entity called the Holy See, the Roman Catholic church enjoys unique
governmental status at the United Nations, where the Holy See is a
Non-member State Permanent Observer. While there are numerous UN observers
(intergovernmental organizations, liberation movements, and specialized
agencies of the UN system), the Holy See and Switzerland are the only
two currently holding that status as "states."
THE HOLY SEE, VATICAN CITY, AND THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
The Roman Catholic church is a religious society without a political identity under the law.
Vatican City is an independent city-state within Rome that serves as the site of the church’s government and is itself governed by the head of the church, the pope.
The Holy See is the "central government" of the church, and refers to the pope, the Roman Curia, and the College of Cardinals together.1 The Holy See, also called the Apostolic See, refers to the pope’s "authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty" in both "spiritual and temporal governance and guidance" of the church, including Vatican City.2 In this sense, it is the pope’s "see," or diocese (the authority and jurisdiction of a bishop), that includes not just Vatican City but also Rome.
The Holy See holds sovereign authority over Vatican City and carries out international relations on the city-state’s behalf of the Roman Catholic church.3 Through its status as Non-member State Permanent Observer, the Holy See is active in the UN and maintains diplomatic relations with member states.4
CHURCH INVOLVEMENT IN THE UNITED NATIONS
The Holy See owes its participation in the UN to the membership of Vatican City in the Universal Postal Union (UPU) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which the city-state joined because of its operation of postal and radio services.
Early in its formation, the UN invited the UPU and ITU and their members to attend UN sessions on an ad hoc basis.5 Consequently, the Holy See began attending the General Assembly, the World Health Organization, and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 1951 as an observer. In 1956, the Holy See was elected a member of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and became a full member of the International Atomic Energy Agency.6
THE HOLY SEE - A STATE?
In international law, statehood traditionally rests on four criteria: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.7 The UN Charter, while requiring statehood for membership, does not define a "state."
Despite its designation as Non-member "State" Permanent Observer, "the Holy See is not a state."8 It is a religious entity without defined temporal territory. Diplomatically, however, many countries treat the Holy See as a state because of the influence of the pope, as leader of Catholics worldwide.
Unlike the Holy See, Vatican City claims statehood. At less than half a square kilometer and with fewer than 1000 residents—only about half of those being citizens—it is the smallest entity in the world claiming statehood.9
WHAT DOES PERMANENT OBSERVER STATUS MEAN?
Permanent Observer status is a matter of custom; there is no provision for it in the UN Charter. The custom originated in 1946, when Switzerland named a "permanent observer" to the UN and the UN secretary general accepted this designation.10 To become a Permanent Observer, a state must be a member of at least one specialized agency of the UN system (such as the International Atomic Energy Agency), must be "generally recognized" by UN member states, and must apply to the UN secretary general for the status.11
Permanent Observers cannot vote in the General Assembly, but as a matter of custom they have full access to meetings and documents. Permanent Observers may address the General Assembly and participate in its debates.12
PERMANENT OBSERVERS CANNOT VOTE,
Observers can take part in UN conferences. These conferences are increasingly central to the work of the UN and often determine the allocation of resources. The UN agency organizing each meeting decides what level of participation to allow observers, and non-member states typically are granted full status enjoyed by UN member states, including a vote on any question.
The UN works hard, especially in conferences, to avoid relying upon votes, preferring to operate by consensus in adopting documents such as programs of action by which UN conferences address global issues. The practice of operating by consensus gives states with minority views—even lone dissenters—a stronger voice in proceedings than they would have otherwise.
Additionally, recent General Assembly resolutions have called for all "states" participating in conferences to be accorded "full voting rights."13
WHAT DOES HOLY SEE PRIVILEGE AT THE UN MEAN?
Taken together, the above factors have enabled the Holy See to exercise a presence equal to that of any member state—including some power to block consensus—at recent conferences such as the 1992 Conference on the Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro; the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo; the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, in Copenhagen; and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing.
THE HOLY SEE - RELIGIOUS, NOT POLITICAL
The Holy See claims to speak for the Roman Catholic church. As described by church officials, the Vatican’s role at the UN is unique:
"As a full member of the international community, the Holy See finds itself in a very particular situation, because it is spiritual in nature. Its authority—which is religious and not political—extends over one billion persons scattered throughout the world and belonging to the most diverse ethnic groups and geographic regions. Its strength . . . consists in the respect that its words, its teaching, and its policies enjoy in the conscience of the Catholic world—a respect that is widely shared by many people who do not belong to the Church. The real and only realm of the Holy See is the realm of conscience."14
WHY DOES THE CATHOLIC CHURCH HAVE PRIVILEGE ABOVE OTHER RELIGIONS?
Archbishop Renato R. Martino, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN—as the ambassador for a Permanent Observer state is called—also speaks of a religious mission. Asked about the Catholic church’s role in the UN, when there is no "voice" for Protestant religion, Islam, or Judaism, Martino quoted a Muslim supporter: '"The Vatican has a right to be present"' partly 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. Martino added that the Catholic church’s "'one voice is a message of salvation, found in the Scriptures and lived in the tradition of the Church over the centuries. It is an objective truth that remains changeless . . . ."'15
ACTIONS AGAINST HOLY SEE PRIVILEGE AT THE UN
"Of course the nature and aims of the spiritual mission of the Apostolic See and the Church make their participation in the tasks and activities of the United Nations Organization very different from that of the states, which are communities in the political and temporal sense."
—John Paul II, address to the General Assembly, 1979
The Official Catholic Directory, 1995
(New Providence, NJ: P.J. Kennedy & Sons with R.R. Bowker, 1995), p. xix.