At the United Nations, the Vatican is church and state. That needs to change.

The United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Stsn Honda/AFP/Getty Images) The world seems to have fallen in love with … Continued


The United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Stsn Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

The world seems to have fallen in love with Pope Francis and, given the interview with La Civilta Cattolic recently, that is understandable.

Everyone is pinning their hopes for change on this pope. Catholics are hopeful that the hierarchy will join the rest of us in respecting each person’s conscience, especially on decisions about sexuality and reproductive health. Catholics and non-Catholics join together in hope that this pope will respect the rights and religious liberty of every person, and rein in his representatives who run roughshod over people’s rights when they muscle in on policymaking at the state, national and international levels and impose an extreme and harmful worldview on women around the world.

This week and next we have an opportunity to see how Pope Francis’ representatives around the world behave. As the world’s leaders gather in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, Francis’ diplomats will be among them. This is vitally important because the Vatican, as the Holy See, has a special status at the UN, above that of any other religion. This status and its implications for public policy are addressed in a new three-minute movie that shows exactly what happens when the lines between religion and public policy are blurred.

Earlier this year, as Pope Francis was being elected, the Vatican refused to commit to a statement condemning violence against women at the Commission on the Status of Women. Vatican representatives also slipped in jabs at women’s reproductive rights in statements that should have focused on the problems of sexual violence and sustainable development. A mismatch between rhetoric and reality is nothing new. Pope Benedict’s guarded approval of condoms as a “first step” on a path to moral sexual behavior never trickled down to his representatives at the UN, where the Holy See still opposes their inclusion as an HIV prevention method, nor to the vast Catholic-run HIV & AIDS treatment system.

The Vatican is granted a unique level of access to the United National General Assembly and international conferences where global rights and norms are determined. Though it works hard to cultivate the image of speaking for all, the Holy See’s interventions at the UN certainly don’t represent the views of all Catholics. Even predominantly Catholic countries have disagreed with the Holy See’s extreme position on contraception, sexuality education and abortion. Why is the Holy See allowed to masquerade as a state and impose the narrowest interpretations of its religious doctrine on everybody? Other religions are treated as NGOs, and many support reproductive rights but are not given the deference or the power the Holy See enjoys

“The Holy See should not be able to trade on its presumed moral authority, but rather should be judged by the actual results of its policies,” concludes The “See Change” Campaign video. In order for the pope’s new turn to have an impact, the UN must start by recognizing that the Holy See is not a state and should have no greater representation than any other religion. This would go beyond Francis washing the feet of a young Muslim woman or affirming that atheists can be good people. It would require Francis and his representatives around the world to step out of the way so that people of all faiths and belief systems can exercise the right to make their own moral decisions about sex, relationships, and reproductive health. That would indeed be something to celebrate.

Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.

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  • Openletter2004

    This special status is what the Pope is using to hide homosexual pedophiles in the Vatican.

    Any other “state” that did that would be censured..

  • CCNL

    The better solution:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues and the Vatican.

  • plattitudes

    Well, the Holy See is granted a seat at the UN table, because it IS a sovereign nation with diplomatic ties, including ambassadors, etc. to almost 180 other UN Members. Yes, it’s small (about a half kilometer square) but so is Monaco (only 2k square). This is why it is part of the UN, where other religions are not. That the author doesn’t even mention this makes me doubt his credibility.

  • plattitudes

    Wow, just reread the last paragraph, and he actually claims “that the Holy See is not a state.” With respect Mr. O’Brien… I can’t believe you have any idea what you’re talking about.

  • ThomasBaum

    Jon O’Brien

    The title of your article: “At the United Nations, the Vatican is church and state. That needs to change.”

    Why?

    The Vatican is not trying to turn the world into a theocracy, they are not forcing themselves on others yet you seem to want to force your beliefs on them.

    Are you going to have a follow up article on those “states” that are theocratic in nature and DO force themselves on many of their citizens?

    If and when you have this follow up article will it also include those “states” that attempt to “force” their beliefs outside of their geographical boundaries?

  • Ranmore

    No – he’s referring to the Vatican which has consistently refused to co-operate with authorities in other countries over child abuse investigations. Even the Taoiseach of Ireland condemned the Vatican for obstruction.

  • Ranmore

    “It would be much better to flush O’Brien down the toilet”

    Is this what passes for intelligent debate by Catholics these days? You completely fail to address any of the valid points raised by the article but excel in schoolboy slander.

  • immigrant1

    Our opinions are valid only in our own minds

  • immigrant1

    I THINK HE IS REFERRING TO THE US GOVERNMENT

  • CCNL

    Some 21st century reality:

    The Apostles’ / Agnostics’ Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (References used are available upon request.)

  • CCNL

    Dear Jon,

    The better choice: (The complete demise of said Vatican and your church)

    The Apostles’ Creed 2013 (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (References used are available upon request.)

  • plattitudes

    Ranmore, although I share your disdain for the denegration of the conversation to name calling, etc, I don’t believe the article can be viewed as having any valid points, as it is based on a false premise: that the Catholic Church is somehow being given preferential treatment over other religions due to its observer status at the UN, and that the Vatican City is not a sovereign state. In addition, the author attempts to impose an American value–separation of church and state–upon the UN.

  • EddDoerr

    Baum misses the point. What O’Brien is saying is that the Holy See is using (or misusing) its unique status as the only religious organization that enjoys Permanent Observer status at the UN to impede international efforts to advance the health and reproductive rights interests of women, often in cooperation with Islamist-leaning states. There are governments around the world that are theocratically inclined, but that has nothing to do with what O’Brien is talking about.

    And let’s not confuse the Holy See with the Vatican. The Holy See is the HQ of a church and is housed in Vatican City (Citta del Vaticano), a sovereign microstate about the size of a golf course that has state relations only with Italy. Reagan started US diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984 for purely political reasons.

    I would welcome commentary about those religious right forces that are pushing to have their sectarian dogmas imposed on everyone, such as the Religious Right groups so prominent in today’s Republican Party that seek to interfere with women’s reproductive rights of conscience here in the US.

    Edd Doerr (arlinc.org)

  • EddDoerr

    J.Davis & Platitudes are confused. The Vatican, as a sovereign microstate, has existed only since 1929, when Mussolini found it convenient to make it so. There was, however, a country in central Italy known as the Papal States, a real country with real inhabitants, which was absorbed unto the country of Italy in 1970. In a plebiscite the people of the former Papal State specically rejected papal rule and opted for a more democratic arrangement.

    The Catholic Church, represented officially by the Holy See, is a religion, and as such should have no more privileges than any other religion.

    All O’Brien is asking for is that his church not be given privileges not given to others.

    Meanwhile, readers would do well to check out Catholics for Choice, one of the many religious groups standing up for women’s reproductive rights of conscience and religious frfeedom.

    Edd Doerr, President, Americans for Religious Liberty

  • EddDoerr

    Ooops, I meant 1870 in my comment above.

  • EddDoerr

    Davis is wrong. Public school teachers are more likely than clergy to be found misbehaving, and when they are discovered they are promptly dealt with. Davis is probably on one of conservatives who would like to privatize public education and publicly subsidize church schools through vouchers, which substantial majorities have always rejected. — Edd Doerr

  • SeattleChaplain

    As a Christian minister, I can truthfully say there are few religious thinkers I admire more than Jon O’Brien. His passion for his faith tradition, his determination to advocate for positive change within the Catholic Church, and his drive for truth inspire me to speak out more loudly and clearer about the same types of issues in my own denomination. I recall a seminary professor of mine saying, “If you want to throw stones at stained glasss windows, you must do it from inside the Church.” Kudos to Mr. O’Brien. I trust he continues to be armed with the stones of truth.
    The Rev. Vincent Lachina, Seattle, WA

  • ThomasBaum

    EddDoerr

    You wrote, “There are governments around the world that are theocratically inclined”

    Kind of a cop out don’t you think, some are so “theocratically inclined” that islam is their government.

    No “religion” of any kind should be forced on anyone.

    As I wrote, “Are you going to have a follow up article on those “states” that are theocratic in nature and DO force themselves on many of their citizens?” and “If and when you have this follow up article will it also include those “states” that attempt to “force” their beliefs outside of their geographical boundaries?”

    Pretty simple questions, a yes or not, for the time being would suffice for an answer, don’t you think?

  • ThomasBaum

    EddDoerr

    You wrote, “Baum misses the point.”

    Could the point be that the Sword of Christianity and the sword of islam are quite different “swords”?

    By the way, it doesn’t matter what religion anyone has or if one has a religion, God did what God did for ALL.

    God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof and It is important what one does and why one does it and what one knows.

    You should follow God the way that you feel that you should follow God but not if that is to force yourself or your beliefs on others.

  • ThomasBaum

    We are so caught up in the “rules and regulations”, “dogma and doctrine” of “religion” that virtually no one seems to realize that Jesus very clearly said that “My KIngdom is not of this world” and that He asked us to “Proclaim the Good News” which is only Good News if the news is, ultimately, GOOD for ALL.

    Is there anyone else that thinks/believes that Jesus Is the Saviour of All, does anyone else even want Jesus to be the Saviour of All?

  • Lalande21185

    The problem with O’Brien’s proposal is that, whether he likes it or not, the Vatican is a legal state, recognized by the United States. In varying form, it has existed (as the Papal States) for almost 1300 years! As a state, it deserves a place at the UN.

  • Tonivp

    I am so glad for the leadership of Catholics for Choice. Read their report on how the ‘Holy See” wormed its way into the UN. It is eye opening and educational. It is time we as a planetary society stop religious privilege in its tracks. The leaders of the church have little claim to moral authority, particularly because of their record of harm to women and children worldwide.

  • staffordeg

    Mr. O’Brien’s implication that somehow Pope Francis and the Church somehow imposes moral decisions on members and non-members alike is risible. The Pope, like all thinking human beings, has the right and obligation to try to persuade others to follow what he/they believe to make good moral decisions, including ones about sex and relationships. As a rational and caring human being who heads a large religious institution, the Pope is also obliged to remind people that so-called reproductive health decisions (codeword for abortion) involves vulnerable human beings at the beginning of life. Unlike Mr. O”Brien, he is not granted the luxury of evading that scientific and moral truth.

  • Joel Hardman

    There’s a difference between telling people what is morally right and using political influence to try to change public policy. It seems to me that the Catholic Church has done the latter as described in the article.

  • plattitudes

    @EddDoerr– I am not sure how the age of the state is relevant to its inclusion in the UN. South Sudan has only been independent for a couple of years, yet it rightly gets a seat at the table. (Nor does @J. Davis claim the nation is 2000 years old, that clause applies to the Church).

    The Catholic Church is a religion, and as such has no more privileges than any other religion.
    The Vatican City is a sovereign state, and as such has an already-reduced role in the UN.

    All of that aside, though, the question remains: Why should the UN insist on a separation of Church and State? That is a distinctly American value, and I can think of several other countries, including some permanent members of the Security Council (UK and China to start), who would object to such a prohibition.

  • plattitudes

    Yes, a truly insidious attempt to infiltrate the UN… being a nation.

  • Joel Hardman

    As a militantly non-religious person, I find that the divides between various Catholic factions and between various Christian denominations reinforce my impression that religion is largely a matter of in group/out group identity.

  • ThomasBaum

    Are you saying that you find “religion” pretty much like all other human endeavors?

    Including but not limited to your “militantly non-religious person” take on “religion”?

  • Hans Christian Cars

    Jon O’Brien has published an important article. The Holy See is, indeed, no State and its status as a non-member State of the UN and a full member State of the OSCE is inappropriate. The Holy See consists of the Pope and the Curia who represent a religion not citizens of a country. As such, it ought to be represented at international organizations as a non-governmental organization (NGO), not as a State.

    Jon O’Brien is highly commended for having raised this issue that ought to be dealt with both at the UN and the OSCE.

    Finally, I wish to refer to the excellent comment made by David Pollock on 1 Octobre (see below).

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