Pope John Paul II launched one of the most important diplomatic initiatives of his long papacy yesterday when he called for a new international order to replace the one that emerged from the second world war.
Though he did not offer a detailed plan, his words appeared to show he wanted the UN replaced in light of its failure to block the use of force by America in Iraq.
The Pope called last month for the reform of world institutions and deplored any failure to respect international law. But in a sermon during a mass at St Peter's in Rome yesterday, he went much further, referring to the UN as if it were already a part of the past.
"More than ever, we need a new international order that draws on the experience and results achieved in these years by the United Nations," he declared during a service to mark the Roman Catholic Church's World Day of Peace, celebrated on January 1.
He was flanked at the altar by two of his most senior international representatives: the secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, who outraged many Americans last month by expressing "pity" and "compassion" for the captured Saddam Hussein.
The congregation included the heads of all the diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See.
In his homily, the Pope said the new world order he wanted "would be able to provide solutions to the problems of today ... based on the dignity of human beings, an integrated development of society, solidarity between rich and poor nations, and on the sharing of resources and the extraordinary results of scientific and technological progress."
The Pope believes that not enough of these goals are being achieved with the present system of international organizations that emerged in the late 40s, including the UN, the IMF and the World Bank.
But the central issue, seen from the Vatican's point of view, is the growing irrelevance of a painstakingly constructed body of international law which is being ignored by the US administration during its "war on terror".
Cardinal Martino first signaled the Pope's disquiet last month when he presented a document written by the pontiff to mark the World Day of Peace. Without naming the US, the Pope warned: "Peace and international law are closely linked to each other: law favors peace". He also pointedly observed that "democratic governments know well that the use of force against terrorists cannot justify a renunciation of the principles of the rule of law".
The Pope acknowledged that current international law was ill-suited to dealing with rebels or terrorists and called for new treaties and reform of the UN. But yesterday's appeal was for an altogether more sweeping change.
With observer status at the UN and a network of diplomats covering 174 countries, the Holy See is in a strong position to lobby for its goals.
Its concerns over US attitudes are unlikely to be assuaged by the latest statement of policy from President George Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell. In an article for the New York Times yesterday, Mr Powell said: "President Bush's vision is clear and right: America's formidable power must continue to be deployed on behalf of principles that are simultaneously American, but that are also beyond and greater than ourselves."
Senior members of the Catholic Church of England and Wales endorsed the Pope's comments. "We welcome the words of the Vatican and fully support what the Holy See says in this," said Ollie Wilson, a spokesman for the Catholic media office.
They cast doubt however on whether he had meant to imply that the UN had had its day and should be replaced.
Peter Jennings, press secretary to the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, said: "The Pope is a great advocate of the UN."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004