Promotie: A Theory of Transnational Authority - Analysis of Holy See Discourse in the United Nations


“The United Nations remains a privileged setting in which the Church is committed to contributing her experience ‘of humanity,’ developed over the centuries among peoples of every race and culture and placing it at the disposal of all members of the international community”, according to a 2008 statement by Pope Benedict. This contribution has been consistently acknowledged by the UN, with past Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reverently stating to Pope Francis: “Let me just say, your Holiness: Thank you for your spiritual guidance and blessings and love for humanity.”

Research findings indicate that the religious institution—part sovereign state, part universal moral actor—operates in an association of authority with the UN’s leadership, whose international legal authority is founded in the UN Charter. From a perch of transnational legal theory, modern documentary evidence from UN and Vatican archives demonstrates that recognition of the Holy See’s legitimacy to act as the UN’s voice of moral authority is based on its historic assertion of preeminence over imperial governance rulers, with whom it exercised broad universal authority over the known empire. This formula for authority is rooted in the Roman papacy’s ancient role as supreme purveyor of divinely inspired moral wisdom. 

The Holy See’s acquired UN authority is thus indispensably reliant upon ancient religious primacy dogma that directs the Roman pope to operate as moral guide over governance authority to protect humanity, which has proved to be an effective mechanism to secure power. Discourse analysis of documents reflects these same patterns and objectives, this time in association with the authority of the UN with whom it shares a consonant humanitarian mandate. In the present era of globalization and weakening of sovereign borders, a conclusion is that the religious institution regards UN engagement as an opportunity for the restoration of the broad jurisdictional power that popes once exercised with empire throughout the era of Christendom. The papacy envisions the UN as a promising forum for the establishment of a similar ‘universal public authority’ to which it dispenses preeminent moral directives.

The second theme of this research offers a conceptual contribution to the knowledge on authority theorization. Analysis of the Holy See’s discourse required a review of scholarship on authority’s cultivation. The magnitude and complexity of transdisciplinary descriptions concerning authority, prompted the formation of a novel classification system for identifying authority’s characteristics, referred to as the SQN theory of authority, which is reflected in a simple algebraic equation. This hypothetical approach to authority theory, which labels an essential authority characteristic and untangles confusing terminology, suggests a fresh perspective for assessing authority’s ability to command compliance. 

Research demonstrates that the Holy See has assumed a public function in the UN. The utility of this work surfaces when one considers that the UN was established as an intergovernmental attempt to create a framework for peace as set forth in the secular principles of the Charter. Simply as a matter of fairness and equality, other religions as well as non-European sociopolitical communities might reasonably question the UN’s influential sanction of the Roman papacy as UN moral authority. Such standing should give pause and invite further critical analysis because there are broader implications to this reality.

Begindatum en -tijd
Einddatum en -tijd
Academiegebouw, Domplein 29, Utrecht
S.C.A. Mills LLM
A Theory of Transnational Authority - Analysis of Holy See Discourse in the United Nations
prof. dr. C.M.J. Ryngaert
dr. M. Kanetake