The Holy See and the U.N.

Several years ago, Catholics for a Free Choice, a Potemkin village of an “organization” created by pro-abortion American foundations to muddy the waters of American politics and to harass the Church internationally, ginned up a campaign to eject the Holy See from the United Nations. If was a born loser from the start: however goofy the U.N. is — and its goofiness is often titanic — it wasn’t about to throw the Holy See over the side. In addition, no one really takes Catholics for a Free Choice seriously, and it made an unlikely broker for a non-starter of an idea.

Now, however, comes the London-based  Economist, one of the world’s most respected news magazines: in its July 21 issue, it suggested that, “instead of claiming to practice a form of inter-governmental diplomacy,” the Holy See ought to “renounce its special diplomatic status and call itself what it is — the biggest non-governmental organization in the world.” Not surprisingly, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s “foreign minister,” declined the invitation, citing the long history of Vatican diplomacy and the importance of a voice in international institutions that can speak “in defense of the dignity of each person and of the sacredness of all human life,” a voice that “does not cease to promote the fundamental right to religious freedom, and to promote relations among individuals and peoples founded upon justice and solidarity.”

To Archbishop Mamberti’s well-taken points, I would add the following:

(1) It was a tad insouciant for The Economist to write that the Holy See is in an “ambiguous situation” because it “enjoys many of the privileges of a state while also speaking for a faith.” The historical fact is that the Holy See — which is not identical with Vatican City State, or indeed with any territory, but is the juridical embodiment of the universal ministry of the Bishop of Rome as chief pastor of the Catholic Church — exercised a form of sovereignty, recognized in international law and diplomatic practice, centuries before there was such a thing as “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland” (home to The Economist). And the Holy See continued to do so between the demise of the Papal States in 1870 and the creation of Vatican City State in 1929.

Moreover, in its work at the U.N., the Holy See does not “speak for a faith” so much as it speaks from, and speaks for, universal moral truths that can be known by reason — that is, by everyone. The Holy See does not come to the U.N. to promote the ideas that there are seven sacraments, or that there are two natures in the one divine person of Christ, or that God is a Trinity of Persons in a unity of Godhead. The Holy See comes to the U.N. — as the Catholic Church addresses local and national politics — to remind governments of the first principles of justice, like the inviolability of the right to life of the innocent and the fundamental right of religious freedom.

(2) Further, for the Holy See to withdraw from the U.N. would be to concede, at least tacitly, that politics is exclusively about power (as exercised in and by states). That would be a sad diminishment of the idea of politics. Since the days of Aristotle, “politics” has been understood in the West to mean our common deliberation about public goods, about how we ought to live together. Those are, fundamentally, moral questions, not questions of power; politics engages questions of public goods and how we can know them, not just questions about how X imposes his will on Y. Indeed, the answers to those questions of the common good are crucial in tempering power and bringing it under rational and moral scrutiny — and control. If the twentieth century taught the world anything, it ought to have taught us that.

I expect that I’ll continue to disagree, from time to time, with positions the Holy See takes at the U.N. But that the Holy See plays an important role in international public life is undeniable. The U.N. would be the loser if it failed to recognize that.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.