Protecting Our Oceans

Susan Whelan ’81, P’11, ’16, Legal Advisor to the Holy See Mission at the United Nations

In the Catholic Church, the call to serve can come at any time and in many forms. For Susan Whelan ’81, P’11, ’16, it came through a chance encounter in an A&P parking lot when, some years after she’d left her career as a Wall Street capital markets attorney to focus on her six children, she ran into a woman she’d known through various Catholic volunteer boards. “I hadn’t seen her in years, but she asked if I could help her with a project; not knowing what the project was, I said yes because she works with several amazing Catholic causes and she just said ‘Okay, you will get a call.’” 

Later that week, the call came from Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the head of the Holy See Mission at the United Nations. The Archbishop had heard of Whelan’s corporate career and her extensive community volunteer work, and he offered her a job with the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the UN. 

“I really felt like it was the Holy Spirit because it was something I had always wanted to do,” says Whelan. She accepted on the spot to represent the Holy See at meetings to discuss trade law issues and to participate in the negotiation of agreements at the UN.

More About Susan Whelan ’81, P’11, ’16

  • Graduated BC magna cum laude as The Scholar of the College
  • Author of The Scholar and the Housewife (2013)
  • Six children, including two Eagles: Helen Whelan Wittpenn ’21 and Caroline Whelan ’16; and 12 grandchildren
  • Brother Bob Marren, his wife Susan Lifvendahl Marren, and four of their children are also Eagles!

Whelan is one of a small team of people who represent the Holy See, which is the central government of the Catholic Church and, as such, has been a neutral, nonvoting state at the United Nations since 1964. With its status as Observer at the UN, the Holy See represents the interests of the estimated nearly 1.4 billion Catholics worldwide by participating in debates of the General Assembly, negotiating draft resolutions, and—key to Whelan’s work—helping to broker international agreements. 

Drawing upon her experience in high-stakes corporate law, Whelan now serves as lead negotiator on a myriad portfolio of topics, including insolvency; micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises; and investor-state dispute settlement. But since the 2015 Papal Encyclical on the Environment, she has increasingly focused on environmental protection issues, particularly matters relating to the world’s oceans. 

Most recently, she participated in the UN’s multi-year effort to negotiate a convention on the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s oceans and what is called “Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ).” BBNJ addresses the 64 percent of the world’s oceans that are not controlled by any country, but which offer countless valuable resources for scientific research, renewable energy production, genetic resources, and other uses. 

As the only country in the room with no economic interests in the ocean’s bounty, the Holy See has had a unique opportunity to help bring together different sides in this increasingly urgent negotiation, says Whelan. 

“We come at it from a different perspective from other countries, environmentalists, sectoral regulators, and multi-national corporations. The Holy See does not take sides in crafting the convention because getting in between one camp or the other is not useful. Instead, we seek to present legal compromises that might lead to agreement because at the end of the day, the Holy See wants the treaty to be effective to stop the ecological decline of our oceans.” 

A perk of Whelan’s work has been the opportunity to meet some of the Catholic Church’s leading figures, even serving as the official host at the Papal residence for Pope Francis’ visit to New York City in 2015. She’s traveled the world and helped advance the interests of Catholics and others in hundreds of ways, large and small. 

It’s not what she expected that day when she went to her local grocery store, but in some ways, it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong wish: “I wanted to be a lawyer at the United Nations even when I first came to Boston College, and now here I am, more than 40 years later, and I’m living out my dream in ways I never could have imagined.” 

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