The Vatican’s Graceful Exit from the United Nations Starts at the Commission on the Status of Women

Mary E. Hunt, remarks

Originally given at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), March 15, 2019 

Thank you for Patti Ackerman, Kate McElwee and Sheila Pfeiffer of Women’s Ordination Conference, Cathy Renna, and other colleagues for organizing this panel. Special thanks to Catholics for Choice for initiating the See Change Campaign in March 1999, a scant twenty years ago, or, the blink of an eye in ecclesial terms. I daresay things have changes in two decades thanks to the efforts of groups represented and our colleagues in the Women Church Convergence (W-CC)and Catholic Organizations for Renewal (COR).

  1. Introduction

The Holy See’s unwelcome participation as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer on the Commission on the Status of Women (est. 1946) at the United Nations takes place at a new moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Much has changed in geo-politics and theo-politics since 1964 when Holy See invited itself to be a Permanent Observer. So much has changed that, at a minimum, the Holy See needs to make a graceful exit and focus on its own priorities including financial, criminal, and ministerial problems. Leave UN business to bona fide states.

This is not a matter of ideology, although anti-woman and anti-LGBTIQ theologies are espoused by the church hierarchy and built into the polity of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, the exclusion of women from priesthood and therefore from decision-making means that virtually all Holy See officials are men even if they hire the occasional woman to represent them.

The Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of expressions of same-sex love and its prohibition on the use of most forms of contraception and abortion make rational discussion using contemporary social scientific and biological data impossible. The Holy See’s intransigence on many sex/gender issues and its religious commitment to codify those views in international policy make it an odd hybrid of a member whose shelf life has expired. But ideology is not the primary reason why the Holy See needs to leave the CSW now.


  1. Analysis—Why the Holy See needs to bow out

The issue is that the Holy See, brought into legal being by the Lateran Treaty (1929) nearly a century ago, is not a state as such. It was and remains the governing arm of a religious group that has every right and responsibility to conduct its internal business. But it has neither the right nor the responsibility to engage in the international forum as a state. Why the UN permits this privileging of the Catholic hierarchy, and what the UN will decide when other religious groups petition for similar status remains to be seen.

The Roman Catholic Church is an “accidental tourist” at the United Nations. Vatican City, the geographic place where the Holy See resides, was part of early international postal, radio, and telegraph agreements (1929-32). Things have changed with the Internet. It may have seemed like a good idea a century ago to grant quasi-state status to a golf course sized parcel of land with more chairs than permanent residents. Today, the institutional church is essentially a global, male-run, top down corporation whose product is religion. Corporations are not states even if some, like the Roman Catholic Church,  have bigger budgets and more employees than some nations.

The Roman Catholic Church, in this incarnation the Holy See, operates with a CEO (the Pope) not a president or a prime minister. The cardinals act as a board of directors that elects the next CEO and advises the pope on policy, personnel, and business. For example, recently jailed Australian Cardinal George Pell served as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a new department created by Pope Francis that reflects the importance of fiscal responsibility and accountability. Pell was the equivalent of the corporation’s Treasurer.

The next level down in leadership is bishops whose responsibilities approximate those of executive vice presidents in charge of various localities and functions. Then in this hierarchy there are priests who have near-absolute jurisdiction in their parishes. Finally, at the bottom, are lay people who contribute time and money. They could be like stockholders except they are not. They are more like increasingly disgruntled customers since they cannot vote on virtually anything that a pastor cannot veto. How these elements add up to a democratic state remains an historical anomaly that needs to change. Or, perhaps Apple will successfully petition for Permanent Observer status using the Holy See as its role model.

This odd status could have gone another way to bolster the Holy See’s identity as a state. The country could have developed its infrastructure as a nation over the past century complete with citizens, voting, commerce, and the like. Instead, the Holy See has all of the trappings and claims of a religious organization parallel to other Christian denominations, for example, the Lutheran World Federation, which act with other civil society organizations. It is hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth showing up claiming England as a religious group just because she is the head of the Church of England. Concepts have dates, as the Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan famously observed, and this concept of the Holy See as a state is simply outdated.

Vatican City, the original name of what was a part of early UN conversations, is now the designation for a place in Italy, while the Holy See is the government of the Roman Catholic Church. The Holy See includes the Pope and the Curia which consists of the various administrative offices (called dicasteries) that carry out the regular operations of the Church. In  contemporary political life religious entities belong to the NGO world not to the nation-states. The city of Rome and the nation called Italy handle most of the heavy lifting of secular government for the Vatican’s 109 acres, a parcel about the size of a U.S. continuing care retirement center.

Of course, the Holy See could decide that it wants to become a state, leaving the matters of religion for lay Catholics to handle. Many of us would welcome the opportunity to have voice and vote in a democratic ekklesia as feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has long advocated. But that does not appear likely in the near term. So, the only alternative is for the Holy See to choose between its secular status and its religious status. It is no longer acceptable to Catholics and others for the Holy See to have it both ways depending on which kinds of issues are at stake. We have seen the performance of the Vatican at previous CSW meetings acting as  a state. The results have been disedifying. Women and children around the world have paid dearly for it. Now the matter is urgent.

The clergy sexual abuse cases and their coverups by bishops are evidence of the implosion of the Roman Catholic Church, a process that has been smoldering for decades. Now lay Catholics cede less and less authority to the institutional church and appreciate when others of good will do the same. The February 2019 Summit in Rome on the “Protection of Minors in the Church” resulted in no policy changes, an outrage to many Catholics who were at a tipping point as patterns of abuse, lack of transparency, criminal collusion, and guilty verdicts against clerics proliferate. Growing numbers of Catholics who once tolerated institutional Catholic injustices toward women and LGBTIQ people no longer wish to be associated with the Catholic label or brand, much as they still believe deeply in the foundational values of love and justice, sacrament and solidarity rooted in the Jesus movement. A recent poll showed a 6% drop in Catholics attending church since 2008; roughly 39% of Catholics are regular mass attenders.

A new chapter in Catholic church history is unfolding albeit slowly with lay leadership and an end of clerical hegemony. For whom does the Holy See pretend to speak when it claims to be “Catholic” in religious much less in secular terms? What do these changes mean for the Holy See at the United Nations, particularly at the CSW?

These are the questions of the moment and they have far-reaching implications beginning with the Holy See changing its status at the UN from the state that it is not to the NGO that it is. This would start with its voluntary withdrawal from the Commission on the Status of Women, or, if necessary, its being expelled. It is hard to name a state or a religious group that has done more than the Holy See to thwart the spirit and the letter of CSW which affirms that the “full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all women and girls is essential for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” (Resolution adopted by the Economics and Social Council on 8 June 2015, p. 2)


  1. Conclusion—The graceful exit from CSW

A graceful exist is still possible. First, most Catholics worldwide do not know about the Holy See’s presence at the UN, much less its dubious provenance, or its pressure on member states to form coalitions to block consensus on important matters of health and well-being especially for women and children. They will be disedified to find out. Broadcasting that reality in light of the institution’s current abysmal standing even among many of its longtime members will result in new pressure from within the Catholic community for the Holy See to make a change in its status at the UN from Permanent Observer to NGO.

We want the Holy See to cease and desist acting like the country it is not. At best, it is a religious organization with which a rapidly growing number of its members do not want to be associated. In essence, “Catholic” is not a nationality, and the hierarchy does not speak for the exponentially larger and growing base of lay Catholics who reject its authority and many of its policies.

Second, this new moment has financial implications which will soon make it hard for the Holy See to afford its diplomatic forays. As lay Catholics claim increased voice and vote, claims that cannot be staved off forever, the dwindling coffers already reflect people voting with their money. Parish closings are common; sex abuses cases and their coverup are very expensive. The hierarchy will have to accede to shared leadership or risk total financial collapse. It is doubtful that in such a financial situation any reasonable person would prioritize global diplomatic expenditures over the far more modest bills of an NGO at the UN, using the money saved to attend to food, clothing, and shelter for people made poor.

Changes in the institutional church’s structure are in fact the fruit of new expressions of shared and differentiated authority. There are simpy too many ways to be “Catholic” in an age of instant communication for any one body to realistically claim exclusive use of the term and the priority of its reading of the tradition. Institutional Catholicism is in flux and one of the first things to go is this charade of statehood. A report that the Holy See might consider fielding an Olympic team only adds to the absurdity of this situation. Surely Italy will let their athletes try out for their teams.

Third, non-Catholics need not fear charges of anti-Catholic bigotry if they critique the Holy See when it acts with impunity against the well-being of many of this world’s most vulnerable people. Instead, religious groups can help Catholics by supporting and promoting the role of the Roman Catholic Church as one more NGO alongside their own faith communities, and as one more NGO among other Catholic NGOs. This is what ecumenical interreligious colleagues are invited, nay implored, to do for the common good.

Non-religious groups, including member countries, can be helpful if they speak honestly about the facts of life vis-à-vis the Holy See and its dubious claims to statehood when it suits and its reliance on religious status when that suits its conservative agenda better. Italy is well able to represent the people of this tiny part of its country without need of special status. Moreover, the UN does not need a privileged moral voice when so many rich and diverse secular and religious voices are part of its ethical conversations.

Finally, while this change of status for the Holy See is overdue, it is relatively simple to  accomplish. It begins with the end of the Holy See’s participation on matters related to the  Commission on the Status of Women. It continues with the Roman Catholic Church’s gracious and grateful acceptance of NGO status. Such a move by and at the United Nations  acknowledges the absurdity of calling the Vatican’s government a state in the 21st century, and shows resolve to regularize its status. The change also recognizes the danger that this or any “state” which claims to be a singular moral voice for a global faith tradition poses to the well-being of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, especially women and children. I hope the institutional Roman Catholic Church will be wise enough to take this graceful way out before stronger measures are necessary to accomplish that end.