, whose director Charlotte Bunch was awarded the 1999 Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights by the White House; Equality Now; and the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic and environmental groups such as Women's Environment and Development Organization.

Myth: The “See Change” Campaign is anti-Catholic.

Fact: Absolutely not. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about anti-Catholicism in our country, but The “See Change” Campaign should cause no alarm on that front.

The statement itself acknowledges the positive contributions of the church within the UN: “While the Holy See—the government of the Roman Catholic church—has made positive contributions through the United Nations to peace and justice, this should not be used to justify granting the status of a state to a religious institution.”

Catholic groups are significant participants in the campaign, including Catholics Speak Out/Quixote Center; A Critical Mass: Women Celebrating the Eucharist; Chicago Catholic Women; CORPUS, the National Association for a Married Priesthood; the Loretto Women’s Network, the Sinsinawa Dominican Women’s Network, Women-Church Convergence and the Women’s Ordination Conference. These Catholic groups strongly support the participation of the Catholic church in the UN. They believe, however, that the church’s contribution to social justice is stronger when it acts from its moral and religious vision rather than as a temporal government.

Many other religious groups have also endorsed the campaign, including the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.

Myth: The “See Change” Campaign discriminates against the Catholic church.

Fact: Actually, The “See Change” Campaign calls on the UN to treat all religions equally and fairly.

No other religion is recognized as a state in the UN. All participate as non-governmental organizations. We believe it is discriminatory to all other religions to grant a special and privileged status to the Roman Catholic church.

Myth: The Holy See’s status as a state is uncontroverted both in the UN and in international law.

Fact: Because it is uncertain whether the Holy See or Vatican City can be regarded as a state under international law, the status of the Holy See in the UN is questionable.

According to the internationally accepted Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

The Holy See does not satisfy this definition for a number of reasons: 1) It cannot be said to have a “permanent population” because the Holy See is the governing body of Catholics worldwide and not a territory; 2) For the same reasons, it does not possess a defined territory; 3) It did not, in 1964, have diplomatic relations with a majority of member states in the UN. (As late as 1985, it had diplomatic relations with only 53 countries, and it was not until 1984 that the US established diplomatic relations with the Holy See.); 4) The Holy See is defined by the church as the “supreme organ of government” of the Roman Catholic church. Clearly, a government of a religion cannot be considered a state; and, 5) In the normal course of events, most ordinary state functions within the Vatican are actually carried out by Italy, which provides a police force and punishes crimes committed within Vatican City and maintains the water and railway systems for the area.*

Moreover, the Holy See describes its role in the UN as unique. Pope John Paul II described the Holy See’s role in the UN as “spiritual” and “very different from that of the states, which are communities in the political and temporal sense.”

In a recent speech, Monsignor Celestino Migliore, an official with the Vatican Secretariat of State who is undersecretary for relations with states, said, “For a long time the church was seated at the king’s table. Until the last century it also had a temporal state. Since it has been freed from this ‘ball and chain,’ the church has more easily been able to engage in free reflection upon and be in full support of the promotion of human rights, cultural cooperation, peaceful coexistence, and the primacy of the person and the family over the state organization, and the economic organization of a country according to criteria of equity and of respect for everyone. Thus was born the true and proper social doctrine of the church.”

*Information courtesy of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

Myth: The campaign is motivated by opposition to the Vatican’s positions against reproductive health services and rights.

Fact: While the high-profile opposition of the Vatican to family planning, safe abortion and condoms for AIDS prevention served to alert endorsers to the state question, the fact is that the question of the Holy See’s status within the UN has legal merit.

Either the Vatican is a state or it is not. If it is not a state, it should not be treated by the UN as if it were, whether one agrees or disagrees with its positions. It is not unreasonable to ask the UN to rule on the matter.

However, The “See Change” Campaign has served to highlight the fact that the Holy See takes positions in the UN on areas of reproductive health that are contrary to the positions of the majority of the world’s Catholics. The Holy See also uses its unique position to block consensus on important international public health issues like sexual education to halt the spread of AIDS.

Myth: If the Holy See’s status can be changed, then the status of other states that are “theocracies” can also be challenged.

Fact: The situation of the Holy See is unique. It is the government of a religion. A state that is a theocracy is still a state and meets the international criteria for recognition as a state. The fact that a state may designate one religion as the official religion of the state does not take away its statehood.

Myth: Supporters of The “See Change” Campaign are pro-abortion.

Fact: Most groups endorsing The “See Change” Campaign have no position on abortion—either in favor of legal abortion or opposed.

What endorsers have in common is a question about the appropriate status of the Holy See in the UN and a commitment to fairness for all religions and non-governmental entities that participate in the UN.

Myth: The Catholic church's opposition to the use of family planning and condoms even to prevent the spread of AIDS has had no negative effect on international efforts to combat AIDS and provide reproductive health services to women.

Fact: The Holy See exerts considerable power to thwart international efforts to stop AIDS and to provide reproductive health services for women.

In 1999, the Vatican released a statement saying that providing women who had been raped in Kosovo with emergency contraception was equivalent to promoting abortion. Previously, in reference to women in Bosnia, the pope went so far as to say that raped women should "accept the enemy" and make him "flesh of their own flesh."

In 1996, the local Roman Catholic church in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, prevented the distribution of one million condoms by health and election officials at polling stations during a primary election. Honduras has the highest incidence of AIDS in Central America.

In 1996, in Nairobi, Kenya, where the AIDS epidemic is exploding among young women, Cardinal Maurice Otunga, Kenya's leading Roman Catholic church official, burned boxes of condoms and safe sexual literature.

In 1999, Kenyan Catholic Bishop John Njue has even propagated false scientific information by claiming that condoms are to blame for the spread of AIDS.