So this past week I traveled to New York to conduct interviews with representatives of the Holy’s See’s Permanent Obverver Mission to the United Nations as part of my project into norm contestation among global civil society actors during multilateral treaty negotiations.

I found the papal diplomats to be informed, open-minded, friendly and intellectually engaged about human rights and human security. But they didn’t at all like the idea that I was interviewing them as part of a project on “non-state” influences on UN treaty-making.

They imagined I’d be interviewing other governments as well, when in fact they’re on a list otherwise filled by NGOs I’ll be talking to, since the focus of my project is on “global civil society.” (Though one source wittily pointed out that the NGO reps are the least civil actors out there, because they’re not trained as diplomats.)

It’s true the Holy See has the ostensible status of a state for the purposes of multilateral treaty negotiations. It sits on deliberations over UN treaty, declaration and resolution language, and though it doesn’t vote on these documents the Pope chooses whether or not to sign them. Plus the fact that the culture at the UN strives for consensus means any individual actor has a fair amount of influence as a veto player, so the Holy See is in a great position to stick it out until other delegates are worn down and tired of arguing to get language into treaties that reflects its principled positions.

My project isn’t about the Holy See’s status, but these dialogues with my informants got me thinking about the issue. There’s been a lot of criticism over whether the church should have this power relative to other non-state actors – other NGOs have the right to be in the building, and lobby delegates constantly in the hallways, but no other non-state actor has the right to actually sit at the table and negotiate with governments. One of the articles I read as I prepped for this trip suggested that either the Holy See should lose this status or, to be fair, other religions should be represented as well.

Interesting idea, eh? Suppose Saudi Arabia, for example, were to enter into a treaty with the city of Mecca similar to Italy’s treaty with what is now the Vatican City State, and Sunni Islam were to re-establish a caliphate centered in Mecca but territorially distinct from any Muslim majority state, with transnational moral authority over all Sunni Muslims, and then it sent diplomats throughout international society on the model of the Catholic church. Shia Islam could create a parallel Imamte perhaps centered on Tehran.

Would a dynamic like this make for a moderating political Islam, capable of integrating into international society and institutions as the Catholic Church has done, separate from the politics of Islamic governments, though sometimes allied with them; and able to represent Islamic perspectives on issues like the laws of war, family policy, human rights, etc, from outside the politics of the nation-state system? Would it constitute a space from within which the silent moderate Islamic majority could exercise a greater influence on political Islam? Or, would such an institution be vulnerable to capture by extremists and bode ill for a pluralistic international society?