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Letters & Op-Eds - 2013

WAshington post - On Faith

At the United Nations, the Vatican is church and state. That needs to change.

Jon O'Brien

30 September 2013

The world seems to have fallen in love with Pope Francis and, given the interview with La Civilta Cattolica recently, that is understandable.

Everyone is pinning their hopes for change on this pope. Catholics are hopeful that the hierarchy will join the rest of us in respecting each person’s conscience, especially on decisions about sexuality and reproductive health. Catholics and non-Catholics join together in hope that this pope will respect the rights and religious liberty of every person, and rein in his representatives who run roughshod over people’s rights when they muscle in on policymaking at the state, national and international levels and impose an extreme and harmful worldview on women around the world.

This week and next we have an opportunity to see how Pope Francis’ representatives around the world behave. As the world’s leaders gather in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, Francis’ diplomats will be among them. This is vitally important because the Vatican, as the Holy See, has a special status at the UN, above that of any other religion. This status and its implications for public policy are addressed in a new three-minute movie that shows exactly what happens when the lines between religion and public policy are blurred.

Earlier this year, as Pope Francis was being elected, the Vatican refused to commit to a statement condemning violence against women at the Commission on the Status of Women. Vatican representatives also slipped in jabs at women’s reproductive rights in statements that should have focused on the problems of sexual violence and sustainable development. A mismatch between rhetoric and reality is nothing new. Pope Benedict’s guarded approval of condoms as a “first step” on a path to moral sexual behavior never trickled down to his representatives at the UN, where the Holy See still opposes their inclusion as an HIV prevention method, nor to the vast Catholic-run HIV & AIDS treatment system.

The Vatican is granted a unique level of access to the United National General Assembly and international conferences where global rights and norms are determined. Though it works hard to cultivate the image of speaking for all, the Holy See’s interventions at the UN certainly don’t represent the views of all Catholics. Even predominantly Catholic countries have disagreed with the Holy See’s extreme position on contraception, sexuality education and abortion. Why is the Holy See allowed to masquerade as a state and impose the narrowest interpretations of its religious doctrine on everybody? Other religions are treated as NGOs, and many support reproductive rights but are not given the deference or the power the Holy See enjoys

“The Holy See should not be able to trade on its presumed moral authority, but rather should be judged by the actual results of its policies,” concludes The “See Change” Campaign video. In order for the pope’s new turn to have an impact, the UN must start by recognizing that the Holy See is not a state and should have no greater representation than any other religion. This would go beyond Francis washing the feet of a young Muslim woman or affirming that atheists can be good people. It would require Francis and his representatives around the world to step out of the way so that people of all faiths and belief systems can exercise the right to make their own moral decisions about sex, relationships, and reproductive health. That would indeed be something to celebrate.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.

This post was originally published by the Washington Post.