Resenting Its Influence, Activists Take Aim at the Vatican
July 7, 2008
Washington (CNSNews.com) - Take your pick: either the Vatican is a global voice for morality and among the world's foremost defenders of human rights, or it's a bastion of oppression with an outmoded, harmful world view.
The world's smallest sovereign state, with no standing army and just a handful of citizens, the Vatican - a small island within the city of Rome that basically consists of St. Peter's Basilica, the papal gardens and apartments, and offices in which the administrative work of the Roman Catholic church is done - has an influence on world politics that belies it size.
Over the last several months, the Vatican has become embroiled in international controversies.
Nowhere has that become more apparent than at the United Nations, where the ambassador from the Holy See, called the papal nuncio, has lead a small group of Catholic and Muslim nations in thwarting the efforts of activists within the world body from including proposals for global sex education and adolescent sexual rights in the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference Program of Action and subsequent documents.
For its efforts, the Vatican has increasingly found itself under attack, including a campaign to strip it of its status as a non-voting permanent observer at the UN.
The "See Change" initiative, led by the Catholics for a Free Choice and the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, is aimed at changing the Vatican's status to that of an NGO, or non-governmental organization that has the power to lobby for positions but cannot participate in drafting or amending UN documents.
The initiative suffered a blow Tuesday when the US House, by a 416-1 vote, passed a non-bonding resolution opposing the initiative.
However, the Vatican has taken a number of global public relations hits in the past several weeks:
--In June's five-year review of the Beijing Women's Conference, where, among other changes, the Holy See demanded the deletion of a section that called for global "access to sexual and reproductive health information, education, and services needed to address . . . unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases," several delegates and observers expressed serious irritation at the Vatican delegation. Gita Sen, an Indian academic and member of the UN observer DAWN (Development Alternatives With Women for a New Era), said adoption of the final document was being held up by "a tiny minority that is exercising tyranny" over the delegates, listing the Vatican, Nicaragua, Libya, Sudan and Iraq as countries that blocked consensus.
--At last week's World Pride Rome 2000 march, delegates to the concurrent International Lesbian and Gay Association conference were frequent and bitter critics of the Pope and the Catholic Church. "There is one major opponent to equal rights for gays, and he lives in the Vatican," said an ILGA delegate from England who declined to give his name. Several marchers were dressed as Catholic priests, including a marcher from Milan who carried a picture of naked young man crucified and who performed mock blessings on other marchers. Another marcher carried a sign that read, "Maximum respect for the Pope, even if he was gay," and several marchers held signs saying, "God is Gay."
--Tuesday in Washington, DC, the city council passed a bill requiring all health insurers in the city that offer prescription drug plans to pay for contraceptives and rejected a "conscience clause" amendment that would exempt Catholic institutions from covering prescribed contraceptives. Jim Graham, the avowed homosexual who sponsored the bill, admits he's "spent years fighting church dogma" and held up a picture of Pope John Paul II at the meeting that discussed the vote, accusing the pontiff of trying to dictate morality.
--At a world conference on AIDS being held in South Africa this week, British International Development Secretary Clare Short told the BBC that the Vatican's opposition to contraception was contributing to the disease's spread in Africa. "The Catholic Church opposes contraception, but most Catholics in the world use it," she said. "The Catholic Church is stuck and wrong on these questions ... That is just another burden in dealing with this thing better," added Short, who was herself raised as a Catholic but has expressed strong views in the past on the Vatican's position on abortion.
Why the opposition to a country that the State Department said in a recent briefing had made "significant contributions to international peace and human rights"?
To Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, Tuesday's vote was not surprising and represented yet another inappropriate Vatican encroachment on secular issues.
"It's kind of a motherhood and apple pie issue," said Kissling. "In a certain sense, who's going to vote against the Vatican? ... But if Congress respected the separation of church and state, it would stay out of this issue."
However, according to Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, a United Nations NGO, the Vatican's real crime is "to espouse the deeply held religious belief in the inviolability of every human life from the moment of conception." At a Washington press conference Wednesday, Ruse said that the Vatican uses "moral persuasion" to make its case, attracting the ire of political and social activists.
George Weigel, a Catholic writer and historian at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and recent author of a comprehensive biography of the Pope, said that as the more religions and religious institutions veered from traditional Christian teachings on sexuality and practice, the Catholic church has become more visibly a roadblock to activists.
"It's a sign of the Pope's moral power that he has been attacked so viciously," said Weigel. "He has such tremendous moral credibility, he is recognized as a threat to plans to push a left-wing sexual agenda on the world."
According to a high-ranking source inside the Vatican's mission to the UN, the Vatican feels that it has become the number one target of activists pushing for liberalization of sexual laws and customs and the world. However, the source said the Vatican has no intention of backing down.
"We are pleased by the (US) congressional action [Tuesday] because the church and the Holy Father have been the center of many attacks recently," said the diplomat. "But we have a calling to resist attacks on the family wherever we can."