From Fri Mar 17 04:47:02 2000
Date: Thu, 16 Mar 2000 16:35:42 EST
Subject: AANEWS for Thursday, March 16, 2000
Precedence: bulk

Effort begins to retain Vatican's special status at U.N.

American Atheist, #727, 16 March 2000

Timing Of “Apology” For Past Deeds, Maneuvering At European Union Raise Questions Over Holy See's Participation

A new campaign is being launched by religious and antiabortion groups from around the world to support the Vatican's special and influential status at the United Nations. The move follows an effort initiated by the group Catholics for a Free Choice, which has gathered over 400 signatures from organizations that want a review of the Holy See's claim as a sovereign government warranting special U.N. membership.

Although it has no vote, the Vatican takes an active, even aggressive stance at the United Nations in debates and international conferences. This has allowed the church to have a considerable impact on questions involving sex education, family planning and abortion issues.

Last year, Catholics for a Free choice announced that it was seeking a full review of the Vatican's unique status, and challenged the papacy's claim that it was a “state.” CFC President Francis Kissling has suggested that the Vatican should instead be treated as a non-governmental organization (NGO) comparable to other private groups and religious sects.

The issue is now attracting vocal supporters on all sides, and has spilled over to the U.S. Congress. Both the House and Senate are expected to debate official resolutions which have been introduced in support of the Vatican's special standing at the international body. Observers also note that the question of the Holy See's status reflects the contentious debate over church-state separation in America, and the role that sectarian religion is playing in the year 2000 election campaigns and related issues like the selection of a new Chaplain for the House of Representatives.

Indeed, the Holy See—the papal “government”—enjoys a unique U.N. status. It is the only religious group provided this special standing; other denominational or ecumenical groups, such as the World Council of Churches, are treated as NGOs. The Vatican's participation in important international conferences and decision making processes has worried critics, especially those dealing with women's rights and population issues.

“We have all seen the Holy See misuse a status that it obtained within the U.N. to some extent by accident,” Kissling told Associated Press earlier this week. She added that her group's campaign—dubbed “See Change”—was not a threat “to any legitimate state that sits in the U.N. that may hold positions that we disagree with.”

Some insist that more than the Vatican's U.N. status needs to be examined, though. American critics are uncomfortable with having the Roman Catholic Church recognized as an official government entity which enjoys diplomatic status. During the Reagan era, the Holy See was upgraded by the State Department, and is now considered a diplomatic mission. No other religious sect or group enjoys that privilege.

Both sides in the debate over the Holy See's U.N. status admit that abortion rights is the major point of contention. Squaring off against Kissling are groups like the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Austin Ruse, president of the organization, told Associated Press that the effort to undermine the Vatican's standing at the international body clearly touched on the abortion controversy. Ruse added that a counter-petition in support of the Holy See has attracted signatures from over 1000 organizations, including American religious conservative groups like the Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council.

This creates an unusual alliance between supporters of the Catholic church and Protestant evangelicals who support Ruse's campaign in order to keep a strong antiabortion presence in the United Nations.

Resolutions Support Vatican Status

On Capitol Hill, anti-choice and pro-Vatican lawmakers have introduced official resolutions supporting the Holy See's status at the United Nations.

In the Senate, S. Con Res. 87—“Commending the Holy See for making significant contributions to international peace and human rights, and objecting to efforts to expel the Holy See from the United Nations…” — was introduced on March 1 by Sens. Smith of New Hampshire, Santorum, Helms, Landrieu, Stevens, Ashcroft, Inhofe, Coverdell and John McCain of Arizona. McCain's recent effort to win the Republican nomination race against Texas Gov. George W. Bush played upon religious themes, including a “Catholic voter alert” criticizing Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University.

S. Con. Res. 87 “commends the Holy See for its unique contributions to a thoughtful and robust dialogue in issues of international concern during its 36 years as a Permanent Observer at the United Nations,” and “strongly objects to any effort to expel the Holy See” from that lofty position.

It also “contends that any degradation of the status of the Holy See will damage relations between the United States and the United Nations.”

On March 9, the resolution was placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar.

At the other end of the hill, H. Con. Res. 253 contains almost identical wording. The measure was introduced on February 16 by Reps. Smith (N.J.), Hyde, Armey, Barcia, Delay, Hayworth, John, Pitts, Ros-Lehtinen, Ryan, Sherwood and Tancredo. It, too, “strongly objects” to any change in the Vatican's U.N. status, and also threatens that such changes “would seriously damage the credibility of the United Nations by demonstrating that its rules of participation are manipulatable for ideological reasons rather than being rooted in neutral principles and objective facts of sovereignty…”

Smith's resolution is currently in the House Committee on International Relations.

Propitious Timing?

The controversy over the Vatican's U.S. standing comes amidst a well-publicized “apology” for past transgressions issued last Sunday amidst the pomp and ceremony of a mass held at St. Peters in Rome. The Pope and several key Cardinals all asked for “forgiveness” over the church's persecution of women, Jews and other groups. We note, however, that the Holy See's mea culpa comes at a time when the Vatican is deeply involved in a number of global events.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and regional church leaders hosted a special “ecumenical mass” for the politicians and dignitaries.

The meeting commemorated the Gniezno Congress of the year 1000—a high-water point for Catholic influence throughout Europe. Prelates and government leaders then ventured for a ceremony at the grave of St. Adalbert (1000?-1072), German ecclesiastic and Archbishop of Hamburg who is now being promoted as the ideological godfather of a unified European super-state under the auspices of the church.

Despite the historic inaccuracy, in 1997 the presidents of the seven central and eastern European nations joined Pope John Paul in a similar ceremony at Adalbert's grave, ostensibly commemorating the 1,000 year anniversary of the evangelist's death.

The historical overtones of this latest gathering in Gniezno, Poland must not be minimized. Archbishop Henryk Muszynski told the dignitaries that their efforts, while “directed toward the future,” must also take stock of past lessons. At the end of the first Christian millennium, Poland and other nations in the region were looking to the German Emperor Otto III, who was working to expand the church's influence under the “new” Roman Empire further to the North. The Vatican was clearly signaling a message at this latest Gniezno meeting—it intends to be a major player in any political configuration which emerges in eastern Europe, and the rest of the European Union.

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The Roman Catholic Church is a unique theo-political entity. It enjoys the dubious status of being recognized throughout the world as both a religion and a sovereign nation-state. The latter has been the basis of extending official U.S. diplomatic recognition to the Vatican, and allowing the church's political wing—the “Holy See” — to occupy a powerful position in international bodies, including the United Nations. This in turn has permitted the church to have a disproportionate voice in world affairs, influence national and international policy, and maintain itself as an intelligence “listening post” trading information and monitoring global events.

When the United States extended official diplomatic status to the Holy See during the Reagan administration, one benefit was access to the church's network of clerics and organizations in Eastern Europe. Indeed, the church funneled tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. government (especially the Central Intelligence Agency) to nativist groups like the Polish Solidarity Union. After the “fall of the wall,” many citizens in the eastern block expressed alarm when the Church attempted to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of regional communist parties, and limit civil liberties, abortion rights and take over national educational systems.

In diplomatic parlance, the Holy See is a “monarchical-sacredotal state.” What is today known as Vatican City was established as a result of a Concordant and Treaty signed between the Pope and the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). Along with granting the church special privileges and geographical autonomy—a question which had been part of Italian politics for centuries—Mussolini also helped to establish the powerful church bank, which has evolved over the years under such innocent-sounding titles as “Institute for Religious Works.”

The Catholic state occupies a geographical area of about .44 square kilometers—some 70% of the size of the Capital Mall in Washington, D.C. It has no agricultural lands, manufactures no products (except religious kitsch and official postage stamps), engages in no trade, has no pasture lands or port. It receives some municipal services from the city of Rome (water, sewer) but has been locked in a dispute with the Italian government because it is in arrears on payments. Its biggest industry, not including religious proselytizing, is worldwide financial activities and banking services.

It has no opposition political parties. What passages for suffrage in the Papal state is limited to Cardinals under the age of 80 who vote for a replacement whenever a Pope expires. It has no airport (only a helicopter pad), one “official” newspaper and seven broadcasting stations, and operates on an annual budget estimated at $175 million. Outside of the immediate walled borders of the papal states are 13 other buildings which have been granted similar status, along with Castle Gandolfo, the pope's vacation residence.

While it claims religious immunity, the Holy See has a network of diplomatic posts and legations throughout the world. It is a member or “observing member” of numerous international bodies, including the WTO, IAEA, IOM and Intelestat. In the United States, the Vatican maintains an official embassy on Massachusetts Avenue headed by Apostolic Pro-Nuncio Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan.

The recognition of the Roman Catholic church as a political, diplomatic and religious entity is a status which no other religious group in the world enjoys. Those groups which do participate in the international community, specifically the United Nations, are limited to NGO or “non-governmental organization” status. While the Vatican does not have a vote in the Security Council, it is generally agreed in political circles that the special position and influence of the Holy See makes it a force to be reckoned with.

Increasingly, critics are attacking this unique status for the Vatican.

A press release issued yesterday by Catholics for a Free Choice noted: “The heart of the matter is the fact that the Holy See is not a state but the government of the Roman Catholic Church. To grant state status and special privileges to this religion over all others is simply unfair…”

Anika Rahman, international program director at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy noted: “The legal status of the Holy See as a nation-state is questionable. It does not meet the same criteria for nationhood as the other nations that are participants in the UN.”