The Holy See and the U.N.

Published September 26, 2007

Several years ago, Catholics for a Free Choice, a Potemkin village of an “organization” created by pro-abortion American foundations to muddy the waters of American politics and to harass the Church internationally, ginned up a campaign to eject the Holy See from the United Nations.

It was a born loser from the start. However goofy the U.N. is — and its goofiness is often titanic — it wasn’t about to throw the Holy See over the side. In addition, no one really takes Catholics for a Free Choice seriously, and it made an unlikely broker for a non-starter of an idea.

Now, however, comes the London-based Economist, one of the world’s most respected news magazines: in its July 21 issue, it suggested that, “instead of claiming to practice a form of inter-governmental diplomacy,” the Holy See ought to “renounce its special diplomatic status and call itself what it is — the biggest non-governmental organization in the world.”

Not surprisingly, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s “foreign minister,” declined the invitation, citing the long history of Vatican diplomacy and the importance of a voice in international institutions that can speak “in defense of the dignity of each person and of the sacredness of all human life,” a voice that “does not cease to promote the fundamental right to religious freedom, and to promote relations among individuals and peoples founded upon justice and solidarity.”

To Archbishop Mamberti’s well-taken points, I would add the following:

(1) It was a tad insouciant for The Economist to write that the Holy See is in an “ambiguous situation” because it “enjoys many of the privileges of a state while also speaking for a faith.” The historical fact is that the Holy See — which is not identical with Vatican City State, or indeed with any territory, but is the juridical embodiment of the universal ministry of the Bishop of Rome as chief pastor of the Catholic Church — exercised a form of sovereignty, recognized in international law and diplomatic practice, centuries before there was such a thing as “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland” (home to The Economist). And the Holy See continued to do so between the demise of the Papal States in 1870 and the creation of Vatican City State in 1929.

Moreover, in its work at the U.N., the Holy See does not “speak for a faith” so much as it speaks from, and speaks for, universal moral truths that can be known by reason — that is, by everyone. The Holy See does not come to the U.N. to promote the ideas that there are seven sacraments, or that there are two natures in the one divine person of Christ, or that God is a Trinity of Persons in a unity of Godhead. The Holy See comes to the U.N. — as the Catholic Church addresses local and national politics — to remind governments of the first principles of justice, like the inviolability of the right to life of the innocent and the fundamental right of religious freedom.

(2) Further, for the Holy See to withdraw from the U.N. would be to concede, at least tacitly, that politics is exclusively about power (as exercised in and by states). That would be a sad diminishment of the idea of politics. Since the days of Aristotle, “politics” has been understood in the West to mean our common deliberation about public goods, about how we ought to live together. Those are, fundamentally, moral questions, not questions of power; politics engages questions of public goods and how we can know them, not just questions about how X imposes his will on Y.

Indeed, the answers to those questions of the common good are crucial in tempering power and bringing it under rational and moral scrutiny — and control. If the 20th century taught the world anything, it ought to have taught us that.

I expect that I’ll continue to disagree, from time to time, with positions the Holy See takes at the U.N. But that the Holy See plays an important role in international public life is undeniable. The U.N. would be the loser if it failed to recognize that.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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