The standing of the Holy See at the United Nations is under attack. In a September 30 column in the Washington Post, Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, lambastes the Vatican for not supporting homosexuality and abortion in international forums.
At the U.N., he complains, the Holy See is “allowed to masquerade as a state and impose the narrowest interpretations of its religious doctrine on everybody.” His remedy: strip the Holy See of its status as a non-member state observer, a status that, after all, he notes, no other religion enjoys. There are several problems with O’Brien’s argument.
First is his contention that the Holy See “is not a state.” While undoubtedly the heart of the Catholic religion, the Vatican is also a sovereign government over a recognized territory. The Vatican City State was formally established in 1929 under the Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and Italy, although its sovereign roots are far older than that. The Vatican has engaged in diplomatic relations since the fourth century. It currently has diplomatic relations with 178 states. It has its own administrative offices, a judiciary, citizenship, and other aspects of a government and state. While it is small in population and area, size is not essential to sovereignty — a fact to which full U.N. member states such as Liechtenstein, Palau, and Tuvalu can attest.
Second, the Holy See is not a full U.N. member state but a non-member state observer — a second-class status it has possessed since 1964. The Holy See may participate in U.N. General Assembly debates, but it cannot vote or put forward candidates in the General Assembly. Although it can co-sponsor draft resolutions and decisions, a vote can be taken only on the request of a full U.N. member state. Only in “all States” conferences does the Holy See enjoy equal status with other member states, but as a sovereign state it would have this authority there regardless of its U.N. status.
Similar privileges to those enjoyed by the Holy See have been accorded other non-member state observers in the past, including Switzerland before it joined the U.N. as a full member state. The Palestinian Authority, whose statehood status is far more controversial and is not as widely recognized as that of the Holy See, is currently a non-member state observer with privileges equivalent to those granted the Holy See.
Regardless, even if the Holy See were a full U.N. member state, General Assembly decisions are adopted by either a two-thirds majority or a simple majority and are not generally considered legally binding. In short, the Holy See has absolutely no ability to “impose the narrowest interpretations of its religious doctrine on everybody.”
Third, the Holy See is fully within its rights to speak its mind and seek to convince other states to support its positions. All states do this, with varying degrees of success. It is bizarre to suggest that the Holy See should stand silent when issues that concern it are raised.
Fourth, while it is true that other religions are not accorded the same status as the Holy See, no other major religion has a sovereign character and universally recognized leader in the manner of the Catholic Church. That said, other religions, particularly Islam, have an undeniable influence over U.N. debates through advocacy by governments of predominantly Muslim states and organizations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Ultimately, O’Brien principally objects not to the Holy See’s status at the U.N. but to the positions that it takes — on “contraception, sexuality education and abortion” — that “don’t represent the views of all Catholics.” He calls on Pope Francis and his representatives “to step out of the way so that people of all faiths and belief systems can exercise the right to make their own moral decisions about sex, relationships, and reproductive health.”
The position displays astounding arrogance. In essence, O’Brien demands that Pope Francis and the Catholic Church either abandon religious convictions dating back centuries or willfully fail to profess policies that comport with their faith, simply because O’Brien disagrees with them. Moreover, Pope Francis has made a point of emphasizing tolerance of other faiths and forgiveness. If only O’Brien showed similar tolerance.
This is not the first attempt to strip the Holy See of its status at the U.N. Thirteen years ago Catholics for Choice launched a similar effort that was dismissed by the member states and opposed by over 4,000 NGOs that signed a letter supporting the Holy See. Despite its many flaws, the U.N. is more tolerant of dissenting and controversial opinions than O’Brien appears to be. Hopefully, the renewed effort to strip the Holy See of its status fails as completely as the previous one.
— Brett D. Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the U.N. and the Search for Alternatives.