His manner is beatific, he said some profoundly important things last week in New York and he’s a great showman even if his age is showing. But why is Pope John Paul II addressing the United Nations?
The Pope’s talks are more appropriately made at cathedrals and large public arenas. The religion he heads--the one in which I was schooled for 16 years and served as a teacher in a Catholic school--is just that, a religion. But the Vatican, which now enjoys recognition as a “permanent observer,” is allowed to send official delegates to vote at U.N. conferences, shaping agreements that will serve as markers for the progression of human rights, women’s roles and economic and social development of nations.
Just because it has drawn a ring around its headquarters in Rome and issues stamps, the Holy See is not a state. The Vatican has none of the human rights that we as a nation have worked so hard to ensure for others--rights that the Pope talks about as an aspiration for all people.
In the United States, we treasure and guarantee separation of church and state. Giving only the Vatican among the world’s religions a vote at the United Nations goes against that. And it exalts one religion from among many others with hundreds of millions of adherents around the world. Why not accord the same rights to Islam, to Judaism, to Buddhism? Say those religions could get an agreement from the host countries where their major religious edifices are based, as the Vatican did with Italy. Rings could be drawn around the mosques at Mecca, around a collection of Hindu temples in India. All could issue stamps and send religious leaders off to at U.N. conferences. We could have multitudes of Holy Sees. Not a good idea.
I am uncomfortable as well with the overcoverage of the Pope in relation to that given other religious leaders, though I suppose it’s better to see the Pope overcovered than have to look one more time at O.J. Simpson or anyone else connected to this nation’s most recent celebrity trial. While I, like many American Catholics, disagree with the Pope’s attitudes about women, the clergy and human sexuality, I applaud his comments on “savage capitalism” and a more equitable sharing of the world’s resources. Part of me was pleased to see newspapers and television screens filled last week with a message of peace, justice and love. But another part felt that because other religions don’t have one central authority, their moral messages have not received much attention--Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu being a notable exception.
When he arrived in Newark, John Paul said it was “fitting that the Pope speak [at the United Nations] as a witness to the hope of the Gospel.” He was wrong. That should not be a reason to speak at the United Nations.