Sorry Secularists, But Yes, The UN Can Be Led By A 'Fervent Catholic'

António Guterres, by all accounts a "good listener" has been appointed the next UN Secretary General.Reuters

Should being a practising Christian bar you from holding a top diplomatic job? And is the Church a force for bad or good in the world?

Like around 85 per cent of his fellow countrymen, the former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres is a Catholic. He has also just unanimously been appointed by the UN General Assembly as its next Secretary General.

And in an interesting and carefully worded piece for the Huffington Post, the executive director of the UK National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, has raised some objections and warnings.

Wood prefaces his comments with the statement that, "We need the best person for the job regardless of their religion or belief." He also praises Guterres' widely acclaimed work as the UN High Commissioner for refugees.

But he begins his critique by citing a report by the Agence France Press which describes Guterres as a "fervent Catholic". Wood goes on: "[The report] says that while he allowed a referendum in 1996 on liberalisation of Portugal's strict anti-abortion laws, his opposition to any change in the law contributed to the referendum's failure."

Aside from the very loaded use of the word "failure" here, it's worth remembering that referendums are very major events in politics, not granted lightly, and their results can often go dramatically against incumbent governments, as we have learned recently in the UK. It would have been surprising had the then prime minister not taken a position. Like Guterres, David Cameron backed the status quo in the EU membership referendum earlier this year (as, incidentally, he did in the widely forgotten electoral reform referendum of 2011). Doubtless many of Portugal's nine million Catholics were against holding such a referendum in the first place (the decision was, as Wood points out, overturned in a subsequent referendum in 2007).

"Abortion will have featured little if at all in Mr Guterres' activities on refugees, but will be important in the culture war raging at the UN alongside issues associated with contraception and homosexuality," writes Wood. "These are also areas where conservative Catholic doctrine comes into conflict with individuals' human rights."

As well as pre-empting the positions of a man who has yet to begin his new role, this, of course, skates over the "human rights" of the unborn. Wood's article then goes on a long and somewhat bizarre diversion into the world of Vatican diplomacy.

It is almost as if Guterres – who by all accounts is a very good listener, according to this commendably balanced article by the BBC's Lyse Doucet – is himself representing the Holy See itself.

"The Vatican may be the smallest state in the world but is very active at the United Nations," Wood writes. "At the Human Rights Council, it is the only country I have seen that always has two representatives in the chamber listening to every syllable as though their lives depend on it, handing over the headphones to each other like relay runners do the baton."

Wood concludes: "When acting as Secretary General I would urge Guterres to embrace rather than obstruct the expansion and strengthening of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Gay Rights. The world will be watching and hoping fervently that he will not be unduly influenced by regressive religious forces."

It is unclear whether Wood considers the pope to be among those "regressive religious forces". But as it happens, Pope Francis has been at the forefront of global efforts in highlighting the plight of refugees, of Syria and of the poor and disadvantaged around the world.

Further, as the former British Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell has highlighted: "The Catholic Church alone is reckoned to be the world's second largest international development body after the UN. More than 50 per cent of the hospitals in Africa are operated under the auspices of faith-based organisations. The Catholic Church in Africa is responsible for nearly one quarter of health care provision, including over 25 per cent of HIV care worldwide. In education too the Catholic Church is a huge provider. It provides places in school to some 12 million children each year."

The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies produced a prophetic report on religion and foreign policy in July 2007, saying that "miscalculating religion's role has sometimes led to failure to anticipate conflict or has actually been counterproductive to policy goals. It has kept officials from properly engaging influential leaders, interfered with the provision of effective development assistance and at times harmed national security."

The former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright has said that "since the terror attacks of 9/11, I have come to realize that it may be I who was stuck in an earlier time. Like many other foreign policy professionals, I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world."

And as Campbell points out: "The late Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington argued that some of the religious movements helped to usher in the "third wave" of democracy in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Sub Saharan Africa and Asia from the 1970s to the early 90s. The US Council of Foreign Relations cites more than 30 of the 80 countries that became freer in 1972-2000, owed some of that improvement to religion. For example, in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Christian Churches played a prominent role within the reformist and revolutionary movements of the 1980s. In the 1990s, religion, ethnicity and nationalism collided with devastating force in the Balkans. In the Philippines, Cardinal Sin and Catholic organisations openly condemned the Marcos regime."

It may be unfashionable to say it, but when it comes to these issues, the Catholic Church as well as the wider Church often are and can be progressive forces in international relations.

Contrary to Wood's analysis, in a world broken by war, it would surely be a mistake for the UN Secretary General to ignore religion in his new role.