De Souza: What are your thoughts on meeting John Paul II in Croatia during the papal visit this month?
Dr. Zivkovic: We are very grateful that the Holy Father is coming to Croatia again. It will help our country greatly, for we have suffered a lot. We are also very happy that he will beatify Cardinal Stepinac, who is a national hero for the Croatian people.
When did you start the Family Center in Zagreb?
My wife and I have been involved in the systematic promotion of successful family life since 1969. We were both members of the commission for the laity of the bishops’ conference of Yugoslavia. I was a member of the family commission of the [national] bishops’ conference, [first] of Yugoslavia and then of Croatia, from 1973-1993; we worked throughout all of Croatia, Bosnia, and other parts of Yugoslavia.
This work was growing, and as freedom grew in communist Croatia and Yugoslavia, we officially opened the Family Center in 1987 in Zagreb, just two years before the fall of communism. It was very dangerous in communist times. We never kept a list of people who worked with us, because we did not want them to be arrested based on lists the authorities might confiscate from us.
What is the main purpose of your center?
To help people to accomplish what I call a “beautiful and successful” life — beginning first within family life, and carrying into our lives as individuals. And, of course, all our experience shows us that the best way to accomplish such a life, insofar as it is possible in this world, is by applying the complete and authentic Catholic position regarding personal and family life. So I do not need to promote Catholic positions because they are Catholic, but because they are the best way to live.
That is the approach you take with people who use your center?
Yes, but we have two lines which run parallel. My experience and position is that we can adequately argue for any Catholic position regarding interpersonal relationships without invoking Church teachings or the Catholic faith, by relying on universally understandable and acceptable principles: justice, honesty, kindness, and love. This is not easy, but it is possible, and we have had successes. And then, for those of us who have the gift of the Catholic faith, we have more arguments, more ways to accomplish the same kind of beautiful and successful life.
Croatia is 90% Catholic …
You mean 90% of people call themselves Catholic. But a survey [of people's beliefs] shows something different. Still, we are in a much better situation than other countries because of our Catholic culture. Everyone claims to be Catholic, everyone is prepared to have holy pictures in his home, everyone is prepared to listen to the Catholic Church in a certain way. In this situation, re-evangelization is much easier.
So even though most are Catholic, you still find that it is more effective to start using arguments not based on the Catholic faith?
I would say that we should always use different arguments in parallel. Why? Take the situation of teen-agers, who often during that period lose their faith, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. In their minds, faith is connected with serious ethical demands, and many do not want to follow things that they think to be only Catholic teaching. So they leave the Church. But if we explain to these young people that simple honesty and human kindness demand fidelity to a future spouse, or that simple justice demands from young men and women not to conceive a child if there is not permanent love between them, then this child is much less likely to leave the Catholic faith.
Did the war mark your work at the Family Center?
Yes. This terrible war brought a lot of good to Croatia — in people's reactions to the war. We noticed it immediately in the Family Center in the summer of 1991. Our activities tried to build on the new openness of people to think again seriously about life, death, and family matters, because of the tragedy of war. We were helping pregnant women. One pregnant lady came to us. She was about 23 or 24 years old and in a most difficult socioeconomic and psychological situation. But she had no doubts about giving birth to the child. She only asked for help. In the process of helping her, I asked this lady how she had such a strong wish to give birth to her baby amid her difficulties. Tears came to her eyes; she said that her younger brother was on the front lines, and every day she worried about his survival. She said it was not possible that she could kill her baby in this situation.
Another example: you could not find babies to adopt during the war because all families wanted to look after all children in the extended family. Friends of ours wanted to adopt an orphan, but there were no babies to adopt. If the parents died in the war, grandparents, aunts, and uncles wanted to take care of the baby. Nobody could believe it.
More than half of all refugees stayed with their families — not in camps. Croatia is a nation of 4.5 million people and, at times during the war, we had half a million refugees. But we never had the tent cities that you have seen in other parts of Europe where there have been disasters. Nobody had to live in tents. Some 100,000 people were put up in hotels. But 80% of the refugees were received into families, many of whom they had never met before. This is something to be proud of. It says something about the Catholic mentality, the Catholic culture.
You mentioned the story of that young woman. The abortion rate in Croatia has dropped sharply in the 1990s.
Let me tell you the exact numbers. During the 1970s and 1980s, it was always over 40,000 per year, in a nation of 4.5 million. In the early 1990s there were big demographic changes, but in 1993 the population stabilized. That year there were about 25,000 legal abortions. In 1994, there were about 19,000; in 1995, about 14,300; in 1996, about 12,000. Last year, 1997, there were 10,076 [abortions in Croatia]. Interestingly, we have always had great regional differences [regarding] abortion in Croatia, both now and during communism. For the last two years, in the Adriatic coast region, which has 470,000 people, there were practically no legal abortions. We have four major cities. In Split, one of the three cities, we have practically no legal abortions. In the other cities, we have [many]. Now in Split, in 1996, the rate of contraceptive use was three prescriptions for every 1,000 people. In Osijek, which has a lot more abortions, there were 10 per 1,000. And in Rijeka, which has even more abortions, the ratio was 13 per 1,000. In Croatia, all physicians must report every medical procedure to the state in order to be paid by the state health system — [so] you can see reliable state statistics that when you have more contraception, you also have more abortion.
What was the effect of the war on attitudes toward respect for life?
The dramatic decrease in legal abortions is due in large part to the war. The whole nation and the government felt that the Croatian people were in danger. We family-life advocates had always been concerned about the birth rate, about how children are one of the key points in a healthy national life. But now our government has a “National Program of Demographic Renewal,” accepted unanimously by the parliament in February 1996, which says that human life is the highest priority in our society, and must be protected from conception to natural death. The program mandates protection by legal, moral, and medical means.
In two or three places in this program, it is mentioned that the protection of life from conception to natural death should be taught through the educational system. It also introduced one very effective economic measure. Every woman who gives birth to a third, fourth or following child, if she is employed, is granted a three-year paid leave — paid out of the state budget, not by the company where she works. And if she is not employed, each woman gets the equivalent of $250 per month, which is more than many lower-paid workers receive. This is more than the minimum wage, for example. In this way, couples who love and want children are supported in realizing their hopes; for those who love children, this financial support can help to make that love fruitful.
The behavior of our bishops and priests was also important. On account of the war, our bishops had many more opportunities to speak on television directly to the people. If any bishop had three minutes to speak on television, he would speak about abortion for one minute. It was almost a rule. A lot of our priests were also very open. This was all helped by our educational campaign. We at the Family Center produced audio-visual materials for young people. We have printed literally millions of leaflets, booklets, and now books to spread the message about protecting the unborn. So there have been three factors: a substantial educational effort, material help from the state and others, and the leadership of our bishops and priests.
What material help does your center offer?
We help pregnant women, women in many kinds of difficulties. We offer practical help. Even during communist times, we would take care of pregnant women in distress — finding a home for them until they could give birth and their situation settled down. Now, with freedom, we can do a lot more to provide help to families who are expecting children, to nursing mothers, and to families with many children. For example, to couples who have a third child, we give a baby carriage, plus clothes, diapers, and food for babies up to a year old.
You mentioned the third child; you emphasize having three or more children.
The Croatian government also pays benefits for the third and subsequent children. Why the emphasis on the third child? The statistics in Croatia for the last 25 years show that, among women who have one child, between 80% and 90% would have a second child, but only 20% would have a third. Among those who have three children, more than 50% would have a fourth child; among those, more than half would have a fifth. We noticed that the turning point is the decision to allow the third child to be born.
We are very deeply convinced that having four children or more is a great gift to all members of the family. In families which have only one child, it may be more difficult to understand Jesus’ call to love everyone as a brother and sister; an only child does not have brothers and sisters. With more children, life has perhaps more hardships but there is certainly also more beauty and joy.
—Raymond de Souza