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Off with the Pontiff's Privilege!.

Keith Porteous Wood in: International Humanis News7:1&2,10-11,1999.


THE VATICAN has had the status of a State since the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the 'Holy See' and the Kingdom of Italy. IHEU which has always opposed the special status of a State given to the Vatican (with its 850 inhabitants and less than a square mile of area), joined the well-publicised protests, when in 1997, Pope Jean Paul II - on a private visit to perform religious duties in France - was treated as a State guest by the secular French Republic. (See Babu Gogineni's report in IHN, Sept. 97). In 1998, the IHEU participated in a large demonstration organised in Brussels to call for vigilance against the Vatican's undue influence in European matters. In February 2000, IHEU will support the initiative of IHEU's Italian Member Organisations to commemorate the 500 Anniversary of freethinker Giordano Bmno's burning at the stake by the Church, as well as to oppose the Vatican's privileged status.

Protest against the Vatican's interference in the affairs of sovereign nation States, and its obstruction to progressive policies on population control are building up world-wide. On the proposed visit of Pope John Paul II to India, the Indian Rationalist Association, an IHEU full Member Organisation, issued a strong press statement, describing him as a 'dangerous man', and the Vatican's stance on world population 'a crime against humanity'.

Here, the General Secretary of National Secular Society (an IHEU Associate Member Organisation) writes on the Vatican's privileged status at the UN and a new campaign aimed at dislodging the 'Holy See' from its present position.

Vatican not a Member State of the UN


The status at the United Nations of the Roman Catholic 'Holy See' is that of a Non-Member State Permanent Observer (NMSPO). No other organisation - nor any other religion - has managed to engineer such an elevated status. NMSPOs have the right to attend and speak at the UN's meetings and conferences. Vital decisions are made at these conferences where each NMSPO can vote like any normal state. NMSPOs are also ex officio delegates of UN specialized agencies such as the World Health Organisation and UNESCO. In contrast, Non-Governmental Organisations like the IHEU can only address the Assembly or conferences when invited, and cannot vote.

The NMSPO status was originally created specially for Switzerland, whose constitution precludes it becoming a full member of the UN. Later, in 1951, the Holy See became the only other NMSPO - at its own request and without a formal vote.


Unholy Alliances

It is bad enough where the separation of Church and State has not been achieved at national level, but it is far worse for religious power to be exercised within powerful supra-national bodies. Humanists should not simply object to the Holy See's UN status from an ideological perspective, they should also seek to oppose the Vatican's harmful interventions in the UN, whether they be formal or behind the scenes.

The Holy See forms alliances with Roman Catholic-dominated countries - Argentina and Guatemala, for example - and other countries with deeply conservative agendas such as Libya, Morocco and Sudan. This adds to the Vatican power base at the UN. Also, numerically small groups resisting progress, like the Vatican and its allies, wield disproportionate power by threatening to veto progressive measures. They are able to achieve this because the UN seeks to operate through consensus rather than by majority voting.

Given that most of those affected by the Vatican's policies at the UN are not even Roman Catholics, the power wielded by the Vatican there is all the more insidious. It is especially in sexual matters where the Vatican's notorious dogmatism is causing the most harm.


The Missionary Position on Birth-control


The Vatican has consistently worked against the provision of artificial contraception, hindering attempts to limit over-population, thereby increasing world poverty. The Vatican has also opposed the training and equipping of health care workers to ensure that, where abortion is legal, it is safe and accessible; such opposition has resulted in the death of more women from illicit abortions.

The Vatican's UN delegation has recently opposed the provision of condoms as protection against HIV/AIDS. This proscription of condoms has undermined the fight against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, causing unnecessary suffering and deaths. In areas where HIV is rife, such as parts of Africa and Asia, the scale of the resulting carnage is overwhelming, all the more so because those most affected are the most sexually active. Since such people tend also to be the wealth creators, their illness and death has also undermined the very economic fabric of some nations.

As Humanists, what we should be doing, I submit, is to publicise as widely as possible details of the Vatican's privileged status and the way they abuse it to compromise UN's humanitarian work. We should then devise a strategy to remove this absurd privilege accorded to a religion.


The See Change Campaign


A well-organised campaign along these lines is already up and running - under the auspices of a Washington DC-based organisation called Catholics For Free Choice. It represents liberal Catholic opinion and, curiously, views the Vatican's interference and obstructionism in these areas much as humanists do. CFFC's campaign has been endorsed by 275 organisations, which include many Catholic, women's pro-choice and family planning organisations. It maintains a well-designed and informative website devoted to this campaign at: www.seechange.org

Former UN Medical Director Dr. Michael Irwin commented: "I can understand humanist groups being reluctant to add their support to a Catholic-run organisation, even when it is one with which humanists have common cause. However I hope they will support CFFC simply because its campaign against the Vatican's status is currently the most active one".

The UK's National Secular Society is one of the few IHEU member organisations which has already endorsed the CFFC campaign, but this does not of course preclude the Society from supporting other organisations running similar campaigns. The NSS's President, Denis Cobell told me "We welcome IHEU actively opposing the Vatican's UN status and its endorsement to the CFFC Campaign; but a complex tactical decision will be the nature of IHEU's relationship with CFFC's campaign."


The Vatican given Short shrift

A forthright opponent of the Vatican's obstructionism at the UN is the Catholic Clare Short, the UK's International Development Secretary. In a speech this summer at the UN in New York she attacked the Vatican with surprising candour. Her opening remarks drew attention to the Vatican's obstructions at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo. Ms Short said: "Cairo was an extraordinary breakthrough on global sexual health. Many targets were agreed and hard-fought principles were eventually laid down: women have the right to control their own fertility, to decide the number and timing of their pregnancies; they should have access to contraceptive advice and education and safe abortion where it is not against the law; young people, the biggest risk group for HIV, should get sex education and contraceptive help. The Vatican lobbied loudly and aggressively against the principles, and some Catholic and Islamic countries registered objections, but the deal was done.

"But throughout this year, in the run-up to today's meeting, the Holy See and its allies have been working ceaselessly behind the scenes to unstitch all that progress. Their aim appears to be to block the report of what has been achieved from ever seeing the light of day and to force renegotiation of the Cairo agreement.

"My church is playing a deeply obstructive role where, if it had its way, a million people would get the HFV virus, there would be more and more unwanted pregnancies, more and more illegal abortions, more and more mothers dying as a result of illegal abortions. That is the position they are trying to work for. And it's a morally destructive course.

"There's this alliance trying to find governments which, for one reason or another, [the Holy See] can bully into adopting a position to obstruct this growing, informed international consensus.

"We have to have it out and argue and defeat those arguments. And while the office of the Holy See is putting that position, I know that Catholics world-wide, the overwhelming majority of them, do not agree with it."

Clare Shorf s speech was widely admired and provoked remarkably little criticism in the UK. Such a detailed, well-reasoned and exquisitely-timed attack on the Vatican's position, particularly by a Catholic-reared expert, was a major boost to the campaign. The more exposes like this, the better.


The Vatican's Reaction

Does the Vatican consider its UN representation is at risk? Probably not, but it is significant that they are now responding to our attacks. Archbishop Renato Martino, Vatican Permanent Observer at the United Nations, seeks to justify the Holy See's privileged status in the following terms: "The Holy See has had both an active and passive right of legation since the 4th century. Its international juridical status is universally recognized. How can a seat at the UN be considered a privilege, when the Holy See has had stable diplomatic relations for centuries with a great number of countries?" As it has been doing for the last 1,500 years, the Holy See continues to do everything it can to protect its enormous financial interests.

A spokesperson for the RC Church in England and Wales has also sought to justify the Vatican State's UN representation, on the grounds that it should have no less status than a small state like Luxembourg. This argument ignores the fact that Luxembourg extends to 1,000 square miles (rather than a few acres) and is a properly constituted democratic state. Its population is several hundred times that of the Vatican (and, unlike the Vatican, Luxembourg's residents also include women and children).

Predictably, the Vatican is dismissive of the CFFC campaign which it regards as "a clumsy attempt to silence the Roman Catholic Church". Clearly, the Vatican will not give up easily, and the struggle might well take a long time.

Our fighting to remove the Vatican's privileged status will also send a signal to any other world religions contemplating seeking a similar status to the Vatican's. As CFFC says "At a time when religious fundamentalism threatens pluralism, tolerance and rights, it's more important than ever that the UN maintains a clear separation between religious beliefs and international public policy".



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