European Meetings Address Growing Role of Religion in European Policy Making
October 20, 2002

Members of parliament, NGOs, women's and human rights groups and international experts meet to explore the impact of religious diversity on policymaking in an enlarged European Union.

Two seminars, held October 15 and 16 in Stockholm and Madrid respectively, broke new ground this week in exploring the role religion is playing in European policymaking.

Members of parliament and leaders from civil society met with international experts to discuss the increasing participation of religious institutions in policy debates within Europe--even as the positions of some religious institutions are at odds with the values that form a European consensus on critical issues.

The seminars were made more timely following the previous week's vote on enlarging the EU. The enlargement of the European Union will increase diversity within the Union, and the impact of religious differences on the debate is also likely to grow, said organizers Catholics for a Free Choice. The Holy See has been highly visible in recent policymaking discussions at the EU, notably around funding for family planning and debates about a putative European constitution.

"While the Roman Catholic church has made many positive contributions to peace and justice at the UN, neither these contributions nor the negative stands the Holy See has taken on women's rights and reproductive health are the heart of the matter," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "The heart of the matter is the fact that the Holy See is not a state, but the government of the Roman Catholic church. To grant state status and special privileges to this religion over all others is simply unfair. The "See Change" Campaign seeks a level playing field in the UN for all religions," said Kissling, a key speaker at the event. She continued, "Having experienced the desire of the Holy See for a privileged place in the United Nations, we are increasingly concerned that the Vatican is seeking similar privileges and power within the European Union. Before that happens, members of parliament both nationally and at the European level need to consider developing guidelines for the appropriate role of religious institutions within the Europe. This seminar serves as a starting point for the development of these policies. The legal status of the Holy See as a nation-state is questionable. It does not meet the same criteria of nationhood as the other nations that are participating in the UN," she said.

The need for such a meeting became even clearer when leaders of the Roman Catholic church leveled harsh criticism at the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted by the European Union. At the time, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a close aide to the pope, said the charter failed to take adequate account of the "historical and cultural roots of Europe, in particular Christianity, which represents Europe's soul and which still today can inspire Europe's mission and identity." Cardinal Ratzinger, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that it was regrettable that "God and our responsibility before God" had not been "anchored in the European constitution."

Catholics for a Free Choice, The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) and The Federacion de Planificacion Familiar de Espana who organized the meetings, are part of The "See Change" Campaign in which women's and human rights groups from around the globe are calling for a review of the Holy See's Non-member State Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. From opposing the use of condoms to halt the spread of AIDS to decrying the provision of emergency contraception for refugee victims of rape, the Holy See misuses its special status to build real obstacles to the promotion of women's health and well-being, the groups said.

Kissling also noted the devastating impact of the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. "Faced with the devastation that AIDS is causing in countries across Africa, the Roman Catholic hierarchy has coldly reiterated its ban on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. The church leadership continues to pose serious obstacles to AIDS prevention at both an international and local level," she said.

She added, "Such a position calls into question the Roman Catholic church's moral right to high status at the United Nations, where its interventions and lobbying deny women in developing countries access to protection that Catholic women in the developed world enjoy, as they have the economic and social power to ignore the pronouncements of the church hierarchy. The funding of such groups with state monies is also an issue that policy makers need to explore and non-governmental organizations need to monitor more closely.

Other speakers included: