International Catholic Organisation and Catholic Inspired NGOs.

Their contribution to the building of the international community.


Religions in the public arena

A vast change has occurred pertaining to the status of religion in the public arena in the last decade. We may state it this way: "Many of our dominant stories about religion and public life are myths that bear little relation to either our political life or our everyday experience. Religion is neither merely private (…), nor purely irrational. And the public sphere is neither a real or straight-forward rational deliberation nor a smooth space of unforced assent."1

Indeed, it seems common sense to state that faiths are rational, not absurd. We have spoken and can still speak about them in the open, public sphere, for they are essential parts of any culture's coherence. We cannot understand a society without realizing how theological arguments have shaped – and still do – its vision on such topics as human nature and social interactions. Quite simply stated: he who wants to understand politics should also devote time to understanding the religious faiths of the social actors. Why is it then so difficult to shake off the myths?

Some western countries, especially their elites, seem to hold on to the old mantra whereby religious beliefs are thought to be private and therefore of no public or political consequence. Since the political sphere must remain rational and transparent in order to be a place for public debate, religious belief, so says the mantra, can have no place within it, because faith has no rational intelligibility. Religions are excluded from the debate, for faith escapes the rationality thereof. In addition, the intrusion of faith into public discourse is met with fears of disrupting the rationale of politics, thereby bringing about some violent or theocratic rule of the country. Such fears often translate into an intolerant stance regarding such participation. Most of these arguments prove to be false, in two respects. First, secularity is not a religion-neutral concept, but a much more complex construction. The enduring myth has certainly more to do with a mirror projection of the state's own original violence on religious communities than the reverse. It is the fear of religions as transnational communities resisting the emerging state that has historically motivated the French Republic's intolerance and indeed violent exclusion of religions from the public sphere. Secondly, in order to understand current political events and the social actors involved (e.g. 9/11; the Arab Spring), it is essential to understand the underlying religious rationalities. Political irrelevance of religions is politically irrational.

The City of God in the Palace of Nations

The Catholic presence at the United Nations in Geneva is led by the Holy See, the Sovereign Order of Malta and over 30 Catholic-inspired NGOs. Together, they represent, articulate and advocate the Catholic tradition to the international community: its values, its many social works, and its political relevance in international affairs.

For the different actors involved, we can identify different strategies. Most Catholic-inspired NGOs engage the UN system through information and advocacy for victims of injustice, violence or neglect. They usually do so from their own specific constituency and field of social work, be it child protection, health organizations, education or care for migrants. The Holy See, on the other hand, has a more classic strategy, representing and advocating the Catholic Church's positions at the UN as an observer state. Together though, they struggle to bring forward the political intelligibility of Catholic positions beyond conventional secular arguments.

The nature of international diplomacy, the embedded institutional rationality, is such that it may restrain and limit the possibility to express religious views on political issues or international negotiations. These views are entangled in an institutional language where religious arguments are deemed irrelevant to the debate.

To avoid such constraints is a hard task indeed, since it is not only the Catholic representative who is involved, but also his interlocutor, whose goodwill is required. More fundamentally, there is a need to change the current narrative on religion in the public square and in international practices. Obviously this goes beyond the possibility of individuals alone at the UN.

We must therefore work in the system as it exists today. However, this doesn't mean that we should conform to the dominant narrative that would actively undermine Catholics' ability to express the reasons for their actions. We should dare to present the theological reasons for our positions as being helpful and interesting to our international interlocutors; as part of a dialogue which must not end at a supposed "gate" of "politically irrelevant belief systems". By doing so, we act not as proselytizers but out of a will to explain the full coherence and intelligibility of our actions. More not less theology then seems to be the lemma: because it is useful for dialogue; because it helps the cause of justice and peace; because it helps understand the world as it is.

A certain amount of daring is certainly needed, although such daring should never come without some prudence, for our interlocutor might turn out to be quite intolerant to such language and we may risk losing our credibility. But let us not too easily assume the prudent stance, for the dominant narrative is very effective at silencing our best reason to do what we do.

Caritas in Veritate: another new foundation?

The United Nations system is unique and valuable. For all its well known bureaucracy and the slow pace of its work, it is the international forum where states gather, talk and try to address issues we can only solve together. Geneva, in particular, with its specialized international organizations is the place where global governance on health, human rights, intellectual property, telecommunication standards, disarmament, refugees and migrants, meteorology, international trade is thought out, negotiated and settled through international agreements and their implementation supervised. No other international forum of similar importance and international legitimacy exists to date.

Well aware of this importance, Catholics have been present in the United Nations system in Geneva since its beginning, first through International Catholic Organizations and later on through the mission of the Holy See. This first working paper of the Caritas in Veritate Foundation shows the relevance of this presence and the importance of the work done by religious groups at the UN. But with more than 30 Catholic NGOs working at the UN in Geneva, the case for the creation of a new foundation must be made.

The Caritas in Veritate Foundation aims to provide expertise and counsel at the request of these Catholic NGOs. It will act as a bridge between the work done at the UN and Catholic professionals or people of culture; a bridge between highly skilled persons willing to help and Catholic representatives involved in the complex procedures of international organizations, so that their contributions may be even more useful and effective.

On some important and pressing questions, the Foundation also intends to create a long range perspective. Commissioning reports to research centres around the world, it looks for new ways to think about old issues; tomorrow's world is shaped by many forces, one of which certainly being new ideas.

The Caritas in Veritate Foundation hopes to enhance the Catholic presence at the UN: A better hedge in practical advocacy through pertinent expertise; a capacity to be creative in deadlocked situations; the ability to see trends and act accordingly for the long term. It seeks, in other words, to serve the intelligibility of Catholic positions and actions on the international scene, a work of great value to Catholics engaged at the UN, and to international negotiations today.

Read the full text of the Working Paper here