Even as it gears up to take on the non-Christian world and “harvest” souls in its third millennium, the Roman Catholic Church is caught in the throes of an existential dilemma. At stake are the nature and status of both the Papacy and the Vatican City State. The core issues in the conflict are Papal supremacy, the separate existence of the Vatican, the role of women, sexual morality, and the relevance of the church to the lives of ordinary men and women. There is a growing realization in large parts of the Christian world that Catholicism means more than the Catholic hierarchy, and that the latter is lagging unconscionably behind in the development of Catholic wisdom.
The asymmetry has put the church at odds with the faithful, who find it unresponsive to their concerns on issues that confront them in their daily lives. This has led to an alarming increase in the number of Catholics who reject Church dogma, do not attend mass, and live in a religious-spiritual vacuum. To outsiders, it seems bizarre that some of the controversies should arise at all in this day and age, much less lead to such sharp and painful divisions in society. Since large parts of the world (Europe, the Americans, and Africa) are Christian, it is instructive to see how religious hierarchies can facilitate or obstruct change and development.
At the Cairo+5 conference in The Hague in February, I was amazed to find Catholic delegates passionately arguing that AIDS/HIV patients and their partners have no right to protected sex because Vatican disapproves of condoms! At our panel discussion, one gentleman buttressed this argument with the blatant lie that the AIDS virus can anyway penetrate the latex used in condoms, which was disputed by a doctor in the audience. Even on issues where conventional wisdom is more firmly established, such as the small family norm, the Catholic Church continues to prohibit birth control in defiance of all logic. Thus, all rational behaviour in this regard becomes a surreptitious, religiously forbidden, activity.
There are other more prickly issues on which the Church has made little progress. Indeed, it has reversed the process launched by John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council in 1962 to cleanse the rot that set in under Pius XII, who is accused by many of deliberately not speaking out against Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Vatican II rejected the hitherto monolithic, centralized model of the Church in favour of a collegial, decentralized, human community on the move. The recognition of the need to share power between the bishops and the Pope was the Council’s critical decision, the others being dialogue with the Protestant and Orthodox churches, and a declaration of religious freedom.
Under Pope John Paul II, however, Vatican II is being re-interpreted in the spirit of Vatican I and the centrism that characterized the reign of Pius XII. But what is most disturbing to Catholics still struggling to come to terms with the Church’s anti-Semitism is John Paul II’s decision to canonise Pius XII, whose wartime conduct he has publicly exonerated. This one decision has sounded the death knell of the progressive discourse on Vatican II. We in India, who recently heard the Pontiff insist that there is only one faith – the faith of Rome – hardly understand the pain of those struggling from within, against reassertion of the Papal infallibility model. The fight for Vatican II, including the role of women and modern problems of sexual morality, have now been taken up by the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Martini. Western scholars predict a formidable struggle between the proponents and opponents of a more modern Papacy.
Meanwhile, disenchanted Christians questions the Vatican’s continued existence as a separate state, and its special privileges at the United Nations, where, as the Holy See, it enjoys “permanent” observer status as a state, at par with Switzerland. The special UN status came about through an impressive sleight-of-hand. During the 1950s, the UN had relations with the “State of the Vatican City”. In 1957, however, the Vatican managed to ensure that it was the Holy See that maintained relations with the UN, on grounds that it wished to stress the Pope’s spiritual leadership rather than his temporal sovereign. In 1964, despite several objections, Secretary General U Thant granted the Holy See “permanent observer status” as a state. Other world religions, it may be pointed out, have been denied these privileges, and have only NGO status at the various UN forums.
It may be noted that though the UN Charter has no provision for “Permanent Observer status”, the practice originated in 1946, when Switzerland named a “permanent observer” to the UN and the secretary general accepted the designation. Permanent Observer status is granted to states that are members of at least one specialized UN agency; are “generally recognised” by member states; and apply to the secretary-general for this status. While Permanent Observers cannot vote in the General Assembly, by convention they enjoy full access to its meetings and documents, and can even address the Assembly and participate in debates.
The Holy See’s entry to the UN comes via Vatican City’s membership of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which it joined because of its operation of postal and radio services. In 1951, it began attending the General Assembly, WHO, and UNESCO meetings as an adhoc observer. In 1956, it was elected a member of UNESCO and surprisingly became a full member of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Questioned about Vatican’s presence in the UN when there is no similar representation for the Protestants, Islam, Judaism, or other faiths, Archbishop Renato Martino, Vatican’s permanent Observer to the UN, speaks of a religious mission. He is quoted as saying that Vatican has a right to be present because, “If you would ask the Moslem to come forward and speak, we would not know who would be the one to speak, whereas there is ‘one voice’ for the Catholic Church.” For good measure, Martino adds that Vatican’s “one voice” is a message of salvation, found in the scriptures and lives in the tradition of the Church over the centuries; it is an objective truth that remains changeless (sic).
The question for secularists, however, is: What legitimate place can a religious body claiming to possess universal “objective truth” have in an inter-governmental league like the United Nations? And can the UN, committed as it is to multiculturalism and pluralism, continue to perpetuate a bias in favour of one religious denomination? In the wake of its rather questionable role in current world crises, there is a need for the UN to review this matter as demanded by the thousands of persons who have recently petitioned the Secretary General in this regard. Failing this, other religions should be extended the same courtesy.
Finally, there is the historical incongruity of the Vatican state, set up under the Lateran Treaty of 1929, to administer Holy See properties after Italy seized the Papal States during unification. At less than half a square kilometer, with barely thousand residents and no women or children among its citizens, it is really just a plot of land in Rome. Should the charade continue? When an anachronism is caught between a conundrum and a controversy, even Nostradamus would hesitate to pronounce a verdict.
The Pioneer, 23 November 1999