Archbishop Silvano Tomasi has been the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations and specialized international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland.
An Italian from Veneto, Archbishop Tomasi was ordained in New York and studied for a doctorate in sociology from Fordham University. A large part of his work at the U.N. involves promoting issues related to human rights, the most important being the right to life.
He talked Feb. 13 about the Holy See’s current priorities and how he is working to convince other nations to respect the common good.
Archbishop Tomasi, what are the priorities for you at the moment in Geneva?
Geneva is basically a multilateral hub because of the variety of the agencies of the United Nations that are based in Geneva. In fact, there are some 20 intergovernmental agencies based in the city. So the U.N. is an umbrella for a variety of concerns, from labor to human rights, health and so on.
At this moment there are a couple of issues of some interest. One is the reform of the Human Rights Council. It’s more than a reform actually; it’s a question of evaluating, after five years, how this newly restructured body within the U.N. is functioning.
Among the priorities in the Human Rights Council are freedom of religion, defamation of religion, how to approach the issue of religion in public life and in international relations.
Another interesting point is the International Labor Organization and the project of developing a new convention on domestic workers. Domestic workers are men and women who work in families. Often they don’t have a regular contract; many are migrants, but others are not.
Take, for example, India, where this problem is very pressing. There is an organization trying to defend the rights of domestic workers that has 3 million members, which shows how the concern is quite great. Then, of course, on the issue of health there is the perennial battle, so to say, of sustaining and defending our values of life from conception until natural death, the value of the family in particular.
That is always a priority because the family is the natural basis of society. If you don’t have life, none of the other rights apply.
Is this right more heavily under attack now than in the past?
Not in a particularly new way, but public culture in the international context takes for granted that one way to solve problems is to facilitate and make available so-called “reproductive rights,” which include the right to terminate pregnancies for whatever reason.
Also, it believes the concept of the family is going to be de facto defined as any two persons living together with some stability. So there are some very important concerns that we, as Christians and Catholics, need to reaffirm and bring constantly to the fore.
Through the United Nations and the public culture which is linked to the U.N., there are many, many points of convergence. When we talk of human rights, the rights of civilians in war and conflict, the protection of children and victims of torture, we all work in the same direction.
There is also a certain number of issues on which there is disagreement, and we have to try and work together wherever possible, to move along but at the same time not surrender our identity and our own basic principles.
I always say the truth is like a ray of light: People can walk with you up to a point, but then they don’t walk with you all the way to the source of the light. So we say we invite people to walk with us as far as possible to the source. Not everyone understands or sees the light in order to do this, but that’s what we try to do.
It has been said that the problem certain nations in the U.N., particularly in the West, have with the Church essentially comes down to contraception and sexual ethics. What do you say to that view?
It’s not necessarily only about that issue. Sometimes we defend nuclear disarmament, and not everyone agrees with that approach of the Holy See.
On family ethics there is a greater gap between certain nations and the Holy See, which is allied with a few countries that still hold to a more Christian concept of the family and life. But we need to continue to go forward in our direction and try to convince people of the value of our position.
That direction appears to be sustained now that there seems to be a big problem of aging in a lot of countries, and there is a direct link between the current economic crisis and the lack of fertility. So these are issues on which we need to become more informed, but the arguments seem to be moving in the direction of common sense and the position of the Church on these matters.
So you’re hopeful for the future?
I’m always hopeful because we have the Lord on our side.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.