Are the Holy See and the United Nations Too Close for Comfort?
NEWS ANALYSIS: The relationship has come under closer scrutiny of late.
VATICAN CITY — When Pope Francis received in private audience United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in December, the U.N. chief trumpeted the fact that the Holy See’s concerns “coincide with the core values” of the United Nations Charter.
These values consisted of reaffirming the “dignity and worth of the human person,” Guterres said in a statement, especially with regards to protecting the planet.
The Holy See’s communiqué was similar, focusing on peace, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), climate change and migration.
Neither statement mentioned the unborn, despite the SDGs (17 points for a sustainable future specifying 169 targets to be reached by 2030) and U.N. institutions as a whole fervently promoting abortion and contraception.
The omission was just one example of the ever closer alliance between the U.N. and the Holy See that critics say is growing at the expense of any mention of the Church’s nonnegotiable teaching.
Most recently, the Vatican has offered largely uncritical support of the SDGs and hosted its proponents, embarked on regular collaboration with population-control advocates and U.N.-affiliated organizations notorious for promoting abortion and gender ideology, and promoted “human fraternity,” a U.N.-backed concept that some see as a push toward a one-world religion.
On Feb. 5, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences will be hosting a conference on “fraternal inclusion” whose keynote speaker will be Jeffrey Sachs, the SDGs’ chief architect and population-control advocate who advised Pope Francis on his 2015 environment encyclical, Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home). A very regular fixture at the Vatican for the past six years, Sachs is praised there for his vision of a sustainable future while his views on contraception and previous alliance with the radical billionaire abortion promoter George Soros are cast to one side.
The Vatican also appears to be drawing closer to another U.N.-allied non-governmental organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which radically advocates contraception in developing countries and which works closely with Sachs. In November, Pope Francis received Melinda Gates in an unpublicized private audience, sources have told the Register. Vatican communications officials and the Gates Foundation declined to confirm or deny whether such a meeting took place.
Cardinal Müller’s Concerns
In short, although Pope Francis’ general view of the U.N. is that it is a “much-needed … global forum for facing global problems,” these collaborations have led to growing criticism that the Holy See’s seeming prioritization of the U.N.’s agenda over nonnegotiable moral issues represents a breach in the Church’s doctrine.
It is “always good” for the Church to cooperate with national and international institutions to pursue “peace, social justice and international understanding” and to fight against “the evils of humanity,” said Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “But, unfortunately, many of the goals of supranational organizations are formulated in opposition to human dignity.”
He told the Register Jan. 29 he was particularly opposed to inviting “promoters of abortion in the form of population control to papal or episcopal commissions,” as it represents a “grave offense against the Gospel and a denial of Christ.”
And yet Vatican officials see the Holy See’s current relationship with the U.N. as a worthy advance and an important collaboration and regard the accusation that the Holy See is becoming too involved with the U.N. while ignoring preeminent moral issues as a misunderstanding of the situation.
One source working for the Holy See in relations with the U.N. system and speaking on condition of anonymity told the Register that the Holy See engages with “fierce fidelity” to the Church’s teaching.
“We fight to the end to get as much good as we can,” the source explained, adding that objections are always “clearly articulated.”
U.N.-championed causes such as the environment, poverty and combating human trafficking are all issues “inspired by the magisterium of the popes,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in Jan. 14 comments to the Register.
The U.N. “follows the magisterium of the popes on these issues,” including the issue of climate change and “not vice versa,” he said.
Bishop Sanchez, whose academy has been at the forefront of collaborating closely on these issues with the U.N. and its affiliates such as Sachs, said he did not know if the Vatican has closer collaboration with the U.N. than in the past.
But he recalled how he helped insert a condemnation of modern slavery into the SDGs and said that “references to the pope have increased” under the last two U.N. secretary-generals, Ban Ki-moon and Antonio Guterres. Both took leading roles in battling “climate change and modern slavery,” as outlined in Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, he said.
Since 1964, the Holy See has been a permanent observer to the U.N., allowing it to play a participatory though non-voting role in the workings of the international body and assign nuncios to the U.N. in both New York and Geneva. Its main motivation is to collaborate for the common good where possible, and popes dating back to St. Paul VI have often spoken appreciatively of the institution.
Holy See officials and Church observers insist the Church has never espoused the U.N.’s ideology, but instead taken a two-pronged approach: positively proposing different visions and alternatives rooted in the natural law and revelation and combating ethical and political distortions through its permanent observers and officials.
The Holy See also declines to work with U.N. agencies when their agendas contradict Church teaching in significant ways, and therefore it refuses to work with agencies such as the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) or U.N. Women because of their promotion of abortion and contraception. It has also generally declined to participate with UNICEF because of its recent support for “comprehensive sexual education.”
But in recent comments to the Register, Austin Ruse, the president of the Center for Family and Human Rights, which monitors social-policy debate at the U.N., warned that the Holy See should be aware that most U.N. organs are “very much against the Church.”
Abortion, sexual orientation and gender ideology are the “No. 1 issues pushed by the U.N. bureaucracy,” he added, and so the Vatican needs to understand that “any collaboration on other issues must include understanding the teachings of the Church on these fundamental issues.”
The Holy See source insisted that current collaboration “is not naïve” and praised the fact that Pope Francis’ clear support for the U.N. has “definitely led to increased conversation and coordination.”
Examples of recent extensive collaboration the source highlighted have included work on the Global Compact for Migration — a 2018 multilateral U.N. agreement to foster safe, orderly migration; the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change; and grassroots collaboration between Caritas Internationalis and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the U.N. Development Program.
For its part, the U.N. sees the Holy See and the Pope as a vital and useful tool toward accomplishing its multilateral aims, the SDGs in particular. “We need [the Pope’s] moral voice more than ever,” said Guterres after his recent meeting with Francis.
The U.N. also favors the Catholic Church’s “essential networks,” said the Holy See source working with the U.N. system, who pointed to the “increased collaboration” of Bishop Sanchez’s pontifical academy, which has a long history of drawing on the knowledge of non-Catholic experts.
“Much of the confusion comes from those who don’t know what really happens in the negotiation rooms and erroneously think that, if the Holy See in general supports something like the 2030 agenda, it must therefore support all 169 targets,” the source said.
But while that may be the case, professor Stefano Fontana, director of the Cardinal Van Thuan International Observatory on the Social Doctrine of the Church, sees instead a subtle and general surrender to the U.N. mindset.
In Jan. 19 comments to the Register, Fontana said that compared to when Cardinal Renato Martino was the Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N. (1986-2002), when a deliberate effort was made not to use the words “reproductive health” (a term interpreted by U.N. agencies to include abortion and contraception), today “the Holy See uses these expressions.”
Fontana sees this and the Holy See’s increasingly unreserved collaboration with the U.N. as adapting the Catholic faith “to the logic of the world” and to today’s U.N.-promoted “secular religion,” which he describes as a “multireligious society, ecological religion and planned migration.” Issues of the natural moral law such as abortion are no longer considered “of primary importance,” he said.
The change is a consequence, Fontana believes, of the Church today insisting on collaborating with everyone on the grounds that “the truth is born of dialogue and confrontation” — witnessed by the frequent appearances of Sachs and others at the Vatican.
‘Human Fraternity’ Initiative
A further contentious development seen by some as indicative of the U.N. and secular influence on the Holy See has been the push toward a U.N.-organized “World Day of Human Fraternity,” which grew out of the Document on Human Fraternity signed in Abu Dhabi last February by Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar University.
Holy See officials argue that this does not represent a danger of syncretism but is rather consistent with decades of interreligious dialogue dating back to the Second Vatican Council declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate. They also say the contentious phrasing in the Abu Dhabi document, that the “plurality and diversity of religions” is “willed by God,” needs to be interpreted as God having “permissively willed” all religions rather than directly willed them.
A similar approach is also seen in two forthcoming events: an international meeting in March called the “Economy of Francesco” in Assisi that will draw together people of different faiths, “inspired by an ideal of fraternity” and a chance to “dream of a new humanism”; and a Vatican-hosted event in support of a Global Alliance on Education, attended by interreligious and secular representatives that aims to overcome “division and antagonism” and promote a “more fraternal humanity.”
Both manifest a U.N.-backed agenda that Bishop Athanasius Schneider, a strong critic of the institution’s anti-life positions, says involves a “relativization of morality and the moral law” and the pursuit of a “political agenda” in the form of a “one-world education,” gender ideology and a “new climate religion.” And the Holy See’s involvement has reached such a level, the auxiliary bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, believes, that the Holy See has effectively placed itself under the authority of the U.N., becoming what he called in his recent book Christus Vincit a “daughter house” of the multilateral institution.
“You cannot any more distinguish the language of Holy See from the U.N.,” Bishop Schneider told the Register. “There is no more true Catholic identity of the Gospel with the face of the apostles.”
Fontana views the adoption of such language and the philosophy behind it as a “flattening of ideas” that removes “metaphysical structure” and “doctrinal absoluteness.”
“The change is remarkable,” he observed, adding that to believe religions can converge into “certain humanistic objectives leaving aside their respective theologies” is “impossible and dangerous.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, a time when the Holy See is expected to extoll the institution. “We work gladly with this institution, trying to bring a contribution for the good of the world,” Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the Holy See’s new permanent observer to the U.N., said Jan. 28.
But just as such words of praise are expected to increase, so are those of critics who warn that ever closer alignment with the U.N. agenda is “secularizing” the Catholic faith, in Fontana’s words, and leading it toward globalist ends that are anything but Catholic.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.