Giving The Vatican The Boot
Laura Flanders
Ms. Magazine, October/November 1999

Last June at the United Nations, delegates gathered to draft a document for the General Assembly special session on population and development. The gathering, known as Cairo+5, came five years after the landmark Cairo Conference of 1994, which recognized women's empowerment and reproductive health as key to stemming global population growth. The delegates to Cairo+5 represented 159 nation-states—and Vatican City's Holy See.

It's this last participant that has long irked women's groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and member states who have struggled for women's equality around the world. The Roman Catholic Church, represented at the U.N. by the Holy See, is the only religious body to enjoy "nonmember state permanent observer" status. NGOs such as the Women's Environment and Development Organization and U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization also observe—but silently, from a raised gallery above the debate floor. The Holy See's "observer" gets to speak, to lobby, and to negotiate on virtually equal footing with any nation. The See may not vote, but it can and does influence the documents the nations vote on. And in the case of Cairo+5, the document contains elements as beneficial to women as they are odious to the Holy See.

Last spring, a coalition of more than 100 international women's, religious, and reproductive rights groups launched the See Change Campaign to challenge the Vatican's power at the U.N.—and to downgrade its status from a nonmember state to a traditional NGO. Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), one of the groups spearheading the effort, puts its position clearly: "Why should an entity that is in essence 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome, with a citizenry that excludes women and children, have a place at the table where governments set policies affecting the very survival of women and children? Are we dealing with a religion or a political power here? Or both? Nobody else at the U.N. claims to represent God."

Bene Madunagu, chair of Girls' Power Initiative, in Nigeria, spoke at See Change's launch. "The death toll from HIV and AIDS in Africa," she said, "rises with every Holy See success in intimidating health organizations from broadening prevention and education programs. There is no record of maternal mortality in the male-only Vatican, but Africa sees a massive percentage of pregnancy-related deaths that result from abortion complications because too many poor governments yield to political pressures from the Holy See against providing safe, legal abortion services."

María Consuelo Mejía is director of Catholics for the Right to Decide, a Mexico City-based member of the See Change Campaign. "At the end of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church is the most hierarchical and patriarchal institution in the world," she says. "They're entitled to represent themselves and their beliefs," Mejía concedes, but without the status of a nation-state.

The Cairo+5 conference represented the first time since the See Change Campaign's inception that the group could make its presence felt at an event where the Holy See was on hand trying to roll back the gains made by women.

In the U.N.'s huge first-floor meeting hall, the Holy See's seven-member delegation, with its laptops and cell phones, sat beside the delegate from Haiti, one of the hemisphere's poorest states. A man and a woman in nonclerical summer suits scanned documents on their computer screens, while a pair of priests in traditional garb hovered like sentinels at their backs. When the discussion got heated, the priests set off to roam the delegates' benches, passing around position papers and clasping hands. While the clerics were cruising, their lay colleagues listened, and every time the conference talk turned to reproductive health or contraception, women's rights, or issues of family and youth, John Klink, a Vatican delegation member and the See's lead talker, raised the sign that delegates use to indicate they want to speak.

Among other things, Klink argued against the use of the so-called morning-after pill for rape victims; opposed any mention of female condoms; and advocated replacing "rights" with "status"—as in "respect for women's status" instead of "respect for women's rights." One busy Monday afternoon, Klink spoke five times in an hour against confidential sex counseling for adolescents and for a reconfirmation of parental rights.

"I appeal to delegates of the Holy See to join the consensus," pleaded conference chair Anwarul Chowdhury of Bangladesh. Because U.N. chairpersons work hard to achieve consensus, the See can delay proceedings with a single dissenting view, as Klink did in this case.

"The Vatican's position in contemporary global debate should be extremely humble," grumbled Amparo Claro, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Women's Health Network, an NGO that, like all NGOs, may watch U.N. proceedings but may speak to delegates only in the corridors. "The Vatican does not represent the diversity of opinions within the Christian community. It does not even reflect the multiple voices of Catholics."

Delegates from Europe, Canada, and the U.S. fought hard but lost the battle to insert mention of female-controlled methods of contraception and emergency contraception into this year's document. The only other delegates who raised their hands as often as Klink did represented not a tiny entity, but the 300 million people of the U.S. or the 13 nations of the European Union or the coalition of 133 developing nations, called the G77. Over and over, delegates heard the Holy See's representative declare, "We cannot approve."

When Klink says "we," he says he's referring to the Catholic Church, which, he asserts, "is comprised of the entire people of God." Clerics have described the See as the "supreme organ of government," not just of Vatican City but of Catholicism. Alone, therefore, among its nation-state colleagues at the U.N., the papacy sets its political perimeter not around a country but around the world. And that is how its influence comes to be so widely felt.

The word see derives from seat—the official diocese of the Holy Father, or Vatican City, a statelet set up in 1929 to administer the Roman Catholic Church's property and keep it independent from Rome. At less than one square mile, with 1,000 citizens—500 male cardinals and some 500 mostly male support staff—Vatican City is no match for your average shopping mall in terms of size, but the place has a post office, a radio station, and a diplomatic corps, and when the U.N. was being formed a half century ago, that was enough to get it in the door.

It didn't hurt that in the post-war era, the Catholic Church was tied into a network of anticommunist activists and underground priests who reported to the Vatican from every corner of the globe. Throughout the 1950's, Washington and the West supported the Holy See's attendance at the general assembly and meetings of the World Health Organization, UNESCO, and other key agencies where the Vatican usually came down on their side in the East-West disputes of the Cold War. In 1964, when Pope Paul VI named a permanent observer to the U.N.—like that of neutral Switzerland—U Thant, the U.N. secretary-general at the time, went along. (Permanent observers are not subjected to the same lengthy approval process as member states.) The Holy See uses this position not only to protect the Vatican's autonomy from outside intervention, but to impose its view on the rest of the world.

In 1994, seven months before the population conference in Cairo, Pope John Paul II was busy laying masonry for his antiwoman platform. He got personally involved in the attempt to dissuade participants from adopting a policy that would, in his eyes, legitimize abortion and contraception. As early as February 1994, a full nine pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the Holy See's official newspaper, were dedicated to the text of a "Letter to the Family," written by the pope himself. Addressing what he called the protection of the life of the unborn, the pope announced that the doctrine of the church on abortion and contraception would never change. The same day's paper carried an article by a Catholic theologian asserting that even the prevention of conception by artificial means was reason for excommunication, because it's tantamount to abortion, which carries the same punishment.

L'Osservatore's half dozen weekly foreign-language editions distributed the message loud and clear. But that was just the opening salvo. That March, John Paul II escalated tactics with personally signed letters to all heads of state and to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, urging them to reject the draft document, which was then being formulated, on the grounds that it was being authored in part by the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The document, which advocated global contraception programs, "leaves the troubling impression of something being imposed," he wrote, "namely, a lifestyle typical of certain fringes within developed societies that are materially rich and secularized. ... Are countries more sensitive to the values of nature, morality, and religion going to accept such a vision of man and society without protest?"

John Paul II telephoned President Clinton in April 1994 to request his intervention to modify the U.N. draft, and then pressed his message further in an interview with the president at the Vatican that June. By no coincidence, the U.S. National Conference of Bishops joined the fray, with a declaration urging the administration to support the Vatican position and indicating that voters would not support opponents of the church.

"It definitely caused the Clinton Administration to consider its position very carefully and look very closely at the language," said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, who was a member of the U.S. delegation at Cairo and again at Cairo+5.

At Cairo, the 17-person delegation from the Holy See was eventually able to stall the conference for days over the language in the final document and force concessions. The final Program of Action for the next 20 years did include the dread word "abortion"—saying it should be "safe" where it is "not against the law," but Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican's permanent observer to the U.N., announced that "nothing is to be understood to imply that the Holy See endorses abortion or has in any way changed its moral position." Any hopes that the Cairo delegates may have had that the U.N. might call for countries to liberalize abortion laws were soundly dashed.

But there was forward movement. Overall, the Program of Action agreed on at Cairo was a victory for women because it focused on women's health as the key to population development. As such, it represented a hard-won triumph over the Roman Catholic Church.

At the Cairo+5 gathering, the Vatican's team was determined to regain the ground it had lost at the 1994 conference, but Cairo+5 saw no significant reversal of earlier gains. A delegate from Mexico even chided the See about its claim that confidential sex counseling for teenagers undercuts parental rights. "Does the privacy of the confessional not extend to teens?" the delegate asked, in an unusually direct criticism of the Vatican's rhetoric. Clare Short, the delegate from Great Britain, went even further, issuing a press release that condemned the Vatican's "unholy alliance" with right-wing Catholic groups and fundamentalist Muslim countries seeking to thwart women's reproductive rights around the world.

Part of the reason why the church wields so much power is that in almost every country of the world it has instituted strong antipoverty and refugee programs and is deeply involved in providing health care. And it is this relationship with poor and developing nations regarding resource issues that wins allies for the church's gender fight. It's not for nothing that the Holy See on more than one occasion in the Cairo+5 debates pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church supports more than 300,000 health facilities worldwide.

The church has made it very clear that if any government or U.N. agency attempts to force those facilities to provide abortion services or requires them to offer contraception services, "they'd pull out," said Anika Rahman, director of the international program at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

This creates a hostage situation, especially when it comes to the church's more extreme positions, such as the prohibition on the use of condoms for protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even for married couples in which one partner has HIV.

As governments around the world—such as the U.S.—farm out more health care services to private operators, including the church, the economic realties strengthen the Vatican's hand. Every time a secular hospital merges with a Catholic one, access to safe abortion services and the most modern methods of contraception is reduced. The poorer the country, the greater the Vatican's influence.

In the front row of the U.N. visitors' gallery during the last week of Cairo+5, a man in a bright-blue suit sat avidly watching the goings-on. Michal Kliment, a citizen of the Slovak Republic, has worked as a gynecologist for almost 30 years and serves as the executive director of the Slovak Family Planning Association. In 1994, he was in Cairo. In 1999, he'd hoped to be part of the effort to consolidate progressive gains made there. Kliment was named one of his country's two official delegates to the Cairo+5. "I've been more involved in this issue than just about anybody in my country," he says.

But halfway into the Cairo+5 meeting, the Slovakian government sent word: Kliment and his colleague (also a reproductive rights advocate) were no longer delegation members. Before business on Friday, "I was told I'd been replaced," says Kliment. Now he perches in the visitors' gallery, looking down on the meeting floor from afar. Asked if he suspects anyone of engineering his ouster, he does not hesitate. He's got no proof, but he points to the delegation from the Vatican.

The replacement delegates are Slovakia's ambassador to Canada—a Christian Democrat and vigorous opponent of the Cairo Plan—and the minister for social affairs. From the assembly floor, the minister has just finished condemning emergency contraception, asserting, as the Vatican does, that the morning-after pill is no different from abortion.

"It's medical nonsense. He's not a gynecologist," says Kliment. "But he is a good Catholic," and now Slovakia is toeing the Vatican line. Although it is a predominantly Catholic state, Slovakia's legal code is currently progressive about abortion, contraception, and divorce. The movement to change the law is growing, with the help of well-endowed European satellites of U.S.-based antiabortion groups. Kliment has started getting death threats. "They've told me they'll kill my children for my killing of Slovak babies," he says. Then Kliment pauses. "The people of the Vatican don't see women after illegal abortions; they don't have to take responsibility for an unwanted child. What right have they to tell the world what to do on such issues?"

The same question has now been raised by women's groups from every region of the world.

"This is not a campaign likely to achieve its goal in the short term," acknowledges See Change's Kissling. "What the campaign does is keep the Vatican on its toes in terms of being excessive, and it encourages people to speak out on the issues."

Laura Flanders is a producer for Pacifica Radio. Her writing appears in "The Nation," "Ms.," and "In These Times. "

ACTION ALERT: To make your voice heard, contact The See Change Campaign, c/o CFFC, 1436 U St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009, tel. (202) 986-6093, fax: (202) 332-7995,