Vatican: Religion or Polity?
by Sandhya Jain on 13 Apr 2010 18 Comments

Now that the scandal of the sex abuse of minor boys and girls and adult men and women in virtually every country with a church presence has touched the heart of the Vatican, singeing the present Pope himself for his alleged role in the protection of guilty priests, it may be appropriate to seek a review of the unique status the Roman Catholic Church enjoys at the United Nations. The Vatican slipped into the UN in the guise of the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, and sits on that august body as a Non-member State Permanent Observer.


The UN Secretary-General owes it to the international community to define the church as either a religion or a polity. If the Vatican is a state, it must end its presence as a religion in other countries; if it represents a faith denomination, it should participate in UN forums in exactly the same way as other religions and sects do - as a non-governmental organization. It must no longer be allowed the liberty to practice both religion and politics in other lands, particularly those with predominantly non-Christian populations.


Non-member State Permanent Observer status gives the Vatican some of the privileges of a state; it can speak and vote at UN conferences, a privilege denied to other religions and sects. As UN conferences operate on consensus, the power to disagree with an emerging consensus carries weight. It is pertinent that the Holy See was not invited to participate in the UN; it sought recognition as a state in international bodies; it got in though no vote was ever taken on its presence at the UN by the General Assembly.


The Holy See is definitionally a “non-territorial religious entity.” It does not meet the legal criteria for statehood as defined by the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”


The Holy See does not meet these criteria as it does not have a “permanent population,” as it is the governing body of Catholics worldwide and not a territory; for this reason it does not possess a defined territory. As late as 1985, it had diplomatic relations with only 53 countries; America established diplomatic ties with the Holy See only in 1984, possibly as part of its geo-strategic thrust against the then Soviet Bloc.


Further, the Holy See is defined by the church as the “supreme organ of government” of the Roman Catholic Church, but a government of a religion cannot be considered a state. Moreover, most state functions within Vatican City are actually carried out by Italy, which provides the police force and punishes crimes committed within Vatican City and provides all the civic amenities.


It is pertinent that other states that are theocracies, such as the Islamic kingdoms and nations, satisfy the international criteria for recognition as states. The mere fact of designating a particular religion as the official religion of the state cannot take away its statehood. But the Holy See is the government of a religion!


This is an oxymoron. Ironically, none of the major western countries where the Catholic Church has a sizeable presence, such as Italy, Germany, Britain, France, America, all European countries, Australia, the South American and African nations, are theocracies. In no country is the Catholic denomination the official state religion (Britain is Protestant). Yet, the dominant West, as part of its post-Second World War geo-strategy to oppose and vanquish Soviet Russia and the Communist Bloc, cleverly carved out Vatican City from Rome, for use at an appropriate time. Conversion of the rest of the world to Christianity (intra-Christian fights could wait) remained a top but covert agenda.


The plot unwound slowly. The myth of the ‘saint’ of the Calcutta slums, Teresa, was created by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, and her persona built up by sustained propaganda all over the world, though there was no matching social service output on the ground. Teresa is on a fast track to sainthood though her negligible social work has been exposed by western journalists seeking accountability for the huge funds sent to India, and by writer Aroup Chatterjee (Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict). Sadly, it suited the Kolkata communists to have this fake messiah in their midst, and nothing was done to expose the truth that church leaders misuse foreign funds for conversion activities rather than genuine social work.


Poor converts neglected by church authorities after being torn from their civilisational moorings are now fighting back, like the victims of sex abuse. The Poor Christian Liberation Movement is demanding full participation for scheduled caste converts, a hundred year moratorium on conversions, and use of the million dollar western donations to improve the lives of the already converted.


Challenging the “increasing corruption in Church organisations,” they have asked the UPA government to ensure transparency in the working of Christian NGOs that misuse foreign aid received for the welfare of the poor and downtrodden. While Christian schools, colleges, hospitals and other bodies mint money, the community gets little benefit. Poor converts want all Church bodies to earmark at least 50 percent of their income and profits for the uplift of the poor and downtrodden sections of the community.

Poor Christians are enraged at the Church’s move to push the government to include SC converts in the Hindu Scheduled Caste list, so that it does not have to cater to their social and economic uplift. The church prefers to ‘legalise’ caste in Indian Christianity; but this is untenable as caste is not recognised under Canon Law.


Despite so many taints, the Holy See is mysteriously honoured at the UN as a quasi-governmental entity. Pope John Paul II described the role of the Holy See in the UN as “spiritual… very different from that of the states, which are communities in the political and temporal sense.” The UN must treat all religions and religious denominations equally. The Roman Catholic Church must participate in the UN as an NGO, just as the World Council of Churches (apex Protestant body) does; it does not deserve its current privileged status.


The author is Editor, 

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