The U.N. and the Holy See's Tense Cooperation

VATICAN CITY — Before the Iraq war, Pope John Paul II and the Holy See were advocating that the United Nations take control of the situation and promote peace, according to Cardinal Renato Martino, who for 16 years represented the Holy See at the United Nations.

“Now we hear everybody saying the United Nations must come in,” the cardinal said.

But for all the undoubted good will on the part of the cardinal, such seemingly unqualified trust and faith in the United Nations baffles many American Catholics.

Isn't this the same organization that advocates abortion, calls for new definitions of the family and promotes birth control? Wasn't it the United Nations that failed to enforce a decade of resolutions regarding Iraq? Didn't the organization neglect its duty to prevent genocide in Rwanda?

The United Nations has responsibility for international peace and security, which includes economic and social development in poorer countries. Yet even in those areas there are major problems.

Some of its development projects, which include providing emergency food aid, clean water and vaccinations, are criticized for placing too much faith in the state and serving to prop up inefficient and corrupt political regimes.

So with such problems in mind, what exactly is the attitude of the Holy See toward the United Nations?

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer at the United Nations in Geneva, calls relations “good” between the two institutions. He said the Holy See supports the United Nations in its efforts toward “human promotion, search for peace and peaceful coexistence, and of developments of the poorer countries.”

“In general, the Holy See favors all that is good for the human family,” he added, “but when needed, it disagrees with one or many countries if the Holy See's vision and understanding of the human person — its rights, its dignity, its uniqueness — are involved and distorted.”

The Holy See's primary role, the archbishop asserted, is injecting a “spiritual focus” into international life, thereby strengthening it.

His views are echoed by other Holy See officials, who cite key Vatican statements on the United Nations, particularly Blessed Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) and Pope John Paul II's addresses to the United Nations in 1979 and 1995.

In accord with John Paul, Cardinal Martino sees the United Nations as an important instrument in a “globalization of solidarity.”

“We know from natural law that human beings are sociable — they have to work together,” said the cardinal, who now serves as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. “And with the global village we speak about, this is true at the international level, too.”

The cardinal strongly believes the United Nations is there “as an instrument to serve the human being and the universal common good.”

And because the organization is particularly prone to moral relativism, he sees the Church's chief role as bringing into the forum of the United Nations the objective truth of the natural moral law that is common to everyone.

Global ‘Mirror’?

Janne Haaland Matlary, a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and a former Norwegian deputy foreign minister, supports the presence of the United Nations because it “mirrors the world” and is the “only global political organization in existence.”

In the area of international security, she stands by the U.N. Security Council as the “legitimizer of military force.”

“States that act without a mandate, like the United States in Iraq, realize that they act against international law,” she said. “Military might would be used much more freely without the existence of the general norm of prohibition of the use of force the [Security Council] lays down.”

On the organization's approach to social policy, Matlary, who is also a consultant at the Pontifical Council for the Family, believes that “without the United Nations, we can forget international human rights.”

Despite not being binding on member states, she says the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights “is a natural-law document” and subsequent conventions have been defined in “very good ways from a Catholic point of view.”

And facing continuing pressure from two particularly powerful U.N. agencies, the U.N. Population Fund and UNICEF, and from many nongovernmental organizations active at the United Nations to promote anti-life and anti-family policies, she argues that it is extremely important for the Church “to be present in the political process to uphold and argue for a natural-law definition of these rights.”

The Holy See has had some notable successes at the United Nations, particularly at the 1994 World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

There the Holy See delegation delayed final agreement on the conference document for a full week in order to successfully get rid of the reference to abortion as a means of family planning.

And according to Matlary, the Holy See wields a fair amount of political clout, being both “feared and revered” at the United Nations for its professional skills of diplomacy and international law and because, through its independence, it is probably the only state actor that is “consistent on the controversial topics.”

But there is room for improvement. Some argue the Holy See would be more effective were it to become a permanent member of the United Nations rather than continue with its current observer status.

The possibility is “still under study,” according to Cardinal Martino, who believes the Holy See's “presence would be more felt” but maintains that the Church, in any case, is able to “speak in any circumstances.”

Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, which monitors the United Nations from a pro-life and pro-family perspective, believes the Holy See should pursue permanent-member status immediately. He views the Church as the United Nations' “moral conscience” that has saved the organization from “social policy disaster.”

U.N. Reform

This September, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan will present recommendations on reforming the organization.

Ruse said authentic reform must contain steps toward accountability and transparency, to “lessen the impact and control of U.N. bureaucracy,” in particular the power of certain U.N. agencies that are “too powerful for any one government to tackle.”

Matlary would like to see reforms that allow the natural moral law to become more fully adopted in the United Nations and for changes to the way the U.N. Security Council operates.

Whatever reforms are enacted, the United Nations is clearly here to stay — and so is the Holy See's influential presence there.

“Those who want to listen to the Church will listen,” Cardinal Martino said, “even if we whisper.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.