Will the U.N. Again Ask the Catholic Church to Repudiate Its Own Teaching?

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi discusses the Holy See’s May 5-6 meeting in Geneva with the U.N. Committee on the Convention Against Torture.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer to the U.N. in Geneva
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See's permanent observer to the U.N. in Geneva (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Holy See is bracing itself for another hostile United Nations panel that may challenge the Catholic Church’s moral teachings in light of an international treaty that prohibits torture.

On May 5-6, the Holy See will present its initial periodic report to the U.N. Committee on the Convention Against Torture during the committee’s 52nd Session at the Palais Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland.

The committee, which monitors U.N. member states’ implementation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, will present its “concluding observations” 17 days after the session.

The Holy See signed the anti-torture treaty on behalf of Vatican City State in June 2002. During the U.N. committee’s session, the Holy See delegation will explain how Vatican City State, through legislative changes, has sought to comply with the treaty. The Holy See will also present the Catholic Church’s teachings on the dignity and rights of the human person to further illuminate its opposition to torture and cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment.

However, having studied the U.N. committee’s “concluding observations” to other states in the last two years, the Holy See expects the committee will bring up several themes that are, at best, only tenuously connected to the actual text and intent of the Convention Against Torture.

For example, the committee, in recent documents, has said it considers discrimination against women and homosexuals to be violations of the torture treaty. The committee, also known as a treaty body, has further advocated for “reproductive health” — understood by the committee to encompass contraception, sterilization and abortion — and has criticized a lack of access to legal abortion in some countries.

The Holy See expects the U.N. Committee on the Convention Against Torture to essentially echo what the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said on Feb. 5, when that treaty body criticized the Holy See for its handling of the international clergy sex-abuse crisis. That committee further accused the Holy See of adopting policies and practices that led to the continuation of clergy sex abuse and shielding of predator-priests.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child also sought to expand its treaty’s obligations from Vatican City State to the Catholic Church as a whole. The committee even called upon the Holy See to change Church teachings on homosexuality, contraception and abortion, claiming that those teachings harm children and violate their rights.

In an email response to questions posed by the Register, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, shared his thoughts on what observers can expect to see during and following the May 5-6 session in Geneva.


How likely do you believe it to be that the U.N. Committee on Torture will critique the Catholic Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality, abortion, the all-male priesthood and contraception?
The original purpose and meaning of the Convention Against Torture (CAT), born from the grave concerns of treatment of prisoners after World War II, had a rather well-defined and clear scope: Prevent forced confessions and degrading treatment.

In recent years, it seems that the committee of the CAT has also permitted the evolution and incorporation of terms and ideas that are not part of the original convention. It is argued that the insertion of these new terms comes from the nature of the convention as a living document that allows the development and inclusion of new forms of “torture” that are in harmony with the “spirit of the document,” if not, in fact, literally found therein.

As such, an analysis of the concluding observations of this committee reveals the inclusion of issues regarding abortion, contraception, homosexuality and the like, none of which is met with an international consensus.

Therefore, it would seem reasonable to presume that the committee will continue this same line of thinking and present strong objections to some of the Church’s moral teachings on these behaviors, considering them forms of psychological burden and torture.


What exactly has the committee said/written in its previous sessions and concluding observations to other states that lead the Holy See to believe that it will once again challenge the teachings of the Church?

In recent years, the recommendations offered by the committee in its concluding observations to other states’ reports often include these “hot-button” issues. Beyond this objective proof of the committee’s approach, one can also look at the involvement and submission of documentation to the committee by various NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and civil-society organizations, which push for the Catholic Church to change her teaching and canon law to reflect their agenda.

In theory, the meeting is intended, clear and simple, to be a review of the Holy See’s implementation of the CAT; in practice, however, it looks like it could be, because of a clear bias of external pressures and a certain receptiveness to that pressure, an attempt to create another polemic, as took place with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


What are the Vatican City State’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture?

States, in ratifying the convention, “bind themselves” to respect the content of the convention, implementing the terms of it as the state understands and interprets the convention, always based on the presumption of “good faith” on the part of the state. As such, the Vatican City State has obliged itself to implement and to execute the content of the CAT, including, among other things: the presentation of an initial report one year after the ratification thereof; to present periodic reports every four years thereafter; to inculcate the norms and definitions of the CAT into its legislation and concomitant penalties for crimes committed in this area; and to work for the elimination of torture and other cruel and inhuman forms of punishment through prevention.


What will the Holy See present to illustrate its adherence to the treaty? 

The primary response will address the legislation of Vatican City State, the territory where the CAT applies. This, in essence, is the legitimate scope of the committee’s examination of the Holy See report. Specifically, the new laws of Vatican City State, legislated by Pope Francis in a motu proprio last July 2013, became effective in September 2013. They include an updated and modified definition of the crime of torture and related topics, such as extradition of criminals, prohibition of reprisals, etc., which place the law of Vatican City State in conformity with the principles of the CAT. Furthermore, the presentation will also highlight the moral teaching of the Holy See regarding torture and cruel and inhuman punishment, a voice that reaches all corners of the world.


Some observers see this as another overreach by a U.N. treaty body looking to further a secularist agenda, while others believe it to be the latest example of an anti-Christian bias at the U.N. Are these complaints fair or valid?

States participate in the activities of the U.N. on the basis of acceptance of their sovereignty and “good faith” in their negotiations. The basic principles in the U.N. charter are not always witnessed in practice.

The U.N. system, like many bureaucracies, tends to assume a political and policy-making role which, in some cases, proposes ideologies that not only run contrary to many basic rights found in the Christian tradition, but also are contrary to fundamental human rights and not supported by internationally negotiated agreements.

Were the ideological approach merely secular or, if you will, “religiously indifferent” or “a-religious,” that would at least allow for a neutral arena to freely debate issues. One cannot fail to recognize, however, that, in today’s culture, there is a clear bias against religion and Catholic values in particular, so that belief tends to be relegated to the private sphere, having no place in public discourse and decision-making.

The view of the human person and the social doctrine of the Church move in a different direction, as they claim the right for individuals and communities to be actively engaged in public life according to their convictions. This is no surprise to us, however, since the Church down through the centuries has always had to stand up for the basic principles and truths of the Gospel and the good of the human person in environments more or less hostile to the message proclaimed. The mission of the Holy See here and now is no different; it merely finds itself in circumstances unique to our times.


What can we expect moving forward after the May 5-6 session? Do you expect another scathing report like the kind we saw from the Committee on the Rights of the Child? Speaking of which, is the Holy See closer to completing its formal response to the Committee on the Rights of the Child?

To begin with the last question, yes, the Holy See is very close to presenting its response to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, perhaps within the week. Regarding expectations, the saying “Hope for the best; expect the worst” comes to mind. In reality, it all depends upon the approach and attitude of the committee.

After the examination on the Rights of the Child report and the subsequent observations given by the committee of the CRC, it is possible that the CAT committee might refer to issues and recommendations that go beyond their competence and the text of the CAT. Let us hope, however, that common sense will prevail and the focus of attention will be the urgent need to stop any form of torture and other degrading and humiliating punishments.


Why do you believe we are seeing treaty bodies discussing terms/obligations that are not in the actual treaty text? Is this a stealth or de facto way of creating “soft law” and new international legal norms? What kind of positions could this put U.N. member states, including the Holy See, in?

Not to oversimplify a very complex question, but I would offer two observations that might shed some light on this issue. First, in the U.N. system, there exists a notable tension between the democratic representation of the states and the bureaucratic structure in which the diplomatic representatives function. When a bureaucracy oversteps its limits, it threatens the autonomy of the states’ representatives, and thus it becomes a hindrance, rather than an assistance. Second, there exists a divergence of worldview, particularly regarding the understanding of the human person and individual freedom, that often clashes on the level of international relations.

On the one hand, you have the perspective of the Christian Tradition, upholding the inviolable dignity of the person, endowed with free will, to be exercised in conformity with right reason, a relational being. On the other hand, you have the individualist perspective where self-centered autonomy, the right to “do what I want,” is given pride of place. In this context, the common mantra is to attempt to make “rights” out of choices and behaviors that actually contradict other, more basic, human rights. Given the disparity between these two approaches, one can understand the friction that arises when they intersect, especially when dealing with human rights and ethical issues.

Putting these two considerations into the context of the U.N. system, then, it becomes clearer how powerful players, be they state members or private NGOs, with their vast resources and political pressure, can influence and shape the interpretation of international conventions and policy. Such a “soft-law” approach becomes a very effective instrument to impose ideologies upon other states.

For some states, particularly those which may rely upon humanitarian assistance or economic aid, the option is only to acquiesce to the pressure, lest it bring sanctions or other negative effects upon their people. In regard to the Holy See, it is not a question of economic or political marginalization, but what some people would like to achieve: to silence the voice of the Church.

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.