CNEWA

The Holy See at the United Nations

What role does the Catholic Church play at the United Nations? Is there a formal relationship between these two global bodies? If so, how and why?

Broadly speaking, the U.N., whose 77th Session of the General Assembly began on Tuesday, 13 September, consists of three groups: nation-states, organizations of the United Nations, such as UNICEF and UNESCO, and civil society or nongovernmental organizations.

Central to the U.N. are five principal organs established by the U.N. Charter: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice and the U.N. Secretariat.

At present there are 193 member states in the General Assembly and two observer states: the Holy See and Palestine. The situation concerning the church and the U.N. is complicated and confusing for many reasons. One of the primary reasons is that many people — even well-informed Catholics — use the terms Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Holy See interchangeably. However, while they are intimately related with a good deal of overlap, they are not synonymous.

The most important terms to begin understanding the church’s relationship with the United Nations are “Vatican City” and “the Holy See.”

In 1929, after decades in which the church and the newly unified Kingdom of Italy were at odds with one another, the Kingdom of Italy recognized “the sovereignty of the Holy See in international matters as an inherent attribute” and recognized “the full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction of the Holy See over the Vatican as a present constituted … thus creating the Vatican City” (Articles 1 and 2 of the Lateran Pact).

Article 24 of the Lateran Pact specified an important character of the sovereignty: “In regard to the sovereignty … in international matters, the Holy See declares that it desires to take, and shall take, no part in any temporal rivalries between other states, nor in any international congresses called to settle such matters” without being invited by all the parties involved in the “rivalry.” The language indicates this was the choice of the Holy See and not something imposed from the outside.

This “fundamental neutrality” of the Holy See in international affairs is important to understand its role and posture at the United Nations.

The emergence of the nation-state is rooted in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years War in Europe, beginning a long process in which some states are still emerging. There are plenty of examples of this in Europe even now: The Balkan states in post-Yugoslavia are a good example.

Long before the Treaty of Westphalia, however, the Holy See was universally considered a sovereign state in the West. For centuries, the Papal States in central Italy were seen as the possessions of the bishop of Rome, the pope, who was not only their spiritual leader but their sovereign as well. Other sovereigns in Europe, and at times the Muslim Ottoman Empire, maintained diplomatic relationships with the Holy See’s Papal States.

The Napoleonic Wars (1800-1815) and the Risorgimento, or wars for the unification of Italy, which culminated in the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 and the ultimate loss of the Papal States in 1870, first weakened and then eliminated the temporal sovereignty of the pope and the Holy See. From 1870 until 1929 — a period of 59 years — the international status of the Holy See was in limbo. It is important to note that while the Papal States disappeared in 1870, the Holy See did not.

The emergence of international organizations, such as the League of Nations after World War I and the United Nations after World War II, raised the possibility and the question of the right of the Holy See to belong to these organizations. Earlier proposals concerning the Holy See’s membership in the League of Nations were opposed by France, Great Britain and, to some extent, the United States. As a result, the Holy See was never a member of the League and was often critical of it.

Archbishop Gabriele Caccia speaks into a microphone while seated at the U.N.
Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations, speaks at the U.N. in New York City 27 January 2020. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The question of the Holy See’s membership in a newly created United Nations surfaced early. Many of the same reservations arose, including questions about the status of the Holy See in international law. There was some significant opposition to the Holy See having membership in the U.N. The U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull thought it “undesirable” for the Holy See to have membership because, “as a diminutive state the Vatican [note his confusing the Holy See with the Vatican] would not be capable of fulfilling the responsibilities of membership.”

However, the organizers ultimately agreed the Holy See was an “international person” and “as an international personality … has the competence to engage other international personalities including sovereign states.”

At almost the same time as the emergence of the United Nations, significant developments were taking place in the Catholic Church, including an evolving concept of the role of the Catholic Church in the world, which would lead to the convening of the Second Vatican Council. The mixed attitude of Pius XII to the United Nations grew into one of cooperation. Pope John XXIII, in his ground-breaking encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” stated his hopes: “May the day be not long delayed when every human being can find in this organization [the U.N.] an effective safeguard of his personal rights” (Par. 145).

The Holy See became a permanent observer to the U.N. in 1964 in a unique way. U Thant, U.N. secretary general (1961-1971), was impressed by the efforts for peace of Pope John XXIII, especially his work to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and “Pacem in Terris.”

Within a month of the election of Pope Paul VI (1963), U Thant visited the Holy See and found the new pope’s position on the emerging war in Vietnam to be similar to that of Pope John XXIII. When Paul VI wrote and asked for “more stable relations” with the U.N., the secretary general responded quickly by offering permanent observer status on 6 April 1964.

As a permanent observer, the Holy See is invited to sessions of the General Assembly, Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. It can make formal policy statements during general debates. It cannot, however, cast a vote, cosponsor draft decisions or resolutions, make points of order or exercise the right of reply. Interestingly, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the U.N. from 2002 to 2010, stated, “We have no vote because that is our choice.”

The status of the Holy See at the United Nations was affirmed and strengthened by the General Assembly on 16 July 2004. After an attempt was made to have the Holy See removed as a permanent observer, the General Assembly passed Resolution A/58/314, which acknowledges that “the Holy See, in its capacity as an observer state, shall be accorded the rights and privileges of participation in the sessions and work of the General Assembly and the international conferences convened under the auspices of the assembly or other organs of the United Nations, as well as in United Nations conferences as set out in the annex to the present resolution.”

In an annex to the resolution, the General Assembly reduced many previous restrictions and increased the privileges of the Holy See in its interaction with the United Nations.

While permanent observer status may seem like a lower level of association, Archbishop Migliore was correct in saying it was a deliberate choice. The stance of permanent neutrality of the Holy See, which will be treated in a subsequent article, means the Holy See can work for peace and human rights as a neutral entity. It could not be considered neutral if, for example, it voted for sanctions against a particular country or was required to contribute armed forces to a U.N. peacekeeping operation.

With Resolution A/58/314, the Holy See is situated in the United Nations with the access and ability to influence the major organs and organizations of the international body. As a permanent observer, it can do so without compromising its commitment of self-declared neutrality, while still operating as a religious and moral voice for the Gospel values of peace, justice and human dignity in the international community.


Atonement Father Elias Mallon serves as CNEWA’s special assistant to the president.

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