Despite tension, U.N., Holy See have strong past

The Holy See might be in for another confrontation at the United Nations based on this year’s session of the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

In her March 10 opening statements, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, listed family planning, safe abortions and reproductive rights as important principles that need to be protected in the U.N.’s Millennial Development Goals.

A month after a separate U.N. commission said the Catholic Church needs to change its moral teachings on contraception, abortion and homosexuality, the Holy See’s delegation at the CSW gathering will be challenged to present a more authentic view of women’s dignity and rights than what will be advocated by well-funded, non-governmental groups bent on promoting a secular agenda.

“There is a real conflict about what it means to have gender equality. This is going to be an issue for us,” said Teresa Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota. 

Collett, who said she will attend the CSW event, told Our Sunday Visitor that Western nations and U.N. staff members have been “unceasing” in promoting their ideas at the international body. The Holy See, Collett said, plays an important role in presenting its understanding of the human person, which is based on divine revelation and reason, as well as 2,000 years worth of experience in humanitarian endeavors. “To lose that breadth and depth of knowledge would be a huge loss to the U.N.,” Collett said.

Holy See’s role

The Holy See — defined as the central government of the Catholic Church consisting of the pope and the college of bishops — established relations with the United Nations in 1957. In April 1964, the Holy See became a Permanent Observer State, which allows it to enter into treaties, send and receive U.N. diplomats, and participate in debates and U.N.-sponsored conferences.

By its own choice, the Holy See is not a voting member state in order to maintain absolute neutrality in specific political problems, especially in matters of war and peace.

“The Holy See didn’t want to be voting ever to go to war. They didn’t want to be part of those kind of votes,” said Anne Hendershott, a sociology professor and director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

Established a little more than 12 years after the end of World War II, the U.N. early on held great promise as a venue where nations could come together and settle disputes peacefully. In October 1965, Pope Paul VI told the U.N. General Assembly that he saw the United Nations as a “great school” for the education of mankind in the ways of peace.

Thirty years later, Blessed Pope John Paul II told the General Assembly that the 51 states that founded the U.N. “lit a lamp whose light can scatter the darkness caused by tyranny.” In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the General Assembly, and said his presence was a “sign of esteem for the United Nations.”

“I would say the Church looks upon the General Assembly as the most important part of the United Nations since it’s the one place where nations can get together and work through the issues,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a non-governmental organization that monitors the U.N.

In addition to safeguarding civilians by deploying peacekeepers to various global hot spots, the Holy See has credited the United Nations for doing great humanitarian works in providing relief to areas ravaged by natural disasters, helping alleviate poverty, providing clean water supplies, reducing child mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Some of those humanitarian aims are included in the eight U.N. Millennial Development Goals, a set of international benchmarks for 2015 that also include achieving universal primary education, improving maternal health, combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and promoting gender equality and empowering women.

“The U.N. believes in development. The Church also believes in development, education and right down the line of the Millennial Development Goals,” Ruse said. “When you get to the moral issues, that is when you see the friction.”

Conflicts arise

Tensions have risen between the Holy See and some U.N. member states and non-governmental organizations over what the Millennial Development Goals should entail. For example, the Holy See is adamant that liberalizing abortion laws should not be equated with improving maternal health and empowering women. Despite what some liberal NGOs and activists might suggest, the Catholic Church does not believe that distributing condoms is the answer to stopping HIV/AIDS in Africa.

In February, Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, the apostolic nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, told a U.N. working group that while the Holy See supports efforts to improve equality for women, that should not be confused with pushing coercive birth control-based family planning programs.

“The global community must sidestep a simplistic assertion that shortfalls in women’s economic and public achievements can be remedied only by the negation of their procreative capacities,” Archbishop Chullikatt said.

Tensions have been increasing since the Holy See, under Pope John Paul II’s leadership, fought back efforts to declare abortion to be an international human right during a 1994 U.N. conference in Cairo. 

With increasing regularity, the U.N. treaty commissions have interpreted U.N. human rights treaties to cover topics not mentioned in the actual documents, such as legalized abortion, homosexual rights and wider access to birth control.

In mid-February, the U.N. committee tasked with monitoring nations’ implementation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child issued a report that said the Catholic Church should change its moral teachings and amend canon law to spell out the circumstances under which abortion could be permitted.

“For the U.N. to lecture the Holy See on canon law is just completely unprecedented,” Collett said, adding that the commissions undermine the United Nations when they overstep their mandate.

In 2006, the Holy See declined to sign the U.N. Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because of problematic language that appeared to include a right to abortion, and that undermined parents’ rights to raise their children with Christian values. At last year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, the Holy See criticized the commission’s final document for not including the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

“I’m concerned about where things are headed,” Collett said. “We’re seeing a real campaign to disregard the rights of conscience and to impose a worldview contrary to what we know to be reality.”

Despite the increasing clashes, Hendershott said it would be a bad idea for the Holy See to walk away from the U.N. The fact that some U.N. bureaucrats and NGOs have called the Holy See an obstructionist force, and have even tried to remove it from the United Nations, speaks well of the Church, Hendershott said.

“The Church is still something to be reckoned with at the United Nations,” Hendershott said. “And I’m proud of that.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.