“I hope a stamp from this place works for America.” So reads a postcard that my mother, as a girl of 20, sent her parents from the Vatican in 1950. I remember teasing her about her doubts when, as an undergraduate, I unearthed the postcard in my grandmother’s attic three decades later. When I cockily suggested that her Episcopalian girls’ school had needed a lecture or two on political geography or history, she smiled wearily, as she usually did when challenged, and said, “Well, it just never occurred to me that a church could be its own country.” This exchange came to mind when perusing the website and related links of a U.N.-recognized NGO called Catholics for a Free Choice. This entity, which seems to have publications but no membership or meetings, promotes abortion, contraception, and, through a similarly fantastic cyberspace subsidiary, the overthrow of the Holy See’s status as a state. A header on Seechange.org asks: “The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State?” We read there that, “Call it the Holy See, the Vatican, or the Roman Catholic church, it’s a religion, not a country . . . We believe that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world’s other religions do—as a non-governmental organization.” A link to the British National Secular Society tells us that “The Holy See owes its participation in the UN to an accident of history—the membership of Vatican City to the Universal Postal Union.” I guess my mother’s practical doubt about the efficacy of a beautiful stamp depicting Pius XII’s proclamation of the Assumption of the Virgin is, for some, a matter of principle: The Church should not enjoy sovereignty.
Leaving aside—with pleasure and a certain embarrassment—the question of the Holy See’s or any state’s involvement in the current United Nations, what ultimately distinguishes an NGO from a state is that a state is sovereign; any other organization, however powerful, is not. The creation of the category of NGO’s and the rise of their preponderant influence, under the aegis of the United Nations, which functions as a kind of accrediting agency for them, must involve the lessening of the power or recognition of sovereign states and the Church. On this model, religious NGO’s have the same role as secular ones, namely, that of supplanting the sovereignty of states. This is precisely what is happening, and so, in many places in the world, the independence of both state and Church has been accordingly outraged.
In what does sovereignty consist? In short, sovereignty is the fact of having no superior authority under God and, thus, having authority from God. There are only two societies that have this quality: the state and the Church. They differ in the manner in which they derive their status and power, but they share the characteristic of having no superior in their respective spheres. The state comes from the natural law of human nature: “Nature and Nature’s God.” The Church comes from the immediate initiative among men of God Himself: “upon this Rock, I will build my Church.” All other human societies are, in various ways, under the authority of the state or the Church. Pius XII expounded the necessary distinctions to the Sacred Roman Rota in 1945:
If . . . we consider the preferred thesis of democracy—a thesis which distinguished Christian thinkers have defended in every age—that is to say, that the original subject of the civil power derived from God is the people, we get an even clearer idea of the distinction between the Church and the State, even the democratic State . . . The origin of the Church, unlike the origin of the State, is not to be found in the natural law. The most extensive and most accurate analysis of the human person offers no basis for concluding that the Church, like civil society, would have come to be and would have developed naturally. She derives from a positive action of God, above and beyond the social character of men, with which she is, notwithstanding, in perfect harmony; wherefore the ecclesiastical power and with it the corresponding juridical power was born of the will and the act by which Christ founded his Church. But this is no hindrance to the fact that, once constituted as a perfect society by the action of the Redeemer, there should spring from her inmost nature many elements of resemblance with the structures of civil society . . . The foundation of the Church as a society was effected, contrary to the origin of the State, not from beneath, but from above.
A simpler, more vivid scriptural warrant is wanting here. St. John’s Gospel will supply it. First, the sovereignty “from above” of the Church: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
Then, the sovereignty “from beneath” of the state. After Pilate hears the demands of the people and warns Jesus of His danger: “Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”
In the present context, it is worth noticing that the chief priests have recourse to Pilate since they explicitly deny that they have sovereignty—since they do not acknowledge their own right to try a man and put him to death, the ultimate indication of sovereign power. Even so, they manage to pressure Pilate into washing his hands of his responsibility as a minister of justice, and so Christ is crucified under the charge of being the sovereign King of the Jews. Translated to a contemporary context: A consortium of religious nongovernmental organizations pressure the state to suppress the rights of the Christians and so to abdicate its own independence as well.
If the reader cannot visualize what I am talking about, let him examine the website of the Orthodox diocese of Raska and Prizren in Kosovo and that of the Catholic Communità di Sant’ Egidio. On the former, he can find the ongoing tragedy of the extermination of the Church under the eyes of a “sovereign” state rendered virtually powerless by a swarm of political and religious predators. On the latter, he can read the boasting moralizations of a religious NGO about how it managed to support a parallel Islamic government and educational system and liberate its ruler during the NATO war, without a single word about the constant and violent persecution of the ancient Christian Church of Kosovo by those very clients of NGO expertise. Just to point out this incongruity, by the way, opens us up to the charge of justifying the opportunistic perfidy of Slobodan Milosevic. Further, we will be told that the Church is nationalistic, when, in fact, She only insists on Her sovereign supernatural freedom; we will be told that Islam is, after all, only a religion, when, in fact, it is, by its own teaching, a nation.
The point is that, wherever the interests of the Christian Church are at stake throughout the world, if NGO’s are a serious power, then the Church’s interests will be undermined by these entities, whether or not they are religious, just as they undermine the state. Nor do the unconvinced need to remind us of all the good that NGO’s do; this is obvious, as they could do nothing if they did not do some good. This fact is, however, sadly accidental to the fact that they either indicate or cause the weakening of the sovereign societies of Church and state.
The Catholic Church, through the Holy See, has full diplomatic relations with over 170 states throughout the world, including, since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the United States. Her nature as a sovereign moral person in international law has, by a sort of continuing geopolitical miracle, never been denied in practice by Her worst enemies. The Church’s rationale for Her role is stated very soberly and unapologetically in the Code of Canon Law in Canon 113,1: “The Catholic Church and the Apostolic See have the nature of a moral person by divine law itself.” The Latin is a bit stronger: ex ipsa ordinatione divina. Commenting on this passage, Archbishop Tauran, the Holy See’s former “foreign minister,” had this to say in a discourse given in April 2002 at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan: “This means that the Holy See . . . will endure, even if it were to be reduced to its simplest expression in the person of the Pope and even to the end of time. This theological and canonical definition is corroborated by its historical and juridical condition.”
Although Chronicles is not likely to be on the antechamber tables of many (if any) Apostolic Nunciatures, this canonical-clerical pundit (see how I humiliate myself hoping for that captatio benevolentiae) offers this counsel to the diplomatic corpus of the Holy See: Beware of lay Catholic NGO’s; you do not need them anyway. Stick to entities that remain under the immediate direction of the hierarchy, unless you want to undermine the authority of the Church and offend our separated brethren, whose ecclesiastical rights, at least in the case of the Orthodox, John Paul II has declared to be equivalent to our own. Pius IX did not need Lord Acton or Veuillot’s movements, as Pius XI did not need Maurras or Coughlin, nor John Paul II the Communità di Sant’ Egidio. Draw apostles from these movements, if you will, as Our Lord did from the zealots, but not diplomatic collaborators. They will only become unruly competition. It is undoubtedly true that as far as ideological purity is concerned—of the right or the left—these movements may be more clear, more consistent in their policies than the Holy See, and so more attractive to some; they will pass, however, and the Holy See will remain, and, most of all, she has the real responsibility before the One Who gave her an indefectible nature, so like that of the Church Herself of which she is the organ of unity.
World War II gave Pius XII the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the relation of Church and state, and the role of the Church in international affairs through the Holy See. Here is the fine point, the razor’s edge of his considerations from an allocution of 1949:
If there should ever come a day—We say this as a matter of pure hypothesis—when the physical reality of Rome were to crumble; if ever this Vatican Basilica, the symbol of the one, invincible, and victorious Church, were to bury beneath its ruins the historical treasures and the sacred tombs it enshrines, even then the Church would not, by that fact, be overthrown or undermined; the promise of Christ to Peter would always remain true, the Papacy would continue unchanged, as well as the one, indestructible Church founded on the Pope alive at that time. Thus it is: Rome is eternal in the Christian and supernatural sense, is superior to the Rome of history. Her nature and her truth are independent of the historic City.
Perhaps the future holds the ultimate political irony, one foreseen by Robert Hugh Benson: churches and states turned into NGO’s, and only one body preserving what is truly sovereign in both against the machinations of the Lord of the World. For, since the authority of sovereign states and the Church derives from God, albeit in different ways, the weakening of the sovereignty of either leads directly to the rejection of Him “of whose Kingdom there will be no end.”