The Holy See and the U.N.


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.”

Cardinal Angelo Sodano

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

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.”

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 "The Holy See and the U.N." The Catholic Difference. 2003

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of sixteen books, including The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring (2004), The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church (2002), and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (2001).

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2003 George Weigel

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