On matters of sex and the family, Catholic
leaders can sound remarkably like the Taliban, decrying modernity as a
vast moral wasteland, a citadel of the “culture of death,” where human
life is a commodity and pleasure the prime directive.
|I’m certain that no one in
the Vatican finds the idea of a world run by Osama bin Laden the least
bit attractive. That said, there are elements of his critique of the West
— as hedonistic, lax, awash in the sins of the flesh — that do find an
echo in certain curial circles.
On matters of sex and
the family, Catholic leaders can sound remarkably like the Taliban, decrying
modernity as a vast moral wasteland, a citadel of the “culture of death,”
where human life is a commodity and pleasure the prime directive.
Such hostility is reciprocated.
Politicians, humanitarian officials and activists, especially those involved
in international bodies such as the United Nations or the European Union,
often take it as an article of faith that Catholicism is obstructionist,
anti-woman, and anti-democratic.
In my experience, both
sides are often prepared to believe the worst about the other, to impute
ill motives and to suspect plots, to see their conflict in Manichean terms
as a struggle of good against evil. The gap can be so wide as to seem unbridgeable.
This worrying impression
was confirmed by two recent experiences.
The first came Nov. 22-24,
at a Vatican conference in the old synod hall, which is located next door
to the papal fire station. It marked the 20th anniversary of
Consortio, the concluding document from the 1980 synod on the family.
The conference was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family,
headed by Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo.
Lopez Trujillo and his
collaborators were gracious and open, and many interesting ideas were floated
over these three days. Yet I was struck by the bitterness, the scorn directed
at the contemporary world, felt by many participants.
Lopez Trujillo, for example,
compared the impact of liberal social policies to Kafka’s Metamorphosis,
in which the protagonist awakens to discover he has become an insect. That,
Lopez suggested, is the modern condition; abortion, divorce and homosexuality
are robbing us of our humanity.
Archbishop Carlo Caffarra,
an Italian and a key Vatican advisor on moral issues, ruefully observed
that contemporary culture has “completely ignored” the teaching of the
church. He complained that the modern human being is “decapitated,” deprived
American John Klink,
a layman who advises the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations, bluntly
asserted that “the abortion lobby” is manipulating the UN to “push the
envelope of social change.” He described population control groups as having
an “anti-life, anti-family totalitarian agenda,” and referred to a document
from one such group as “like a Third Reich plan from the 1930s.”
Four days later, I found
myself on the other side of the aisle.
It happened in Brussels
at a Nov. 28 hearing of the European Parliament on “the role of religion
in international policy making,” where I had been asked to chair a session.
The event was sponsored by parliamentarians Lousewies van der Laan, Joke
Swiebel, and Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, all leftists of various stripes.
The ringleader was van
der Laan, a Dutch polyglot associated with a wide range of progressive
causes. She spoke, for example, during the World Gay Pride rally in Rome
in summer 2000.
The hearing had a clear
anti-Vatican tilt, with much of the organizing work carried out by Catholics
for a Free Choice, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-choice advocacy group.
The parliamentarians had invited the Holy See’s mission to the EU to send
someone, but perhaps sensing a stacked deck, they declined.
Here, too, interesting
points surfaced. Cecile Richards, daughter of former Texas governor Ann
Richards, described her efforts to organize religious progressives. Paul
Numrich, a research associate at the Park Ridge Center in Chicago, gave
a balanced and informative overview of the roles of faith-based groups
in the UN.
Yet most panelists, in
one form or another, had come to complain.
Roberto Blancarte, a
Mexican academic, defended the “lay state,” a popular concept among European-influenced
political theorists. It refers to a state in which religion is a private
matter with no public role. He decried the “recolonization” of public life
by organized religion.
The usual stock issues
drew hurrahs. One participant complained that the pope’s image will soon
be on a coin circulating throughout the Euro zone. Catholics for a Free
Choice head Frances Kissling spoke about her group’s “see change” campaign,
designed to strip the Holy See of its status as a sovereign state at the
UN. She provocatively asked if there is “any room for infallibility” within
a democratic institution.
By the end, there seemed
a consensus in this crowd that religious institutions by their nature seek
political power, and put that power to nefarious ends. There was an obvious
sense of the Vatican, and most other organized religious bodies, as an
enemy. (So much so that one female Protestant minister actually felt compelled
to apologize, on behalf of religion, to all present).
I had the sense that
the people in Brussels would have felt like soldiers trapped behind enemy
lines at the Vatican, and vice-versa.
I should stress that
the clash I’m describing is largely restricted to issues concerning sex.
On other matters, whether it’s banning land mines or feeding children,
the Vatican and international bodies can be excellent partners. The Vatican
was the fifth nation on earth, for example, to ratify the UN convention
on the rights of the child.
Yet one look at today’s
headlines is enough to illustrate that sexual and family issues are vitally
important. Personally, I fear that the worldviews held by those on either
side — Lopez Trujillo, to take an illustrative example, and van der Laan
— are so far apart that conflict is the only option. One struggles to imagine
the two of them sitting down over coffee to seek common ground, though
should it ever happen, I would pay real money to be a fly on the wall.
If rapprochement were
to occur, both camps would undoubtedly have to give. On the Catholic side,
at least, I think I know where the rationale for doing so might come from.
The Second Vatican Council
in Gaudium et Spes called on the church to work alongside men and
women of good will to build a better world. Realizing this dream requires
a special effort to avoid demonizing those with whom we disagree, to keep
the positive “signs of the times” in balance with the negative.
Thankfully, there are
people in the church who realize this. On the Sunday after the Familiaris
Consortio conference, I lunched at one of my favorite Roman eateries,
Dal Sardo on the Via Gregorio VII, with a moral theologian friend who teaches
at a pontifical university. I described Caffarra’s talk, and asked, “If
one’s view of the contemporary world is so hostile, how you do you ever
My friend sighed, and
replied: “With great difficulty.” Then he added: “But you know, Caffarra’s
way isn’t the only one.”
Perhaps the Vatican should
consider sending my friend to Brussels … to see if someone would meet him
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