VATICAN CITY — In the weather-beaten jumbo jet that is the United Nations, the Holy See is enjoying the delights of an upgrade this fall.
After a resolution passed unanimously by the U.N. General Assembly in July, the Church's new, reinforced role within the organization came into effect in September during the opening of the 59th session of the General Assembly.
The Holy See's enhanced status includes two important “rights”: to participate directly in any debate of the Assembly without having to wait for the approval of regional groups, and to reply in debates in which it is challenged directly or indirectly.
“(It's) an important step forward,” said Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations in New York.
In a statement to the Register, the archbishop called the development a “strengthening in status” of the Holy See that “will permit a more active participation in the dayto-day functioning of the world's principal political forum.”
The changes were necessary to clarify the role of a permanent observer since the Holy See is now the only state with this status. Switzerland, the only other state to have been a permanent observer, became a full member in 2002.
According to Archbishop Migliore, specific rights for the Holy See will now include: “the right of inscription on the list of speakers under agenda items at any meeting of the General Assembly; the right to make interventions; the right of reply; the right to have its communications relating to the sessions and work of the General Assembly and of all international conferences issued and circulated directly as official documents of the Assembly; and the right to co-sponsor draft resolutions and decisions that make reference to the Holy See.”
The Holy See is still without full membership, and the reinforced role does not affect privileges already enjoyed, such as membership of U.N. agencies and being a signatory to treaties.
In addition, the Holy See continues — at its request — to have neither a right to vote, nor a seat on the Security Council, thereby ensuring it remains a moral force and not a political one.
“I wouldn't call it an enhanced role,” said one Vatican official in Rome, downplaying the changes. “It's more a concretizing of the rights which have become common practice for some time.”
Still, as the Church takes on board this more formalized status, there could be interesting consequences.
The most significant of these is likely to be greater effectiveness in rebuffing any interest groups that oppose the Holy See.
One such adversary is “Catholics for a Free Choice,” a misnomer for a non-governmental organization that is, in fact, very anti-Catholic. In 1999, the U.S.-based abortion lobby, which is headed by former abortion clinic manager Frances Kissling and which has no reported membership, called for the removal of the Holy See from the United Nations on the grounds that it was not a nation-state and that its status was unfair to other religions who did not possess the same privileges.
The “See Change” campaign failed to garner the support of a single U.N. member state and may actually have galvanized other U.N. members and affiliated groups into realizing just how necessary the moral voice of the Holy See is within the organization.
The campaign drew widespread opposition, not only from more than a thousand non-governmental organizations, but also from Muslim, Jewish, evangelical and Mormon groups. Catholics for a Free Choice has been notably silent about the Holy See's new status.
A leading voice against the “See Change” campaign was Austin Ruse, president of the pro-family U.N. watchdog Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute. Ruse welcomes the reinforced role because he believes it makes “clear that the nations of the world unanimously endorse the voice of the Holy See.”
However, there are other groups at the United Nations that likely will have more difficulty with the Holy See's presence, including two major U.N. agencies that promote artificial birth control and that have funded abortion-related programs: the U.N. Population Fund and the U.N. Children's Fund.
Ruse believes the strengthened role will help the Holy See in its opposition to such population-control agendas and will assist the Church in its efforts “to protect the dignity of every human being which comes under regular attack at U.N. conferences.”
For others, the new role will also help the Holy See promote other areas of concern in international relations, namely security policy and international law.
Janne Haaland Matlary, a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, does not believe there will be enormous practical consequences from the changes.
But, as the voice of the Holy See becomes more important, she said they will serve to underline the Holy See's “perennial importance in international diplomacy.”
It is clear, she added, that the Holy See with its Catholic social teaching “has a whole lot to contribute” to security policy. There are “no clear answers” concerning when to accept the use of military force, Matlary said, but the Holy See's extensive knowledge of both international law and ethics, together with its independence, put it in a much-needed position to clarify discussions on such matters as the “preventive war” that the United States launched against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
And the Holy See's consistency in upholding and applying principles of international law makes it “a more and more sought-after ‘commodity’ in international affairs,” said Matlary, who served as Norway's deputy foreign minister from 1995-1997.
Key issues on the agenda for the United Nations’ fall session are North-South concerns, conflict prevention and fighting the causes of terrorism, legitimacy for the use of military force, upholding and promoting human rights, human cloning, poverty, disarmament, HIV/AIDS and the need to reform the U.N. system.
According to Archbishop Migliore, in addressing these issues, the Holy See will now have “greater opportunity to speak on behalf of those who have no voice.” And, he said, “there is no doubt that these new rights will give the Holy See added scope to pursue its concerns in favor of all humanity.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.