On 7 March 2009, we paid a visit to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations (UN). There, Mr Lucas W. Swanepoel and Father Philip J. Bené kindly elaborated on the Mission’s work as well as its history; finally they answered a lot of our questions.
Mr Swanepoel began by pointing out that the Holy See is different from the Vatican. With the conclusion of the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the State of the Vatican City was created as an independent state within Rome. Ever since, the Pope exercises the sovereignty over this territory. Independently of the Vatican, the Holy See speaks for the whole Catholic Church on behalf of justice and to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’. It has relations with over 170 countries.
There are some areas in the world where only the Church and the UN have the ability to work (e.g. Sudan, Haiti). The Catholic Church – through various organisations such as, e.g. Caritas Internationalis– is a major partner of the World Food Programme and plays a huge part in the distribution of food. The Church is also able to work in areas where the United Nations does not have a mandate.
After this interesting introduction, our Delegation used the opportunity to ask quite a few questions. The first question related to the way in which the Holy See reacts towards the criticism that the pope does not represent the developing countries. Mr Swanepoel and Father Bené described this criticism as based on misunderstandings. They stated that the Holy See does not close embassies in developing countries, even in the midst of conflict, and that the Church also has a strong development focus and plays a leading role when it comes to the promotion of debt relief.
Concerning how the Holy See deals with issues that do not affect Catholic people, e.g. Muslim countries, Mr Swanepoel said that religious dialogue is very important. He mentioned that recently the first meeting in history between Muslim and Catholic scholars has taken place. He added that it is interesting that sometimes the opinions on different topics are quite alike, because there are some values that are shared by both parties. In addition, in his opinion the Holy See does not only represent Catholics. He further sees the task of the Holy See to affirm the values common to all of humanity. He noted that examples can be found in the issues of human rights, disarmament, sustainable development and the rights of indigenous groups. Therefore, in his opinion, a lot of principles of Catholic origin have been incorporated into international law.
Regarding the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 6 – combating HIV/AIDS –, Mr Swanepoel stated that the treatment of HIV is of the highest importance for the Pope. One quarter of the HIV/AIDS treatment in the world and hospitals are conducted by the Church. He added that the perception of the Pope’s comments regarding condoms on his trip to Africa was based partially on a misunderstanding of his words and that the Pope highlighted the fact that solely promoting condoms rather than addressing a holistic approach to the needs of individuals risks exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. Father Bené stressed that the approach of the Catholic Church takes into account the entire person and thus provides a holistic response. He mentioned that in Africa condoms had very little success in limiting the spread of HIV and that in Uganda, for example, where the Church has promoted responsibility and fidelity in marriage, the number of people infected with HIV has gradually declined for many years now.
The last question related to the status of the Holy See in the system of the United Nations, which is dominated by Member States. Our Delegation asked why the Holy See has chosen not to become a Member but to remain an Observer. Mr Swanepoel said that the Holy See represents all Catholics no matter which country they live in. In addition, it does not want to act through force or vote. Its focus lies on promoting justice. Being an Observer gives the Holy See the opportunity to be neutral and to function as a mediator. It is in the unique situation where it can be friends with Israel and Muslim countries at the same time.