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Why we should not have an ambassador to the Holy See.

By Meg Wallace - posted Wednesday, 12 June 2019


The Government should not be funding a diplomatic relationship with the Holy See and the associated expense on the taxpayer to maintain a formal connection between government and a religious organisation.

Speculation raised recently on Radio 2GB that Tony Abbott be appointed as ambassador may please those who want to send him to the other side of the planet, but we do not need, nor should we fund, such a position.

The Holy See claims to be a sovereign state. This is open to debate, as it does not have a permanent population, a defined territory, a stable government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states - criteria established by the Montevideo Conventionon Rights and Duties of States, signed on 26 December 1933.The 'state' of the Holy See was established by an agreement (the so-called Lateran Treaty) between Mussolini and the Pope in 1929, to further the interests of both parties.

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Mussolini wanted the support of the Catholic Church, the Pope wanted to establish an unimpeachable territory in Italy, as well as means to formally influence nations around the world. Only acceptance by various nations with the Holy See, and mutually beneficial arrangements between the Holy See and other nations, have kept the fiction of sovereign statehood alive, for whatever reason (and it can't be for international trade, military alliance or citizenship matters as these are non-existent features of the Holy See). Geoffrey Robertson examined the legality of Holy See statehood in depth in The Case of the Pope, Penguin, 2010.

The Lateran Treaty purportedly limits the Holy See to religious activities only. Article 24 says:

The Holy See declares that it wishes to remain and will remain extraneous to all temporal disputes between States, and to international congresses held for such objects unless contending parties made Concordant appeal to its peaceful mission; at the same time reserving the right to exercise its moral and spiritual power.

The Holy See breaches these terms by frequently seeking to influence by political pressure on other countries. It sits on UN bodies (although it is not a full member of the UN), seeking to influence UN policies and projects. It enters into agreements ('concordats') with governments, extending church predominance over local law and enjoys government grants and other temporal favours. By UN General Resolution 58/314 on I July 2003 the Holy See is 'accorded the rights and privileges of participation in the sessions and work of the General Assembly and the international conferences convened under the auspices of the … United Nations'. The Holy See has thus used its wealth and influence to involve itself very much with temporal matters.

This ties in with the very purpose of the Holy See: the furtherance of the Holy See's 'mission', which is to spread the church's religious influence around the globe. Geoffrey Robertson points out that furtherance of a vested interest has been established as a reason for refusing recognition of other bodies as states in international law. The simple fact is that the Holy See is not a sovereign State in the normally recognised meaning of that term. The Holy See has no permanent citizens, no trade relationship with other countries, no army. There is no civil consultative government structure, as government revolves around the Pope and is based on religious dogma, not civil political principles. 'Diplomatic relationships' do not revolve around such civil matters as mutual trade or defense interests: its actions are ostensibly influenced largely by the church's 'mission': its interest in influencing universal morality.

Indeed, formal relationship with the Holy See is a formal relationship with a religious institution. Its purpose is, says the Lateran Treaty Preamble, to ensure its 'absolute independence for the fulfillment of its exalted mission in the world'. In appointing the first fulltime ambassador to the Holy See, then PM Kevin Rudd said the aim was to 'enable Australia and the Holy See to be able to work together on the great challenges we face in the world.

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The current ambassador to the Holy See is Ms Melissa Hitchman. On its website, the Australian Embassy to the Holy See states that it 'does not provide consular or visa services' These are described as including citizenship or customs enquiries, renewal or first issue of Australian passports/notarial services: 'If you require, assistance for consular matters, these are dealt with by the Australian Embassy to Italy.' The Australian Embassy to Italy is just down the road. Apart from the fact that our government's relationship with Catholicism involves discrimination, it seems to involve little for a fulltime, live-in appointee to do(the website doesn't tell you). Presumably he or she is concerned with how Australia can accommodate the interests of the Catholic Church. As a secular nation we should not bankroll the expense of accommodating and otherwise funding a fulltime government representative, and associated resources, to a religious organisation.

As Roberson asks, 'Would the world recognise Mecca as a state if Saudi Arabia negotiated a Lateran-style treaty with its religious leader in order to further an extreme Wahabi "mission to the world"?'.

The Holy See rejects many basic human rights and democracy through the theocratic and absolutist power of the Pope. Like many religions, Catholic teachings oppose establishing an Australian Bill of Rights, and questions personal autonomy, women's rights, gender rights and children's rights in carrying out its 'exalted mission'. It stands accused of being less than conscientious in dealing with a horrendous amount of child abuse. It erodes freedom of Belief itself through its deals with governments seeking to influence their policies and legislation throughout the world.

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About the Author

Meg Wallace is the President of the Rationalist Society of NSW. She is a lawyer and former academic.

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