As UN Considers Status of Women, It’s Time for the Vatican to Take Its Rightful Place

It's hard to name a state or religious group that's done more than the Holy See to thwart the spirit and the letter of CSW which affirms that the fundamental freedoms of all women and girls is essential for the achievement of gender equality.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 22, 2016. DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

The Holy See’s unwelcome participation in discussions as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations takes place at a critical moment in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Much has changed since 1964, when the Holy See invited itself to be a Permanent Observer. It’s time for the Holy See to make a graceful exit and focus on its own financial, criminal, and ministerial problems.* Simply put, they call it the United Nations for a reason. 

This week, as the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) convenes, is the time to finally have the governing arm of a religious group take its leave, so the CSW and other parts of the UN can work unimpeded.

Why does the UN privilege the Catholic hierarchy? We don’t know the answer to that, but what we do know is that it’s time for the church to stop exploiting that privilege at the expense of women, children and LGBTQI people around the world.

The Roman Catholic Church is a bit of an “accidental tourist” at the UN. Vatican City, the geographic place where the Holy See resides, was part of early international postal, radio, and telegraph agreements. A century ago, the decision to grant quasi-state status to a golf course-size parcel of land with more chairs than permanent residents happened without much thought to the precedent and consequences. 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 Holy See operates with the Pope as CEO, 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. Bishops, whose responsibilities approximate those of executive vice presidents, are in charge of various localities and functions. Priests have jurisdiction in their parishes.

At the bottom, are lay people who contribute time and money. They should be like stockholdersor better, members of a coopexcept they’re not. They’re more like increasingly disgruntled customers who cannot vote on virtually anything that a pastor cannot veto. The people in pews are speaking outand increasingly leaving the church because they are fed up with the system though most retain a deep commitment to the Gospel. According to a Gallup poll released today more Catholics than ever are considering leaving the Church. 

Maybe Apple should successfully petition for Permanent Observer status using the Holy See as its role model?

Of course, the Holy See could decide that it wants to become a state, leaving the matters of the religion for lay Catholics to handle. I think we all know the chances of that happening. While 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, it’s as likely as many of the other reforms lay Catholics have advocated over the decades, from the ordination of women to ending clergy sexual abuse and its coverups.  

The Holy See must choose between its secular status and its religious status.    

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. A new chapter in Catholic church history is unfolding with lay leadership and an end of clerical hegemony. What do these changes mean for the Holy See at the United Nations, particularly at the CSW?

Voluntary withdrawal from discussions at meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women is a good place to start. 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.”

Most Catholics worldwide don’t know about the Holy See’s presence at the UN, much less its dubious claim to be a nation, or its pressure on member states to block consensus on important matters of health and well-being, especially for women and children. They will be unhappy when they find out. “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.

As lay Catholics claim increased voice and vote, the church coffers reflect people voting with their wallets. Parish closings are common. The hierarchy will either agree to shared leadership or risk total financial collapse. 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. Moreover, the needs of the world’s poor and of Earth itself cry out for multiple forms of Catholic attention.

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.

The end of the Holy See’s presence atthe Commission on the Status of Women would be a good first step toward the Roman Catholic Church’s change from a Permanent Observer at the UN to grateful acceptance of NGO status. I hope the institutional Roman Catholic Church will be wise enough to take this graceful way out before stronger measures are implemented.

*The author is a featured speaker at an event calling for the Holy See to be removed from participation in the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. — ed.