March 6, 2014

CSW 58: The Role of the Holy See

If the sweeping suggestions and harsh tone of the Commission on the Rights of the Child regarding the moral teachings of the Catholic Church seemed adolescent and over-the-top, it is probably because the relationship of the UN to the Church is similar to that of child to its mother. As we all know, the teenagers can get snippy at times.

Since it is somewhat unknown how supportive the Church was of the United Nations at its founding and it is almost completely unknown what the Church does at the UN, I am taking this blog post to offer a small glimpse at the work of the Church as it relates to the United Nations and the world of global politics.

Jacques Maritain and Blessed Pope John XXIII were both supportive of the project that was the United Nations, with the Pope writing:

The United Nations Organization has the special aim of maintaining and strengthening peace between nations, and of encouraging and assisting friendly relations between them, based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and extensive cooperation in every field of human endeavor.

Whether the UN is living up to this standard is a question fiercely debated. Having read Brave New World, I tended to think not. But then I met Rachana.

Rachana was an intern for a year in the Nuncio’s office at the United Nations in New York. “It means ‘diplomat’,” he said laughing to himself, “You know us Catholics, we need a fancy word for everything.” (Stephen Colbert’s affable confusion over the word ‘consubstantial’ replacing ‘one in being’ in the Nicene Creed came to mind.) When I asked him about the roll of the Holy See (a term which refers to “the supreme authority of the Church, that is the Pope as Bishop of Rome” and also to the central government of the Roman Catholic Church) and my misgivings about the nature of trying to work with the UN, he was sympathetic but insisted there was more to it.

The Church does so much good there and so does the UN, even though we always hear the bad stuff. I mean there was that typhoon in the Philippines and all of a sudden the hallways were buzzing and meeting were happening and the United Nations sprang into action to help.

Further, I had always thought of the ‘Permanent Observer’ status of the Holy See as being a slight to the Church. But upon further review of their website I learned: “The Holy See enjoys by its own choice the status of Permanent Observer at the United Nations, rather than of a full Member. This is due primarily to the desire of the Holy See to maintain absolute neutrality in specific political problems.”

There are problems though. When Mary Ann Glendon led the Vatican delegation at the Fourth World Conference on Women, which came only a year after Cairo’s Conference on Population and Development, she lamented that the heated debates which erupted there had left a bad after-taste. “For the most part, the press accepted the population lobby’s caricature of the Vatican at Cairo as anti-woman, anti-sex, and in favor of unrestrained procreation.”

That caricature still holds sway 20 years later. The aforementioned Commission on the Rights of the Child has George Weigel wondering if the Holy See shouldn’t substantially shift its method of engaging the UN and the world.

the past four decades have demonstrated that the Holy See’s ability to shape world politics comes, not from playing the game by the conventional rules, but by raising moral arguments and appealing over the heads of politicians to populations who don’t want their representatives in international forums to kowtow to the U.N.’s terminal political correctness. That was the approach that ultimately made a difference at the 1994 U.N. Population Conference in Cairo and the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing.

It is past time to consider a parallel re-set in the Holy See’s relationship to world politics.

Mr. Weigel thinks that the Vatican mistakenly sees its influence as being similar to the influence of the Papal States of yesteryear. Indeed the history of the Holy See’s diplomacy given by the Nuncio suggests that the Papal States and the work at the UN both equally represent the outreach of the Church to the world.

Though Mr. Weigel has a point, as he often does, there is a certain wisdom to staying the course. When I am out dancing, if one wants to disentangle from an undesirable dance partner, it is prudent to sight out another woman to dance with ahead of time, lest you be left to stand against the wall while everyone else has a good time. So while Mr. Weigel and the other major players plan out the new way in which the Holy See will do international business, I will be dancing with the uncomfortable but familiar partner of the UN and the Commission on the Status of Women. When a new possibility opens up, it is then we will make our move.

But I think the proper position of the Church to the UN, at least for now, was captured by Pope Benedict in his address to the General Assembly:

In my recent Encyclical, Spe Salvi, I indicated that “every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs” (no. 25). For Christians, this task is motivated by the hope drawn from the saving work of Jesus Christ. That is why the Church is happy to be associated with the activity of this distinguished Organization, charged with the responsibility of promoting peace and good will throughout the earth. Dear Friends, I thank you for this opportunity to address you today, and I promise you of the support of my prayers as you pursue your noble task.

When we go to the UN, we go with and for Christ.


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