By Jon O'Brien · 18 Mar 2013
As Pope Francis settles into his new role, he has a perfect opportunity to remould the Vatican’s relationship with the rest of the world. A great place to start would be at the United Nations, where the Vatican, through an entity known as the Holy See, has special powers granted to no other religious institution.
The Holy See’s powers at the United Nations were on full view this week and last at the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York. There, the Holy See’s representative added its statement to that of other U.N. actors who, bizarrely, were on the wrong side of a battle to reduce the incidence of violence against women and girls. The Holy See’s statement began with a commitment to women’s well-being, but quickly took a more sinister turn when it became a rant against abortion, accusing women who have abortions of “aggravating the spread and the pain of violence in our society."
But the CSW was not the first time the Catholic hierarchy has turned a discussion that should have been a clear-cut affirmation of women’s rights into an opportunity to deny women’s right to reproductive healthcare. In fact, the Holy See’s obstructionism at the U.N. is the subject of an international campaign to have its status changed. Just last year, at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, we saw why the campaign is so important. Drafts of the conference documents show the Holy See’s representatives chipping away at any mention of gender equality and adolescent sexuality, and deleting language like the “sexual and reproductive needs of women” that would affirm the right to access contraception and abortion. The Holy See got its way, when this language was omitted from the final document, leaving the widespread support for reproductive rights as a mere note in the margin to the official record of the Rio conference.
It’s worth knowing the reason why the Holy See has so much power at the U.N., because it uses that power to undermine the human rights of women and men worldwide, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Unlike other religious groups, which are welcomed as NGOs, the Catholic church -- as the Holy See -- is recognized as a Nonmember State Permanent Observer and granted many of the privileges of a state.
The Catholic church used to own large swathes of land, known as the Papal States, the last of which were finally absorbed by the nascent Italian state in 1870. For the next 50 years, popes took refuge in the Vatican to protest the loss of these territories. The Holy See as we know it today only came into being in 1929 when a representative of Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with Benito Mussolini. The treaty also carved out Vatican City, which, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan pointed out to the New York Times, “is about the size of an 18-hole-golf course, so it’s not that big.” The Holy See and Vatican City both fail the internationally recognized test for statehood, since they each have some but not all of the required attributes.
The Holy See has been participating in meetings at the U.N. as a Nonmember State Permanent Observer since at least 1964. I say “at least” because there is no known date or documentation for the Holy See’s admittance as a permanent observer. Part of the confusion comes about because the Holy See’s acceptance relied heavily upon the close relationship between then-Secretary General U Thant and Pope Paul VI. The rest of the justification came from the Holy See’s membership in two specialized agencies, the International Telecommunications Union and the Universal Postal Union.
Acquiring the status of Nonmember State Permanent Observer is a poorly defined process. Diplomatic recognition by a majority of the member states is one of the criteria, on that was easily met by Palestine when it attained the rank in 2012, but the Holy See is a different matter. By 1985, it had relations with only 53 of the 159 UN member states. And unlike Palestine, the Holy See’s status was never voted upon by the General Assembly.
There are very practical drawbacks to the Holy See being the only religious entity to participate with many of the privileges of a state at the UN. Firstly, as a religion it tends to fall back on doctrinal arguments to justify any policy mentioning modern forms of contraception or condoms to prevent HIV -- positions not even supported by the majority of Catholics. The second drawback has to do with the UN’s reliance on consensus, which allows a minority position -- and the Holy See’s rejection of contraception, abortion, comprehensive sex education and condoms, to name a few, do not enjoy widespread support -- to derail the will of the majority.
Who does the Holy See represent when it takes unpopular stances like Pope John Paul II’s rejection of emergency contraception for women who had been raped in Kosovo? To hear its representatives talk, the Holy See speaks for a billion Catholics worldwide -- individuals who already have a state representative in the halls of the UN. But the reality is that the Holy See, if it were a state, should only speak for the inhabitants of Vatican City, who are a tiny, tiny fraction of the billion it claims to represent. Vatican City’s populace has few women among them, so perhaps it is easy to deny sexual and reproductive rights to a few hundred clergy who are sworn to celibacy. But there is a growing sense that having a front-row seat in the international policy arena should come with a sense of responsibility, if not to a sparse citizenry, then to a world of women and men who have sexual and reproductive needs far beyond the Holy See’s blanket bans on nearly all SRHR language.
In the 1990s, hundreds of NGOs and tens of thousands of individuals coalesced around The “See Change” Campaign, which called for parity between religious voices at the UN -- that is, for the Catholic church to continue lending its voice, but as an NGO just like other religions. A close reading of the Holy See’s history at the United Nations reveals its clear opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as a surprisingly murky precedent for its current position. Ensuring access to reproductive healthcare services for women and men around the world demands a change in the UN’s treatment of the Holy See. Perhaps Pope Francis should add this simple task to his list of urgent reforms for the church.