The United Nations and the Vatican

As noticed in our last instalment, the Holy See under the last several Pontiffs has chosen to collaborate with the United Nations in a number of areas, apparently in hopes that “creative engagement” may guide that body in better directions than mere opposition might do – as has been done a number of times with other governments and parties throughout history, with varying success. To understand this collaboration, we needs must understand the UN itself, as it understands itself! Particularly, we must understand what it does, for good or ill.

To begin with, just as with the Church herself or the United States government (which, after all, served as its prototype), the UN is not a monolithic organisation. It is often referred to in print as the “United Nations system,” a term which covers an incredible number of agencies doing various things out of a host of offices across the globe. There are, however, three major headquarters: New York, Geneva, and Vienna. Now, just as the American government does a great many things – some of which we as Catholics consider good, and others of which evil – so too with the UN. Our government accomplishes its tasks supposedly to forward the lofty goals set forth in the preamble to the Constitution. Similarly, the UN sets itself some noble ends:

To keep peace throughout the world;

To develop friendly relations among nations;

To help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms;

To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations to achieve these goals.

In and of themselves, of course, there is little here to argue with – save that, as with the United States constitution there is no mention of God; the Catholic might well wonder whether it is not all “valiant dust that builds on dust, and guarding, calls not thee to guard,” as Kipling puts it in his Recessional. This is particularly noticeable, since the Organisation has given itself the identical tasks the same author sets forth in The White Man’s Burden. Indeed, fighting “the savage wars of peace,” “filling full the mouth of famine,” and “bidding the sickness cease” is exactly what the UN aims for.

New York is the nerve center of the operation: there reside, in addition to innumerable other offices, the Secretary General, who is rather like the Head of Government – there is no Head of State, no World President – not yet!; the Security Council, a kind of Upper House, which functions rather as the U.S. Senate was supposed to prior to 1912 – that is, as the constituent states’ watchdog upon the thing; and the General Assembly, which is a sort of Lower House, and must approve all major actions of the World body – it has committees and so forth, just like the Houses of Representatives or Commons. In addition to approval of the UN’s deeds, the General Assembly also passes resolutions on various topics of international politics – which, while having only the practical force the member governments choose to give them, can be very influential.

From New York, therefore, emanate such key UN decisions as those involved in peacekeeping operations, probably the most famous aspect of the organisation’s work. As is well known, the UN will call upon its members to assign military and police units to the body’s temporary control – the “blue helmets” – in order to intervene in various conflicts to separate opposing sides and bring about a peaceful solution. Alongside these efforts are a host of others tending in the same direction. In this area, the Church collaborates primarily through the Military Dioceses of the different nations, by providing chaplains to the national contingents.

To affect both resolutions and actions in a way which will benefit them, each of the member states maintain missions to the UN in New York. So too do the Holy See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Neither the Holy See nor the Order are full members – rather they are “Permanent Observers.” This status allows them to intervene in the General Assembly’s deliberations. Where the member states naturally pursue their own interests, the work of the Holy See (and the Order) is rather different: to attempt to drum up support for measures they consider positive in the areas of charity and human rights, and to build up coalitions against what they see as immoral or evil. It is always odd to notice that their work in the latter category generally sees them working with most of the Muslim nations against the post-Christian regimes in Europe and North America. The areas where this most often comes into play include the “advancement” of women, population, and social development – all areas wherein the United Nations, some of her daughter agencies, and other intergovernmental organisations often espouse anti-Catholic (and anti-Islamic) points of view and courses of action. Needless to say, whatever success the Holy See has had in this area does not sit well with those opposed to Church teachings.

Also based at the New York Headquarters is the Economic and Social Council, another major organ of the UN. Made up of 54 members elected for three-year terms for the General Assembly, the ECOSOC is tasked by the UN Charter to “… make or initiate studies and reports with respect to international economic, social, cultural, educational, health, and related matters and may make recommendations with respect to any such matters to the General Assembly to the Members of the United Nations, and to the specialized agencies concerned,” and further, to “make recommendations for the purpose of promoting respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.” In order to do this, in recent years, the Council has granted official status to a dizzying array of Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) of every conceivable ideological and religious stripe – this is seen as involving “Civil Society” in the work of the UN. In addition, the UN Secretariat, responsible for day-to-day operations of the Organisation around the world, acts somewhat like our own General Services Adminsitration.

Now, of the thousands of UN accredited NGOs – all of whom try to influence the organisation’s work according to their own bent – a number are of Catholic inspiration. Many of these gather together in such umbrella groups as the Forum of Catholic Inspired NGOs and the International Catholic Organisations Network. But just as “Catholic” in an organisation’s name no longer tells us much about the views of the group – and diocesan justice commissions vary wildy in how orthodox their presentation of Church social teachings are, so too with these NGOs. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, for example, headed by the redoubtable Austin Ruse, struggles manfully to make the Church’s authentic teachings heard in UN deliberations, especially on social, pro-life, and “gender identity” issues – especially as regards working to keep things like abortion from being defined as a “human right.” But others appear to soft-pedal Church teaching for the sake of unity on agreed topics (“hunger and disease are bad”) or simply to maintain their accreditation. Moreover, they range wildly in inspiration and tactics: the international Catholic aid society, Caritas, is represented, as are religious order-based outfits like the Augustinians; there are also such special interest groups as the Catholic intellectual and cultural movement, Pax Romana; the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations; an the International Committee of Catholic Nurses, to name a very few.

The International Court of Justice sits at The Hague, complete with its own Law Library. Made up of 15 Judges elected by the Security Council and the General Assembly, it accepts cases between nations who have mutually agreed to accept its judgement in the case between them. In a sense, it is the World’s Supreme Court, somewhat like the American. As John Paul II recalled on a visit to the Court in 1985, every Pope since Leo XIII has supported the work of the Court, seeing its actions as preferable to warfare. Although not a part of the UN system, the International Criminal Court, also based in The Hague (although in different premises) differs from the ICJ on being able to prosecute individuals for crimes against humanity. The Holy See has supported this body since before its inception.

In Geneva, the International Labour Organisation works with governments, employers’ associations and trade unions to set standards for things like wages and fair living conditions. Predating the UN, the ILO functions on a world-wide scale much as any Ministry of Labour, such as our own Department of Labor. The World Health Organisation, also based in Geneva, coordinates world-wide efforts against disease a ministry of health, like our Department of Health and Human Services would. To represent the Holy See before these and the numerous other UN agencies in Geneva, there is also another Permanent Mission, as there is for the Order of Malta. As far as Catholic NGOs go, the International Catholic Migration Commission is based there (especially because of the presence of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) alongside many others, coordinated by the Centre Catholique Internationale de Geneve.

In Rome itself is the Food and Agriculture Organisation, ironically operating out of Mussolini’s old colonial ministry building. Its mandate is “Achieving food security for all is at the heart of FAO’s efforts – to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. FAO’s mandate is to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations and contribute to the growth of the world economy.” Specifically, it deals with such topics as agriculture, fisheries, and forestry. In this, it functions like a national Agriculture Ministry, our Department of Agriculture being a typical example. In addition to the Holy See being represented at its deliberations, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have, due to the FAO’s Roman location, delivered many messages of praise for its work to that body.

Paris hosts the United Nations Scientific, Cultural, and Educational Organisation in a specially built headquarters building. Acting like a strange combination of Science, Culture, Environmental, and Education Ministries (the Departments of Education and the Interior, and the Forest and National Park Services, in the American sense), UNESCO provides a great deal of funding, information, and support for innumerable programmes, many of which directly involve the Church or Catholic-related agencies and NGOs. So it is that the Holy See maintains in Paris a Permanent Observer Mission to UNESCO, and our NGOs are coordinated through the International Catholic Center for Cooperation With UNESCO, also in Paris.

Amongst many other examples one could cite, one of the Organisation’s most popular efforts is the World Heritage List, which “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity” — a bit like our own National Register of Historic Places, and the innumerable national, state or provincial, and local heritage registers across the globe. The Holy See is a signatory to the convention that established the WHL, and boasts two properties thereon: the Extraterritorial Properties of the Holy See in the City of Rome, and the Vatican itself; beyond that innumerable churches and shrines are to be found on the list throughout the world – alongside every other conceivable kind of landmark – and are thus eligible for UNESCO assistance.

Apart from collaboration in the areas mentioned, the Church is, naturally enough, concerned with the spiritual welfare of the practicing Catholics who work for the UN. To that end, the Church of the Holy Family in New York and the Bl. John XXIII Parish in Geneva cater expressly to UN personnel. A group of Catholic diplomats at the UN in New York formed the Knights of St. Gabriel, patterned after the Knights of Columbus, expressly for men in their unique position.

Although, as we have seen, the United Nations in many respects mirrors the actions and structure of a world government, it lacks three essential hallmarks of sovereignty. Firstly, despite the existence of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund, which in some ways mimic the activities of such Central Banks as our own Federal Reserve, there is as yet no single world currency controlled by the IMF. Secondly, there is no UN standing army – as noted, peacekeeping missions are recruited on a strictly case-by-case and ad hoc basis. Thirdly, the UN has no means of compelling the member states to comply with its decisions. In many ways, the organisation is a bit reminiscent of the United States government under the Articles of Confederation.

For most of its existence, the work of the UN was severely hampered by the Cold War rivalry of the two major power blocs. Since 1991, however, it has become ever more effective. As this has happened, there have been increasing calls for strengthening the UN – especially with an eye to accomplishing the UN’s ambitious Millennium Development Goals. Many of the proposals have included bestowing on the World body the three marks of sovereignty just referred to, as well as creating a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly which would give the strengthened body “democratic legitimacy.” In a word, what such groups as the Forum for a New World Governance, and the Centre For UN Reform Education look forward to is the gradual evolution of the UN into an actual World Government.

As mentioned in the last instalment, this is precisely the bête noir that has haunted so many of the Conspiracy Community – and which has presented the Church with the dilemma of whether to oppose, collaborate with, or ignore the phenomenon (it will amuse some to know that the followers of the late Avro Manhattan see the UN and the EU as the tools whereby the Vatican is seeking to dominate the world; of course, some of their opponents are excited by Manhattan’s Jewish descent). At any rate, unless the process is halted by some natural, economic, or political catastrophe that is likely the direction in which things are headed.

But just as the integral union of thirteen very disparate states required the formation of a sort of synthetic civic spirituality to foster loyalty to the new union – and with which the Church has had to co-exist ever since – something similar is required if this World Union is to inspire similar devotion from its citizens. We will look at that development in the next instalment.