NEW YORK — When Pope Benedict XVI speaks at the United Nations this month, one Catholic group will take particular satisfaction in the fact that he will come with a special status among nations rather than as an outsider.
The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-Fam) was at the forefront of an effort to keep the Holy See’s permanent observer status at the United Nations against a push by pro-abortion groups, led by the so-called Catholics for a Free Choice, to remove the Vatican from official standing at the international body.
The effort to oust the Holy See was an indication of the Vatican’s effectiveness in defending human rights and the family, and in rallying other nations against a drive to add abortion as a basic human right in U.N. documents, said Austin Ruse, president of C-Fam.
“The Holy See is the oldest continuous government in the world and maintains diplomatic relations with most of the nations in the world,” Ruse said recently. “To say that it does not deserve status in the United Nations because it stands for peace and justice and the smallest and most defenseless human beings is an absurdly narrow viewpoint that was rightly rejected.”
The highly charged battle, beginning in 1999, also raised the profile of the fledgling C-Fam and won the organization thousands of new supporters worldwide.
“It was a miracle that happened,” Ruse recalled. “When Catholics for a Free Choice started a campaign to throw out the Holy See, we risked it all and spent practically our last dollar to respond with a direct-mail package defending the Holy See. Within six months, we had 12,000 new donors.”
He added, ironically, “I thank Frances Kissling [then head of Catholics for a Free Choice] for C-Fam’s large list of donors.”
Msgr. Anthony Frontiero, who worked for the Holy See as an attaché to the United Nations from 1999-2003, said C-Fam was an invaluable ally.
“I worked with C-Fam on many occasions during very difficult negotiations at the U.N., when the Holy See was making arguments in favor of the family and life against the pro-death forces,” said Msgr. Frontiero, who now works at the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice in Rome. “I found C-Fam especially helpful in that they would read the lengthy U.N. documents carefully, identify any problem areas and help the Holy See get the word out to the other delegates who may support our position.”
The drive to defend the United Nations status of the Holy See underscores both the bold style and traditional values that have marked C-Fam in its more than 10 years of operation.
When the organization was founded in August 1997, people of faith and traditional morality had already been alerted to the radical trends at the United Nations through the Cairo and Beijing conferences on women and the family, which saw Western nations (including the United States under President Clinton) seeking to establish abortion as a fundamental human right.
Ruse and his group were in full operation when the five-year reviews of these conferences were held at the U.N. headquarters. Building on the work of the Holy See in pulling together support of its positions, Ruse labored tirelessly to gather a coalition of delegates at the U.N. and a network of supporters from the outside to form a potent lobbying force to support the Holy See’s position against abortion and for the traditional family.
The “Friday Fax,” which had the flair of investigative journalism, was the main instrument in C-Fam’s information arsenal. (It is now an e-mail that goes to a list of 36,000 and is forwarded to far more readers.) Written at the time by Doug Sylva, who holds a doctorate from Columbia University, the weekly bulletins documented the efforts of some delegates to use the term “reproductive health” as a code word for abortion in U.N. documents.
“One of the major accomplishments of C-Fam was to make social conservatives of every faith and background aware of what was going on in the U.N.,” Ruse said.
He said the papal visit will be a highlight of the organization’s 10th anniversary year. Pope Benedict XVI visits the United Nations headquarters in New York City on April 18. His speech there will be a central focus of his visit to the United States.
The organization was founded with seed money from Human Life International, the pro-life group based in Front Royal, Va. A few months later, Ruse joined C-Fam, which had one assistant and $10,000 in the bank.
“We were in a small, windowless office near the U.N.,” he recalled. “We would stand in front of the fax machine and feed the Friday Fax to a list of about 120, one by one. It was touch and go for a long time, as far as paying the rent.”
Today, C-Fam has a larger but still windowless office near the U.N. and another one in Washington, D.C., on K Street, the famous base for lobbying groups. There are plans for another office in Brussels to monitor the European Union.
Ruse lives in Virginia with his wife, the former Cathleen Cleaver, who was spokeswoman for many years for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on pro-life issues and is now a senior fellow for legal studies for the Family Research Council.
C-Fam’s annual budget is about $1 million, every penny of it raised from a few large and thousands of smaller donors. There are six full-time staffers and a number of consultants and interns. In addition to the weekly e-mail bulletin (still quaintly called the Friday Fax), C-Fam oversees the International Organizations Research Group, which issues periodic “white papers” by scholars who explore a single topic in depth. Subjects have included the involvement of UNICEF in population control efforts. Always on the international cutting edge, the Friday Fax recently reported that the constitution of the newly independent Kosovo “threatens unborn children and the traditional family.”
Despite its relatively small budget compared to other lobbying groups, C-Fam attracts outstanding talent to its staff.
Piero Tozzi recently left his position as an attorney with a large New York law firm to become C-Fam’s executive vice president and general counsel. His duties include running the New York office.
Although he is taking a pay cut, Tozzi explained, “C-Fam is at the forefront of many international legal issues such as the sanctity of life and the defense of the family. This apostolate is a very important one, and I had to ask myself how I could best use my talents to serve God.”
Susan Yoshihara joined two years ago as vice president and recently became head of C-Fam’s think tank that produces the scholarly white papers. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, she served 20 years as an officer and was for many years a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, specializing in national security decision-making and international relations.
She has developed a strategic plan for C-Fam that defined the mission, vision and core values and produced a new logo, new literature and a corporate image.
“We are out to realize genuine international law” based on natural law and the common good, she explained. The core values of the organization, she added, are “fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church, professionalism and truth telling.”
One of the main goals of C-Fam is “to publicize the debates at the U.N.” that often go on behind closed doors.
She said, “We believe that the more you know about the issues, the more pro-life you will become.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.