Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Holy See and the U.N.

Published in The Catholic Difference on February 26, 2003



This past November, in an interview with a leading Italian daily, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, said that he “would not exclude” the possibility of the Holy See becoming a full member of the United Nations, where it presently is a  “permanent observer.”

The cardinal’s suggestion may have come in response to a campaign orchestrated by the  the anti-Catholic lobby, “Catholics for a Free Choice,” aimed at stripping the Holy See of its “permanent observer” status. The success of any such campaign seems very unlikely. But perhaps Vatican officials think that altering the Holy See’s form of participation at the U.N., from “permanent observer” to “member,” would torpedo this entire (blatantly bigoted) exercise.

It is important to remember that the Holy See, not Vatican City State, exchanges diplomatic representation with over 175 countries, holds permanent observer status at the U.N., and is represented diplomatically at the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Organization of American States.  What is the “Holy See”? Here, some legal technicalities are unavoidable.

According to a centuries-long development of understanding, recognized in international law and diplomatic custom, the “Holy See” is the juridical embodiment of the worldwide pastoral ministry of the Bishop of Rome as the head of the Catholic Church – itself a “sovereign” community, in the specific, technical sense that it has, of itself, all the means necessary to achieve its (spiritual) ends. Because of this, the Holy See has “legal personality” for purposes of international law and diplomacy: it can send and accept diplomatic representatives; it can sign international treaties; it can take its place, in various ways, in international organizations.

The “legal personality” of the Holy See does not depend on the fact that Vatican City is an independent state. Diplomats are normally said to be accredited to “the Vatican,” but this is journalistic shorthand for the Holy See, for it’s to the Holy See that diplomats are in fact accredited. Indeed, in the years between 1870 (when the Pope became the “prisoner of the Vatican”) and the Lateran Treaty of 1929 (which created an independent Vatican City State), the Holy See continued to send out nuncios and receive ambassadors. During those fifty-nine years, the Holy See’s legal personality wasn’t changed by the fact that the Pope no longer ruled a defined piece of territory; the Pope remained the sovereign head of the Catholic Church, which is the essential element in the equation.

This arrangement has many advantages. The fact that the Holy See speaks in international organizations underscores the fact that the Church’s presence is one of moral witness and service. The Holy See is not a state, and the way it functions in international meetings, through “permanent observer” status, helps underline that. In a word, the Holy See is a uniquely disinterested party in international public life, speaking for the universal common good and not for any particular national “interest.”

Would this clarity be maintained, were the “permanent observer” to become a “member?” In the first place, who or what would be the “member”? The Holy See? But to date, the only “members” of the U.N. are sovereign states – which is not what the Holy See is. Well, then, what about Vatican City State as a “member”? That raises its own set of difficulties. What happens to the “Holy See” and its claim to “legal personality,” which do not depend upon the Holy See having “location” in an independent state, in this scenario?

These may seem utterly arcane matters, of interest only to international lawyers and diplomats. In fact, though, what is at stake here is the Church’s public witness on the international plane. How is that witness to be exercised in the world of international diplomacy, and in a way that communicates the Church’s distinct mission? Would the Church’s moral voice be muted or confused as another “member” of a club of states?
The Church has a right to a place at the table where the “ought” question of the human future are being debated. How it sits at that table will inevitably color what it says and how it is heard. Cardinal Sodano has raised some very large questions indeed.

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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