The Holy See's Presence in International Organizations

Author: Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran


Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran,
Secretary for Relations With States

Archbishop Tauran at University of Sacred Heart, Milan

On Monday 22 April, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for the Relations with States of the Secretariate of State, gave a magisterial lecture on the theme, "The Presence of the Holy See in the International Organizations" at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. Drawing on history and canon law, he explains what the Holy See is and why it is a moral person recognized by international law. Here is a translation of his Italian text.

Dag Hammarskjold, who was a Secretary General of the UN, said, "When I ask for an audience at the Vatican, I am not going to see the King of Vatican City, but the Head of the Catholic Church" (H. De Riedmatten, Presence du Saint-Siege dans les Organisations Internationales: Concilium 58, 1970, p. 74).

A Secretary General of the UN, Vatican City, the Pope, the Catholic Church: all show the complexity of the topic we wish to treat and reminds us that the Catholic Church is the only religious institution in the world to have access to diplomatic relations and to be very interested in international law.

She owes this to her universal and transnational organization.

She owes it to her Head, who, from the moment of his election in the conclave, assumes an international character.

Above all, she owes it to her history, as I shall try to show in this lecture.

The Holy See

In effect, it is important to make clear at once that the subject who enters into contact with the leading figures in international life is not the Catholic Church as a community of believers, nor the State of Vatican City—a miniscule support-State that guarantees the spiritual freedom of the Pope with the minimum territory—but the Holy See, namely, the Pope and the Roman Curia, universal and spiritual authority, unique centre of communion; a sovereign subject of international law, of a religious and moral nature.

According to canon 361 of the Code of Canon Law, by the name of "Holy See" one understands "not only the Roman Pontiff but also the Secretariate of State, the Council for the Public Affairsof the Church and other institutions of the Roman Curia". The Curia is the central administration of the Church, since, according to canon 360 the Pope "usually conducts the business of the universal Church by means of the Roman Curia" and it performs its function in his name and with his authority, for the benefit and service of the Churches.

Canon 113 § 1 makes clear that "the Catholic Church and the Apostolic See have the nature of a moral person by divine law itself". That means that the Holy See, as an institution placed at the service of the ministry of communion entrusted by Christ to Peter, will endure, even if it were to be reduced to its simplest expression in the person of the Pope and even to the end of time. This theological and canonical definition is corroborated by its historical and juridical condition: the place of the Holy See on the international scene is justified to the extent to which it is the supreme authority of the Catholic Church that, in turn, by means of the Holy See, is in possession of true international status.

History of the international relations of the Holy See

As I said, it is interesting to discover historically that it is in an ecclesial context that we find the beginning of the relations between the Holy See and the international community: with the celebration of the Ecumenical Councils. Therefore, long before the Popes had at their disposal true temporal power! In fact, the person of the Apostolic Nuncio, in the modern sense of the term, namely, Ambassador of the Pope, invested with an ecclesial mission (to the local Church) and a diplomatic mission (accredited with the government) already existed in 453, at the end of the Council of Chalcedon. In fact, once the Council was concluded, Pope St Leo the Great asked his Legate, Julian of Cos, who had followed the work of the Council, to stay there to apply the decisions of the assembly. To this end, he provided him with two Letters of Credence: one to accredit him with the local hierarchy, represented by the Patriarch Marcion, and one for the Emperor of Constantinople, Theodosius.

Later on the figure of the Apocrisarius will appear, and toward the end of the ninth century, the Legates (legati nati), whom Rome will send to the different nations and who will enjoy greater room to manoeuvre with the local civil authorities of the place than the local resident clerics.


In the 16th century, international life underwent an important change: the Nation-State emerged and acquired a well defined personality. This State did not hesitate to attack neighbouring States with ever greater violence. Diplomacy had to adapt to this new reality, in place of the secret agent, there was now the informer agent who made himself known and who tried to gain the confidence of his dialogue partners. The princes adopted the formula that the Republic of Venice refined with its credit institutes and its commercial agencies. One finds the diplomatic representatives arriving with great pomp, with their residences and chancery. The Popes immediately adapted to the new situation also inspired by the Venetian model. This explains the appearance of the first ApostolicNunciatures withat their head an Archbishop sent from Rome: in 1500 in Venice and Paris; in 1513 in Vienna. One must laud the intuition of PopeClement XI, when in 1701 he established the Academy of NobleEcclesiastics forthe purpose of forming clerics for the mission of being pontifical representatives. For three centuries, it has been located in the Severoli Palace in Piazza della Minerva.

The reports that come from the Nunciatures, contrary to what some suppose only deal with religious questions.Since the Reformation, the pontifical representativesdealtwith the spiritual interests of the Church in the framework of the Catholic Reformation begun by the Council of Trent in 1545. They oversaw the respect for and the application of the canonical norms. Often, they defended the freedom of the Church against the claims of the princes. Papal diplomacy was always a technical instrument that the Popes made use of to guarantee, and, if necessary, to defend the rights of the local Churches. This did not prevent the Holy See from participating in the peace treaties, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries: Münster, Osnabrück, the Peace of the Pyrenees, the Treaties of Aix-La-Chapelle, the Treaties of Utrecht, of Radstatt, or even to organize the resistance to the Turks.

The Congress of Vienna

If afterthe Treaty of Westphalia and especially in the course of the 18th century, pontifical diplomacy had a lower profile because of the recurrent invasions of the Papal States, the Congress of Vienna of 1815restored all its prestige.It is interesting to note that the personal recognition granted to the Pope (who in this period was still a temporal sovereign) was prompted by the fact that he was first and foremost the Spiritual Head of the Catholic Church, as Talleyrand pointed out when he presented a motion to the editorial committee of the congress which was, moreover, approved without the slightest difficulty: "with regard to the religious princes and the Catholic powers (Austria, France, Spain and Portugal),nothing about the Popeshould be changed" (it concerned the papal representative's right of precedence). It is clear from this rapid historical retrospective that what the international community had taken into consideration was the papacy as a moral power sui generis!

This is confirmed by the events that followed: between 1870and 1929 (the year of the creation of Vatican City State), when the Popes were to be stripped of all temporal power, they continued to exercise the active and passive rightsoflegation. As Jean Gaudemet wrote: "the fact was the proof".

Holy See has relations with 172 nations

Since the late Middle Ages, no one has contested the international legitimacy ofthe Holy See;neither the Soviets in the recent past, nor the Chinese today. There is no doubt about the Holy See's full belonging to the international community. A single statistic is enough: in 1978, when Pope John Paul II was elected Supreme Pontiff, the Holy See had diplomatic relations with 84 countries; today, this number has risen to 172.

The Holy See, which enjoys international juridical status, is thus presented asa sovereignand independent moral authority—andas such takes part in international relations. Within nations its action as a moral authority, aims at furthering an ethic of relations between the different protagonists of the international community. It is carried out through two channels:

bilateral diplomacy (that is, relations with the 172 countries just mentioned; thesigning of Concordats, treaties that are in solemn form or accords on specific subjects);

multilateral diplomacy (that is, relations with governmental organizations, essentially the United Nations and its agencies, the Council of Europe, the European Communities, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], the Organization of American States and the Organization for African Unity).

Before describing these activities, I would like to begin with an observation that is frequently overlooked: The principal agent of papal diplomatic action is the Pope himself.With his pastoral ministry, his words, his travels, his meetings—that involve the earth's peoples andthose who govern them—he can inspire political leaders, give an orientation to a great many social initiatives and, at times, contest systems or ideas that corrode the dignity of the person and thus threaten world peace.

However, the Holy See's daily action on theinternational scene is obviously developed through diplomatic law and international law and the classical instruments resulting from them.

1. Bilateral Diplomacy

The Holy See maintains daily relations with the individual countries through its Apostolic Nuncios and the Ambassadors accredited to it. All these meetings are opportunities to recall certain priorities, or rather, certain principles, without which there is no civilization:

the priority of the human person, of his dignity and rights: the right to life in all the stages of its development; the right to work, and to the just share of the profits earned; a right to culture; a right to freedom of thought; a right to freedom of conscience and of religion. All this is not because these rights originate with the State, but because they are universal and inherent in the human person. This insistence on the human person enables the diplomats of the Holy See to explain to their partners in dialogue that the human person must always be the focus and goal of all political activity.

the promotion, and if necessary, the defence of peace:the rejection of war as a way of solving disputes between States; concrete initiatives to reach effective disarmament. It is worth remembering that the Holy See signed and ratified treaties on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1971) and on banning the use of anti-personnel landmines in Ottawa (1997), and the convention prohibiting the use of chemical weapons (1999). All this was to support with moral authority those dedicated to fostering "a culture of peace", whose herald the Church is honoured to be. This also explains the Holy See's interest in the Middle-East peace process, the Papal mediation in solving the controversy that flared up between Argentina and Chile in the southern region, and, finally, the word of John Paul II at the time of the Gulf War in 1991: "War: an adventure with no return!". The Holy See has always sought on all occasions to encourage all parties to give priority to dialogue and negotiation, the only instruments worthy of man that can solve the inevitable conflicts between people and nations;

—support to all institutions that foster democracy as the basis of political and social life: everyone knows the dedication with which the Holy See works for the development of democracy in the societies of Central and Eastern Europe. We are also thinking of all the Pope has said and done for Cuba. The Holy See recalls that democracy guarantees the participation of citizens in political decisions and permits governments to be sanctioned by citizens: they cannot say or do just anything.... Democracy means participation and co-responsibility. The Pope has often repeated that for democracy to be fruitful, it must be supported by human values. "Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruledby law, and on the basis of a correctconception of the human person ... if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism" (Centesimus annus, n. 46).

—the establishment of an international order that is founded on justice and rights.Food, health, culture and solidarity are necessary conditions for citizens to participate with responsibility and conviction in a plan for society that guarantees an equal opportunity to each one. The Holy See has always expressed its esteem for international law. Never before today have we had in our hands so complete and refined a juridical patrimony that is the result of so many tragic human experiences. I am thinking, for example, of the founding texts and resolutions of the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. I also want to mention new concepts that have fortunately entered into international law today, such as the duty of humanitarian intervention, and the formulation of the rights of minorities. The Holy See is of the opinion that if the law had been applied to all of them, a great many past and present crises would have been avoided.

As can be noted, the Popes and their collaborators, playing their role on the international stage, are guided by convictions that can easily be listed:

—armed violence will never solve conflicts between human persons or groups; violence—as all can see—only breeds violence;

—if a race, a religion, or a political party is idealized or "sacralized", before long the logic of the tribe or the law of the strongest begins to prevail;

—a person cannot affirm and defend his own legitimate rights while trampling upon those of bethren of equal dignity;

—Men and women are all members of the same family; no nation can guarantee its own security and well-being by isolating itself from the others.

The Holy See will always seek to bring together the forces of goodwill, so that on every occasion the law may be applied to prevent the weak from becoming victims of the bad will, violence or manipulation by the strongest. It is absolutely necessary that the force of law prevail over the law of force! I say so with deep conviction in these days when once again contempt for life and armed violence are leading an entire region—and undoubtedly more than that region—towards the abyss. Allthis requires a vision of man that takes into account all his dimensions: respect for human life from conception until natural death; the dignity of the human being and his freedom. Allthese values obviously belong to the Magisterium of the Church, which the Holy See tries to promote in the world of international affairs.

2. Multilateral Diplomacy

The Holy See's action has even broader scope in multilateral diplomacy: The United Nations is always a privileged "stage" (a modern areopagus... ), from which to say so many things that later reach the whole planet!

To demonstrate to everyone that the Holy See is not a temporal power with political goals but, as I said above, a moral authority, it is enough to recall that it is not a member of the UN (and therefore is not entitled to vote); it merely enjoys "observer" status, which permits it to remain above the parties, but with the right to speak. It could be said that it has a uniquely "prophetic" role in the biblical sense of the term. The white silhouettes of Paul VI and John Paul II on the dais at the Manhattan headquarters have always been strong and meaningful images!

But what does the Holy See say to the 189 member countries of the United Nations?

All nations are equal: none are great or small. Allhave equal dignity. Each has the right to safeguard and defend its own independence or cultural identity and to conduct its own affairs in autonomy and independence.

—But these same nations are equally solidary. The Pope frequently uses the expression "family of nations". There is also an "international common good".

—In this context, war must always be rejected and priority given to negotiationand the use of juridical instruments.

Thus the activity of the Holy See has often helped to create a climate of greater trust between international partners, and made it easier to plead for the introduction of a new philosophy of international relations that must lead to:

—a gradual decrease in military expenditure;

—effective disarmament;

—respect for cultures and religious traditions;

—solidarity with the poorer countries, helping them to be the architects of their own development.

Recently, a new field of action has arisen for the Holy See: the defence of life and of the family at the international multilateral level: the occasion was provided by the recent world conferences organized by the UN. "Population and Development" (Cairo, 1994); World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen 1995); The Fourth World Conference on Women, (Beijing, 1995). The international community found itself facing delegations from certain Western countries who wished to impose models of life that were actually the result of the propaganda of certain minorities within their societies; gender differences were really determined by social stereotypes: various models of the family were mentioned; motherhood seemed to be equated to a disease ... to quote but a few of the new ideas in vogue. With determination, we recalled that the family is made up of a man and a woman, who are indissolubly bound to one another; that there is human nature and universal rights that are present and guaranteed in the important texts and conventions that regulate the life of the international community. Obviously it cannot come as a surprise to anyone that the Holy See insisted on the responsibility of the human being and his freedom with regard to models of life which some wanted to impose on everyone: it insisted because it is a matter of basic conceptsthat are found in all the most important documents which regulate international life and have obtained the unanimous acceptance of States in recent years. It will always be the duty of the Holy See to prevent the lowering of personal and social moral standards and to contribute to raising them.

It is time to conclude. I hope I have been sufficiently convincing in my endeavour to show that the Holy See is at the service of people and nations, to help them walk together on the paths of life and hope. On 9 January 1995, in his address to the Diplomatic Corps which came to offer him good wishes for the New Year, the Holy Father pointed out, and I quote him, that "the reason why the Holy See has a place in the midst of the community of nations [is] to be the voice which the human conscience is waiting for, without thereby minimizing the contribution of other religious traditions (ORE, 11January 1995, p. 7).

This service to the conscience is also the only ambition of papal diplomats who with their presence, their action and by means of diplomacy, seek to convince those responsible for society that violence, fear, evil, hostility and death can never have the last word. Those who have some knowledge of Christianity will not be surprised: Christians, in fact, do not believe in the fatality of history. They know that with God's help, man can change the way the world is going.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 May 2002, page 8

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