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Women’s Rights PvdA VVD D66 Vatican

Breaking the power of the Vatican

   Sat 18/11/2000

Three Dutch Members of the European parliament argue for a severing diplomatic relations with the Vatican in an article published in Dutch daily newspaper "Trouw" on November 18, 2000

The Catholic Church is the only religion which is represented as a state in world politics. Through its worldwide network of ambassadors and its representation in organisations such as the UN, OECD and the WTO, it is the only representative of a faith sitting at the same table at which governments make policy. Members of the European parliament Lousewies van der Laan (D66), Elly Plooij-van Gorsel (VVD), and Joke Swiebel (PvdA) disagree with this. The consequences of this privileged position are far-reaching, particularly for people in the poorest countries in the world.

Introduction It was precisely 75 years ago that the Colijn government fell because the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament accepted a resolution by the Protestant Party which called for diplomatic ties with the Vatican to be broken. This was unacceptable to the Catholic Party then in government. When the Dutch government in exile restored relations with the papal authority in 1944, the world was completely different from today. The UN had not yet been founded, and the Netherlands was a completely "pillarised" society. Today, in contrast, the Second World War and the Cold War are history, and in their place come modern problems, like the AIDS epidemic in Africa. That the objections to the privileges granted to the Catholic Church are not coming form the Protestant side anymore, but from progressives and Liberals is another sign of the changing times. In America, it is a progressive-Catholic organisation, Catholics for a Free Choice, that leads the campaign to change the status of the Catholic Church in the UN. Resistance to this campaign comes, surprisingly, from Protestant politicians who feel a close affiliation with the conservative views of the Vatican. Presidential candidate George W. Bush is a prime example of a protestant conservative in favor of the privileged position of the Vatican. How things can change.

The end of pillarisation allows us have a rational discussion on whether we are to view the Catholic Church as a religion or a state. As the influence of the Catholic Church increases on the stage of world politics, its opponents increase as well. The campaign, "See Change", to change the status of the Vatican at the UN began in the US, and is now supported by over 500 organizations worldwide. Many of these groups encounter the power of the Vatican in their daily work. Among them are the Weeping Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, various Irish, Spanish and Italian family planning organisations, as well as numerous organizations which combat AIDS in Africa. Some organisations support the See Change campaign due to disagreement with some of the principles the Vatican has been advocating. These include Dutch progressive Catholic organisations such as "Kerk Hardop" and "Humanistisch Verbond".

What are the arguments against diplomatic relations with the Vatican? The principle argument is the separation of church and state. Secondly, there is the issue of equal treatment of religion. Because the Netherlands, and the EU as a whole, accepts ambassadors of only one church, this church has considerably more influence than other socio-religious players.

The influence of the Catholic Church reaches far. It is the only religion to hold a seat in the United Nations, with the status of a permanent observer mission. The only other country to hold this position is neutral Switzerland. This status gives the Catholic Church the same right to address the General Assembly of the UN as the Netherlands. Other non-permanent observers have fewer rights than nations. Such organisations include the Palestinian Authority, the World Islamic Conference and the European Union.

The Vatican is extremely active in the UN, and is seen by participants at various UN women's conference as the epicenter from which conservative forces are organised. At these conferences the Vatican joins forces with countries such as Sudan, Libya and Iran. Nations that are not particularly known for their liberal views on women's rights or their respect for freedom and democracy. It is therefore no coincidence that the human rights organization Women under Muslim Law is one of the most vocal opponents to the Vatican's position in the UN.

An oft-heard misconception is that the Vatican, as an observer, does not have voting rights in the UN. This is not true. Though it does not have voting rights in the General Assembly, the Vatican is allowed to vote during the various conferences of the UN, for example, the UN Conference on Women's Rights held in New York last year. More important is the fact that the UN works on the basis of consensus. This means that the UN shies away from voting and always aims to bring countries into one line of thinking. Extremist views, therefore, have substantial power. By continually making objections, the Vatican can block progress, delay decisions and claim a position where they can demand concessions. During the UN Women's Conferences in Beijing and New York, the Vatican used this tactic to object to confidentiality doctors for teenagers, to emergency contraception (the morning after pill) for refugee rape victims, to sex education at schools and to combating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. They also attempted to amend the term "respect for the rights of women" to "respect for the status of women". It is ironic, that a country that, by definition, does not include women, children and young people among its citizens, should be so active with matters that are relevant to these groups.

The direct result is that the UN is less effective with regard to a number of very important problems. Consequently, the poorest countries suffer: Hundreds of thousands of women die as a result of unsafe, illegal abortions and millions are infected with HIV.

What motivates countries to have diplomatic ties with a religion? One of the most important reasons is self-interest. The Vatican is one of the best informed institutions in the world. The Pope demands that his ambassador (the Nuntius) serves as the deacon, or chairperson, for the other ambassadors. This means that important developments must first be discussed with the Nuntius, and then with e.g. the Ambassador of the US or France. Countries who refuse this protocol are given an Internuntius. The Netherlands has always refused the Catholic Church this double privilege. Therefore, the Netherlands has always had an internuntius. Only recently the Vatican has taken a less rigid stance and given the Netherlands a full ambassador.

Over 160 of the 210 countries maintain diplomatic ties with the Vatican. The history of this goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Popes possessed large parts of present day Italy. The church lost its lands with the formation of the Italian state in 1860. Following the Lateran Treaties with Mussolini, the Pope regained his sovereignty with a piece of land less than half a square kilometer. This makes the Vatican the smallest sovereign entity in the world. By way of comparison: the mini-state of Liechtenstein is over 350 times larger.

Nevertheless, the fundamental difference between Vatican City and the rest of the world is not its size. The fact that the executive, legislative and judicial power are all in the hands of one person appointed for life (the Pope) is far from democratic, but there are more dictatorships in the world with whom we maintain diplomatic relations. The fundamental difference is that the Vatican does not represent a people. The Holy See has some 700 inhabitants who do not acquire citizenship by birth, but by their position in the Catholic Church. Moreover, they all possess a passport of their birth country. The Pope, for example is a Polish citizen. This implies that he has two votes on the international stage. He is both represented by Poland and by the Vatican. The combination of worldly state power and religious authority is particularly impressive and gives the Catholic Church a disproportionate influence in international politics.

The question then arises why Dutch members of the European Parliament are involved with this issue. Although our call to treat the Catholic Church as a religion is a question of principle, the consequences of the current situation have great impact on people’s daily lives. Confronted with the AIDS catastrophe taking place in Africa, the EU has started projects to help. Soon a second condom factory in Africa (Kenya) will be built with the support of the EU. However, Kenya is also a country where the Vatican is actively trying to undermine safe sex programmes and to keep the topic a taboo. Uganda is another country where the EU started up projects in the 1990s to promote the use of condoms. A few years later, the use of condoms increased exponentially and Uganda is one of the few African countries where the number of HIV infections has decreased (by approx. 50%). Since the beginning of 2000, the Pope's ambassador in Uganda has been directly addressing the Ugandan youth and berating them not to listen to aid workers who advocate condom use.

The Catholic Church represents an important social player and has every right to let its voice be heard and to present its political agenda. However, we want the Catholic Church to have the same say as other religions, and not be at the table with other nations making decisions. The Vatican should keep its observer status at the UN, but as an NGO observer and not as a state. Church and state must be separate. The Netherlands, the EU, and various international organisations must act in accordance with this principle. The Dutch "purple" cabinet should take the lead by converting its diplomatic ties with the Roman Catholic Church in an open dialogue on an equal basis with other religions.