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The Role of the Holy See and Catholic Organizations at the United Nations

Josef Klee, 29 June, 2017

The Holy See as the “Government” of the Catholic Church, as well as the international Catholic organizations are strong supporters of the United Nations Organization (UN) and actively participate in the deliberations and activities of this world body.

The scope and the nature of the involvement of the Holy See and the Catholic organizations in the work of the United Nations is determined by the mandates and the programmes carried out by the UN Organization.

As a worldwide organization with a unique global mission, the Charter of the United Nations outlines the four major goals and areas of its programmes and activities, namely:

  • Maintenance of peace and security
  • Protection of Human Rights
  • Development of International Law
  • Advancement of Economic and Social Progress

In accordance with these overall goals and the related needs of the world community, the United Nations and its subsidiary organizations have undertaken activities in various global fields, such as: international disputes, economic and social development, commerce and trade law, human rights, migration,  peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, health services, protection of the environment, as well as the technical coordination of international air, postal and communications services, and the registration of international patent rights and the classification of drugs and chemicals, etc.

An indication of the heavy UN workload is the extensive number of agenda items reviewed and debated yearly by the UN General Assembly. This year, the General Assembly will address 135 main agenda items, which regularly include a number of sub-items on the execution of related matters.

In order to carry out the diverse mandates and functions, the UN – since its inception – has gradually established a large number of specialized organizational entities which now comprise the so called United Nations Family of Organizations.

The copy of the organizational chart – added at the end of this paper- provides a respective overview of the many legislative bodies and administrative and operational entities of the United Nations System. It particularly shows that the UN has experienced a dramatic increase in peacekeeping operations since 1990. Today, the UN manages 15 peacekeeping missions with a total number of more than 110.000 personnel, consisting of 95.000 military and police forces and 15.000 civilian support staff; – while the annual peacekeeping budget has reached more than $8 billion.[i]


Likewise, the considerable expansion of UN mandates and activities over the years has also become a challenge for the Holy See and the Catholic organizations,
which are faced with a substantial increase in their efforts to respond to this expansion.

At the UN the Catholic Church is accredited under the historical diplomatic designation “Holy See” and not as often assumed under the title “Vatican’. However, the content and designation of both terms are based on the historical and judicial developments of the Catholic Church.  As such, the “Holy See” is the universal government of the Catholic Church, and its headquarters are located in “Vatican City”.

The word “See” used in the term “Holy See” is derived from the Latin word “sedes” and embodies the “seat of St. Peter”. The Holy See as the seat of St. Peter has a history of 2000 years; and the denomination “Holy See” refers not only to the Pope in his position as the “head of church”, but also to the Roman Curia and thus to the central governance of the Catholic Church.

Since the times of King Charles the Great (742 – 814) and during the Middle Ages until the creation of the Italian State in the year 1870, the Holy See enjoyed the status and privileges of a sovereign state. It maintained a diplomatic corps to take care of the worldly interest of the so called Papal States and the ecclesial responsibilities for the Catholic Church.

In 1929 the Italian Government and the Holy See signed the Lateran Treaty which formally recognizes the independence of Vatican City and the Holy See as a sovereign international judicial entity. It is interesting to note that earlier, in 1908, the United States Supreme Court recognized the Holy See as an entity in international law.


Only in 1964, the Holy See received an official status with the United Nations as a so called “Permanent Observer State”.  It was UN Secretary-General U Thant, a Buddhist from Burma (Myanmar), who invited the Holy See to join the United Nations and participate in its work. However, earlier the Holy See had already joined either as a member (similar to regular member states) or as an observer to some of the older UN subsidiary organizations, such as the UN Postal Union or the World Health Organization.

It is interesting to note that – in 1964 – the Holy See maintained diplomatic relations with 38 countries of the then 115 UN member states; and today the Holy See has full diplomatic relations with 182 of the current 193 UN member states. Accordingly, the Holy See maintains one of the world’s most extensive diplomatic networks.

Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, the Popes have carried out the role of peacemakers and they have promoted and assisted in finding peaceful solutions to international conflicts.

Since attaining its observer status, the Popes have expressed their high esteem and support for the United Nations by their visits to the United Nations. Pope Paul VI was the first visitor in October 1965, Pope Paul II twice visited the UN in 1979 and in 1995, Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, and Pope Francis in 2015.

Pope Paul VI in his speech to the General Assembly stated that the purpose of his visit was to be “first of all, a moral and solemn ratification of this lofty institution. The edifice that you have constructed must never collapse. It must be continually perfected and adopted to the needs that the history of the world will present.”

In October 1979, Pope John Paul II in his statement to the UN General Assembly, said: ”As a universal community embracing faithful belonging to almost all countries and continents, nations, peoples, races, languages and cultures, the Church is deeply interested in the existence and activity of the organization, whose name tells us that it unites and associates nations .


Pope Francis in his address to the General Assembly, reiterated the appreciation expressed by his predecessors and he reaffirmed “the importance that the Catholic Church attaches to this institution and the hope that she placed in its activities.”
But he also voiced some concern with regard to the full application of international norms and the lack of enforcement.

The Holy See’s role at the United Nations is different from other member states. Archbishop Migliore, the former Nuncio in New York, describes the presence of the Holy See at the United Nations as follows:  ”The Holy See acts in the international arena according to its nature and ends which are essentially religious, moral and humanitarian. ……The religious nature of the Holy See means that it considers vital the creative impact of religious and ethical factors capable of influencing the evolution of geopolitical paradigms.“

The involvement of the Holy See at the United Nations routinely consists of coverage of all UN agenda items, but with emphasis on priority areas which include:

–  protection and promotion of the dignity of the human person
and the traditional family
–  promotion of peace and peaceful settlements of international disputes
–  disarmament
–  protection of human rights and in particular the protection of religious freedom
–  alleviation of poverty
–  economic and social development and humanitarian assistance

The Holy See is also a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court established in 1998 to prosecute individuals who commit genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Recently, in his speech at Seton Hall University, the present Nuncio of the New York Mission to the United Nations – Archbishop B. Auza – has outlined the principles that guide Pope Francis in the diplomatic activities of the Holy See, stating that  “It is a diplomacy of dialogue to resolve conflicts, to promote unity and fight exclusion. This is a diplomacy that privileges greater respect for the weaker countries, the rule of law over the law of force, honest and cordial relations among nations and peoples over mutual suspicions”.

Following this lead of Pope Francis, the Holy See has identified specific priority areas for 2017:
–   ceaseless pursuit of peace, in particular in war torn areas
(In the last decade the number of conflicts has increased from 13 to 39 in 2016.)
–   pursuit of disarmament, in particular abolition of nuclear arms
–   protection and assistance of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people
across the globe
–   fighting human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery
–   eradication of extreme poverty
–   defense and promotion of the dignity of every person and of the family

The Holy See maintains three diplomatic offices accredited within the United Nations, namely in New York, Geneva and Vienna. These offices are under the leadership of a Nuncio (Ambassador) and perform typical diplomatic functions, similar to those of an ambassador of a regular UN Member State Mission. In addition, the Holy See has appointed representatives at a number of UN bodies which are not located in New York, Geneva or Vienna.

The Holy See Mission in New York employs three priest diplomats, two priests on secondment from US dioceses, more than two dozen lay volunteer experts (advisers) and a number of office and household staff. The Nuncio, his staff and the advisers follow closely the debates in the various legislative bodies of the UN; and – if deemed necessary- they will take the floor and make official statements for the Holy See, presenting the views and special concerns of the Church regarding the particular issue in question.


There are critics who question the presence and role of the Holy See at the United Nations. These critics claim that the Holy See is nothing more than any other non-governmental organization (NGO) such as all the other religious groups and churches admitted to the UN as NGO’s, while the Holy See is awarded preferential treatment similar to that of a regular UN member state.

Several years ago, critics tried to ouster the Holy See as an Observer State from the UN. In response to such attacks, UN member states as friends of the Holy See, introduced a General Assembly resolution in 2004 to re-confirm and to strengthen the role and participation of the Holy See in the work of the United Nations. The General Assembly adopted this resolution without any reservations.

The text of the resolution highlights the fact that the Holy See is party to numerous UN-treaties and conventions and that the Holy See enjoys membership in many UN subsidiary bodies and agencies. It also mentions that the Holy See pays the regular established annual contribution to the UN budget for financing of the United Nations programs.

Furthermore, the key paragraph of the resolution states: “…the Holy See, in its capacity as an Observer State, shall be accorded the rights and privileges of participation in the sessions and work of the General Assembly and international conferences …”

The adoption of this resolution was a great success for the Holy See, and it demonstrates the high esteem the Holy See enjoys within the community of United Nations member states.


In general, outsiders often do not know that non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including many Catholic lay organizations and religious orders, can have an official affiliation with the United Nations. Presently, 4.500 NGOs of diverse backgrounds and expertise enjoy an active consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, and 1.500 NGOs have an association with the UN Department of Public Information.[ii]

NGOs operate either as advocates in certain fields, such as human rights or the protection of the environment, or they provide operational support services in various humanitarian or development areas. Among these NGOs are many Catholic organizations which are strong supporters of the United Nations. They also play an active role within the NGO community itself, and they enjoy an excellent reputation internationally.

Historically – already ninety years ago – Catholic organizations have been affiliated with the predecessor of the United Nations, the League of Nations; and they have been involved from the outset in the work of many early international organizations which now belong to the UN System.


Some of the Catholic organizations participated in the San Francisco Charter Conference for the establishment of the United Nations, and they were instrumental in drafting the composition of Article 79 of the UN Charter which recognizes the participation of NGOs in the work of the UN.

More than 30 Catholic organizations have an affiliation with the United Nations in New York, either with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs or with the UN Department of Public Information.

The main purpose of these Catholic NGOs is the promotion of Catholic social principles and values, such as peace, social justice, compassion, tolerance and solidarity.

Catholic NGOs also operate as advocates for a special international cause; for example, Pax Christi and Pax  Romana are strong advocates for disarmament, the peaceful settlements of disputes and for the protection of human rights.  Other Catholic organizations provide humanitarian, relief and other operational  assistance services in developing countries, prominently among them are the Knights of Malta, Caritas Internationalis and the Community of  Sant’ Egidio.
The Sovereign Order of Malta (with its full official title of “Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta”) is an international Catholic organization with a long and prestigious history (founded in 1048 in Jerusalem, to tend to sick pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land).* Today, the Order is recognized as a sovereign subject of international law and thus maintains diplomatic relations with 106 states. At the UN, the Order is recognized as a special entity with an official observer status, and the head of the office in New York carries the title “Ambassador and Permanent Observer”.


The core missions, or “charismas” of the Order of Malta are to defend the Catholic faith (Tuitio Fidei) and to serve the poor and the sick (Obsequium Pauperum). The Order counts more than 13,500 members – “Knights and Dames”-  and provides a variety of services to the poor worldwide, with emphasis on providing medical care, including emergency situations. The Order employs 25,000 professional and support staff, which are assisted by 80,000 volunteers in more than 120 countries. Its annual budget is about 200 million Euros.

Even though the central “government” of the Order of Malta is headquartered in Rome, the works of the Order are carried out on a very decentralized basis, with responsibility for service activities falling on 47 “national associations” scattered throughout the world.[iii]

The Order of Malta takes a strong interest in the activities of the United Nations, particularly those that fall under the humanitarian and human rights domains.  It has been an active participant in discussions leading to better coordination of humanitarian efforts, the adoption of global agreements on the treatment of refugees and migrants, and the fight against the trafficking in persons.  It is also very concerned with the widespread disregard for international humanitarian law, particularly the plight of innocent civilians in situations of armed conflict.


Caritas Internationalis consists of a large international Catholic humanitarian and relief services confederation with165 member organizations in all regions of the world. Caritas was established in 1897 in Germany to serve the poor and needy of the population. Today, Caritas Internationalis organizations provide humanitarian, social and economic development assistance, as well as relief and emergency services in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide.

At the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Caritas Internationalis maintains a Liaison Office with the objective to advocate on all international issues related to social justice, and to interact with United Nations organizations in order to coordinate Caritas Internationalis projects with United Nations mandates and programs worldwide.

The 165 national Caritas Internationalis organizations provide a variety of services to the poor and needy in their own countries; in addition, many of them carry out humanitarian, relief and other assistance services in developing countries. For example, Caritas Germany, the oldest and largest Caritas Internationalis organization, operates as an established national welfare association providing services on health care and social care, as well as on education and employment.  Next to the German Government, Caritas Germany is the largest employer with a workforce of more than 600.000 in numerous branch offices and facilities, and the regular staff is supported by half-a- million volunteers.

Caritas Germany maintains an international department which is in charge of 650 projects in developing countries implementing health, humanitarian, economic assistance, relief and emergency programs.


The Community of Sant’ Egidio is an international Catholic lay organization – founded in Rome in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi –  with members in more than 70 countries.  It is recognized by the Holy See as a Public Lay Association. Its main mission is to spread the gospel, to serve the poor and to promote dialogue among religions.

The community is renowned for its successful peace mediation in the Mozambican war and in other conflict zones. Among them: Algeria: 1994-1995; Guatemala: 1996; Albania: 1997; Kosovo 1996-1998; Burundi: 1998-2000; Bosnia: 2001 Liberia: 2003-2004; Cote d’Ivoire: 2002-2004; Togo: 2004-2005; Darfur: 2005; North Uganda, July 2006-2008; Cote d’Ivoire: April 2010; Guinea Conakry: June 2010; Niger: October 2010; Libya: since January 2011; Senegal–Casamance: since 2012. Most recently the Community of Sant’Egidio, which has been present in Central African Republic since 2003, facilitated the reconciliation process that led to the signature of the Republican Pact (September 2013) and more recently the agreement for immediate cease-fire and a road map to peace.

The Community of Saint’Egidio has been active in the United Nations system since the 90s when regular contacts for the Mozambique peace process were established. It has consultative status with ECOSOC. In 2017 the Community of Sant’Egidio signed an agreement in the form of an exchange of letters with the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) to strengthen the collaboration on conflict resolution, peace building initiatives and political dialogue in area of crisis. The President of the Community of Sant’Egidio briefed the Security Council on the situation in CAR on June 12, 2017 prior to the agreement signed in Rome.


Overall, the work of the Holy See and the Catholic Organizations at the United Nations is truly impressive. I wish the Church would do a better job in informing its parishioners about the valuable contribution to the international community.

In light of the many political, economic and social changes in the world during the last decades the United Nations Secretariat and its many subsidiary organizations must undertake reforms and adjustments in order to be able to meet today’s global challenges and to instill credibility among all nations.

In spite of its shortcomings and inefficiencies the United Nations is a unique global institution striving to maintain peace and security in the world, and to serve as a forum to address global issues no single country or region can solve alone. In my view, the United Nations deserves the support of the Catholic Church in all parts of the world.

Josef Klee, Ph.D. is a member of the Bal Harbour Rotary Cub.  He was a member of the New York Rotary Club from 1977 to 2014, where for twelve years, he organized the international breakfast meetings at the United Nations with Ambassadors and Senior UN Officials as speakers, addressing political, economic and human rights issues and other global topics.

For twenty years, he served as a manager in different offices of the UN Secretariat in New York. After his retirement, and until today, he is an adviser to the Holy See Mission and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Seaton Hall School of Diplomacy and at the Law School of St. Thomas University in Miami. He has published several books and numerous articles about management topics and UN related issues.
[i] The UN is often blamed for not being able to resolve international political crisis and for being a very costly and ineffective bureaucratic organization. Some of the criticism is justified. However, one should be fair and acknowledge that the political decisions at the UN are exclusively taken by its member states; and if these do not agree on certain issues – as often is the case – the United Nations Secretary-General and his staff cannot act without the absolute authority and consent of the legislative bodies such as the General Assembly or the Security Council.
[ii] Since the inception of the United Nations in 1945, Rotary International has been a strong supporter of the United Nations and has established an official affiliation with the UN Economic and Social Council. Rotary International enjoys – within the UN community – a unique reputation for its strong support and its effective leadership in so many development and humanitarian assistance projects, – and in particular for its Polio eradication campaign.
[iii] The adjective “military” derives from the fact that the Order of Malta was forced to adopt a military character, mostly for reasons of self-defense and to protect its activities in the Holy Land.  This need for defense continued while the Order was headquartered in Rhodes (14th and 15th centuries) and later in Malta (16th, 17th and 18th centuries) because of continued aggression from the Ottoman Empire.


  1. Am Philip Boateng the founder of an NGO known as Testimony Foundation who has been helping the needy. We intends to reach out to more of the downtrodden but is so much constrained in resources that it is becoming extremely difficult for us to obtain our main objectives. In view of this we humbly write to your high office for support ,both materially and financially and also to sponsor some of our outreach programs to alleviate pain and suffering in the societies. we would like to end here. we look forward to your favorable responses . Thank you for using your precious time to read our mail. God richly bless you and your team.
    More of our works be found on the organizational website www.

  2. It was such a profound and a well researched article that has vehemently envisaged the credibility and the rightful presence of the Holy See and all the Catholic Organization in the United Nations.

    I too credit the presence of the Holy See in the United Nations;its according to both the spiritual teaching of the church, that is the true Evangelisation of the Gospel and the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church to be part of such a global Organization ( United Nations) which also looks at the corpal works of mercy, that the church holds in its Magisterium.

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