MICHAEL IRWIN, who was medical director of the United Nations in New York before he retired in 1992, argues that the Vatican commands far too much respect in the UK – Freethinker, September 2007
OF ALL the important power structures which exist in the world today, the tripartite “Vatican” is the most ancient. There is, first of all, the Roman Catholic Church which, dating back almost 2,000 years, claimed yet again in July to be the only “true Church of Christ” (as Protestant communities lacked “valid sacraments and apostolic succession”), involving at least one billion subjects around the world.
Secondly, there is the Holy See (“See” is derived from the Latin word, “ sedes” meaning “seat“), one of the most astute diplomatic political powers in the world today. And, finally, as the third legal part of this “Vatican” structure, there is the actual State of the Vatican City which, situated on the west bank of the Tiber, was established as an independent sovereign community only in 1929 – a tiny territory of 108 acres with a population of about 600.
All three entities are ruled over by the Pope, the world’s last surviving autocrat (government by one person with absolute powers). This tripartite Catholic apparatus is excessively centralised – in fact, even its local bishops are, in a sense, no more than branch managers in a multinational corporation who are expected to obey directives from the top without question. And, assisting the papacy in its global control are 179 papal nuncios (or apostolic nuncios) and permanent diplomatic missions, spread around the world, acting as its “eyes and ears” and giving it supra-national status.
In the reverse direction, 166 individual nations presently send ambassadors to represent them at the Pope’s court.
“Nuncio” is an ecclesiastical term (from the Latin word “nuntius”, meaning either a messenger or envoy). With the prime duty of safeguarding the interests of the Pope, in the countries to which they are accredited, nuncios began to appear in the 15th century with the exchange of representatives between various countries and the Pope’s court.
Of interest to us, formal diplomatic links between England and this regal court were initially established in 1479 when John Shirwood, the Bishop of Durham, was appointed as the first resident ambassador. In fact, Shirwood was the first English ambassador to permanently serve anywhere abroad, making this post the oldest ambassadorial position in today’s UK diplomatic service.
However, in 1534, with Henry VIII becoming head of the English Church following his matrimonial difficulties with Pope Clement VII, formal diplomatic relations were disrupted until 1914. Then, with the start of the First World War, there were definite advantages in having an envoy accredited to the court of a “neutral” Pope where direct contacts could be made fairly easily with the ambassadors from enemy states.
In many countries, especially Catholic ones, papal nuncios are often automatically recognised as the deans of the diplomatic corps. This privilege for papal envoys was expressly endorsed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
Generally, nuncios enjoy the title of “Excellency” and have the same special rights as ambassadors. In the past, most papal nuncios were Italian: today, less than half have this nationality. Usually, they have to serve 25 to 30 years in the diplomatic service of the Holy See before their first appointment as a nuncio to a small country. Then, those who make it to the major capitals of the world either have done a very good job elsewhere or have powerfulfriends back at the Pope’s court. All are personally selected by the Pope.
Officially, the main duties of papal nuncios are to send information to the Holy See on the activities of the Roman Catholic congregations in the country to which they are assigned; “to assist (according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law) the bishops by action and counsel” (ie: to supervise them!); “to foster close relationships with the conference of bishops” (ie: to be the behind-the-scenes chairman); and to propose the names of three candidates to the Pope for the filling of every vacant bishop position that arises, with their personal recommendation.
Regarding the last duty, this report and recommendation of the papal nuncio is crucial – he is responsible for making sure that the selected priest will be a good bishop and totally loyal to the Pope.
Centrally, at the Holy See/Vatican, according to the Code of Canon Law, the Pope has:
The innate and independent right to nominate, send, transfer and recall his own legates (ie: nuncios) to particular Churches in various countries and regions, to states and to public authorities; and the norms of international law are to be observed concerning the sending and recalling of legates appointed to states.
Papal nuncios report (often weekly) to the Vatican’s Secretary of State, a position equivalent to being the Prime Minister of the Holy See, who supervises all relations with national states and international organisations. This year, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone became the present Secretary of State: this was a significant development because he shares fully the Pope’s conservative theological views, having been his right-hand man at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when the Pope headed this department of the Curia as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. This Congregation oversees church doctrine.
In 2006, while still at the CDF, Cardinal Bertone was instrumental in developing the policy of refusing to admit “persons with a homosexual inclination” to Catholic seminaries. Also, he led the efforts to debunk Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, calling it a “pack of lies” – which only helped to increase global interest in this novel and the subsequent film!
In the UK, Archbishop Faustino Sainz Munoz, 67, from Spain, has been the papal nuncio since 2005. Before coming here, he was in charge of the Roman Catholic permanent mission to the European Union in Brussels for five years, and so much involved in issues such as immigration, bioethics and the preparation of the EU draft constitution. A trained lawyer before he joined the Holy See’s diplomatic service in 1970, when he was appointed to his present post. The Tablet (the British Catholic weekly) reported that
He is a man who believes in the Christian faith asserting itself in the market-place where decisions are taken.
Archbishop Munoz’s British base is at the Apostolic Nunciature, situated in a house in Wimbledon, South London. From here, as the official papal representative to the UK, he has the vast Catholic Church machinery inside this country – every cardinal, bishop and humble priest – at his disposal. Moreover, the many national Catholic organisations – of a social, cultural and political nature – will be expected to follow his advice. Thus, Archbishop Sainz has an influence that is far greater than any other diplomat accredited to the Court of St James.
Very important bonds between the Vatican and many EU member states, as well as other countries around the world, are the agreements, known as “concordats”, which secure special privileges for the Roman Catholic Church. (Sometimes, in the fairly recent past, these agreements were with the most despicable regimes that have ever existed). As these treaties are signed by ambassadors (papal nuncios) from the Holy See, and not by national cardinals or bishops, these agreements are recognised under international law and thus can override national legislation.
Professor John Swomley, an American theologian, has noted that:
A concordat is a pact between the Vatican and a nation-state whereby the Vatican gains certain political and financial benefits in return for support of a policy or arm of the national government. Such a concordat in a nation with numerous Catholics is also helpful in getting their allegiance or in curbing opposition to the government.
Concordats help enforce Canon Law, the Vatican version of Sharia.
Last year, Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, commented that concordats “are profoundly undemocratic” as:
They are often concluded in secrecy as international treaties without the prior ratification of parliaments, and give huge privileges including financial ones, to the Roman Catholic Church [and] even if a parliament later wished to reduce these huge privileges they could not be reduced or eliminated legally without the consent of the Vatican, which they would have no reason to give.
One of the greatest benefits from posing as a national government is the manner in which the Holy See – and thus the Roman Catholic Church – has infiltrated into the “UN System”. It is a permanent observer at the United Nations, in New York, with access to all UN forums. And, in 2004, it craftily gained all the rights of full UN membership except voting. (At that time, its delegate in New York noted “We have no vote because this is our choice: but the Holy See has the requirements defined by the UN statute to be a member state”, implying that one day there would be no impediment to getting full voting rights, equivalent to, say, that of the UK).
Then, the Holy See is represented at the major UN Agencies such as WHO, UNESCO, ILO and FAO, as well as the much smaller ones such as the Universal Postal Union and the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
Thus, the Holy See can lobby at important UN events like the 1994 Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, where its diplomats successfully opposed the inclusion of abortion rights language in the final documentation – having used every obstructionist tactic permitted during the meeting, and after the Pope had written beforehand to every head of state around the world.
Similarly, WHO has to battle against the Vatican’s incorrect statements about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of the HIV virus. In fact, many believe that there should be “health warnings” issued about the falsehoods propagated by the Catholic hierarchy!
In addition to representation in the UN system, the Holy See sends its delegates to other major inter-governmental bodies such as the Organisation of American States, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organisation of African Unity, and the Arab League. And, in 1971, the Holy See even announced its decision to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to “give its moral support to the principles that form the base of the treaty itself”. (Can one imagine a situation where a Pope would want to claim that he had access to an atomic bomb?).
In a 2000 speech by a previous Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, it was stated that
The goal of papal representations in international organisations is always the same: to being the leaven of the Gospel to all the complex reality of international relations and to international debates.
I doubt if any regular reader of the Freethinker likes the Roman Catholic Church.
I have forgotten who originally said that this global institution, pursuing both spiritual and political goals, is:
Like organised crime – it preys on people’s weaknesses, generates huge profits for its operators, and is almost impossible to eradicate.
But I am sure we would all agree with that comment. And, as Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, noted in the Freethinker last April, this tripartite of “Church of Christ” – Holy See – Vatican City:
Is a master of propaganda, of double talk, of psychological warfare, of hypocrisy and cruelty … it has humiliated and demeaned women, insulted and defamed homosexuals, landed its priesthood with the intolerable burden of celibacy, carried out crimes that, even when it is caught red-handed, it denied; and it illegitimately interferes in democratically-elected governments and claims for itself powers that are denied to every other religious body.
Today, “Vatican imperialism” is given much too much respect in this country and there is, most unfortunately, far too little critical examination of its extensive activities in our British society and by our politicians and media. We should do our best to change this deplorable situation as soon as possible, and expose the true features of the tripartite Vatican – which, to paraphrase Sir Bernard Katz (a 1970 Nobel winner for his work on nerve biochemistry), is:
The world’s largest pyramid scheme.
Editor’s note: Munoz died in 2012. The current Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain is His Most Reverend Excellency Antonio Mennini, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI on 18 December 2010.
• The top picture shows the Vatican’s UN Ambassador Monsignor Silvano Tomasi (left) speaking to Former Vatican Chief Prosecutor of Clerical Sexual Abuse Charles Scicluna. Photo: AFP/GETTY