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BY Brian Caulfield
NEW YORK—The Vatican's role at United Nations international conferences has taken on an almost wearying routine. At the meetings in Beijing on women, in Cairo on population, and in Istanbul on living conditions, the Holy See's Permanent Mission to the United Nations was the major voice opposing aggressive population control measures and abortion, and standing up for the family as the central unit of society, based on marriage between a man and a woman, and the rights of parents to rear their children according to their own beliefs.
The recent U.N.-backed meeting for youth in Lisbon, Portugal, saw similar questions raised and the Holy See making familiar objections against terms such as “reproductive rights,” a code for birth control and abortion, “gender preference” and the promotion of homosexual lifestyles, and the failure to recognize the family as the primary unit of society. Especially noticeable in the Lisbon Declaration, approved at the Aug. 8-12 meeting, was the absence of any recognition of the rights and responsibilities of parents in the lives of their children. Young people, defined for the purpose of the conference as those from ages 10-24, were presented as largely autonomous, self-determining persons who are able to exercise a wide range of rights apart from parental or familial influences.
A statement affirming the family as “the basic unit of society” and the unique character of marriage was added to the preamble of the document late in the conference after heated debate and a written intervention by the Holy See. Whether the entire document will be read in the light of the preamble is questionable, said Vatican delegates.
In a speech to the meeting, Bishop Stanislaw Rylko, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, said, “The poverty and marginalization of entire populations are increasing, and on the spiritual level the crisis of essential values becomes deeper.” Many young people around the world, he added, “are experiencing the frustration of false freedom, the lack of meaning in life and of reference points.”
John Klink, who has served as a delegate for the Vatican for the past 11 years at dozens of conferences, led a coalition of Christian, Muslim, and Mormon delegates at Lisbon in pushing for a more traditional view of youth and the family. Despite performing similar tasks repeatedly at other conferences, Klink, from California, has not grown cynical of the international conference process. He still sees such meetings as useful forums of international dialogue, and is especially convinced of the vital importance of the Holy See's participation.
“If we weren't speaking, there would be a real lack of balance. I hate to think of the result if the Holy See were not there,” Klink told the Register soon after returning from Lisbon.
The Holy See approaches issues from a moral perspective, not from a strictly political one, and draws upon the truths of divine revelation and the wisdom of Catholic philosophy, he said. This fact is not always appreciated by the delegates from other countries who seek to understand interventions of the Vatican in terms of political gain and earthly power, Klink added.
Msgr. James Reinert, an attaché to the Holy See's U.N. Mission in New York City, wrote the Vatican's Aug. 10 statement on the Portugal Declaration, with clearly noted objections. At preparatory meetings at the United Nations in New York, he said, the Holy See tried at least five times to include language affirming the family and parental rights.
“When we're talking about youth, education, and the next generation, not to mention parents is a big omission,” he stated. “This is especially true when we get to the controversial issue of so-called ‘reproductive health.’ To suggest that parents have no rights and responsibilities in this area is plain wrong.”
Particularly disturbing, he admitted, was a report that a World Health Organization spokesman said in a press conference Aug. 10 that U.N. agencies will interpret the Lisbon Declaration's health recommendations on sexuality to apply to children as young as 10.
Kay Balmforth, a Mormon from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Family Voice in Provo, Utah, told the Register, “Below a certain age, people need protection and help and direction in their decision making. Every country recognizes this; it is the difference between adults and minors.”
The groups attacking the rights of families and parents know that young people are in formative stages and open to influence. “They don't want parents to be the influence; they want it to be themselves.
“There were enough family-oriented NGO to make our views heard,” said Balmforth, “but there is a great need to get more traditionally minded people lobbying at the United Nations. We've ignored the United Nations for the most part and the radicals have run amok.”
Like other U.N. declarations, Msgr. Reinert said, there were enough positive points in the Lisbon document to make the conference a worthy effort. Included were statements on the exploitation of children in labor, in wartime, and by governments. These points are not stated as strongly as they are in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, drafted in the early 1990s, he said, and efforts must be made to ensure that the language of the more recent meeting does not supplant that of the former one.
The Lisbon meeting, the First World Conference on Ministers Responsible for Youth, was sponsored by the government of Portugal and approved by the United Nations. It came a few days after the Third World Youth Forum of the United Nations in Braga, Portugal, which was heavily influenced by non-delegate lobbyists advocating abortion, contraception, and homosexual rights. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan opened the Lisbon proceedings by reading from the declaration of the Braga conference.
Since it was sponsored by a government and not directly by the United Nations, it is unclear precisely how the Lisbon meeting fits into the series of U.N. conferences and what authority its findings will hold, said Msgr. Reinert.
In a straightforward 600-word statement, the Holy See made clear that it joined only partially in the Portugal document and noted five major reservations: “Reproductive health care” and “reproductive rights” are to be understood in a more general concept of health which encompasses the whole good of a person, including maturity in sexuality according to moral norms. Abortion and access to abortion are rejected.
“Family planning” and “family life education” are terms that the Holy See interprets according to its moral objection to birth control methods and its recognition of the duty and right of parents as the primary educators of their children in areas of sexuality.
Any references to family planning services should be understood as relating exclusively to married couples, who alone are given the privilege to make decisions about conjugal relationships.
The Holy See interprets the word “gender” to be grounded in the biological reality of two sexes, male and female.
References to “family unit” and “family structures” are interpreted as meaning the family as the basic unit of society, based on the conjugal love of a husband and wife.
About the consistent efforts of abortion and population-control advocates at these conferences, Msgr. Reinert said, “We're going to see them get stronger each time if we don't keep vigilant. We always hope they finally have as much as they want and their influence will not get worse, but it keeps getting worse.”
Currently, the Holy See is preparing for the five-year review meeting of the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population, to be held in New York in the spring.
“We're digging in, waiting to see how bad this can get,” said Msgr. Reinert.
Klink said that he was encouraged at Lisbon by the significant number of pro-life young people attending their first international conference. They kept proceedings in the working groups from being dominated by voices for abortion and other anti-family measures and signaled possible improvements for the future, he said.
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.