National Catholic Register


Shall We Abandon the United Nations?

BY Maryann Glendon

November 23-29,1997 Issue | Posted 11/23/97 at 1:00 PM


Many Catholics of good will believe the .N. has lost its way and that pro-family groups should have nothing more to do with it. Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon—and Pope John Paul II—think there's a better solution.

The more one reflects on the topic “international organizations and the defense of the family” the more puzzles seem to be packed into the one little word and. What connections are there, or should there be, between the oldest groups of society and huge modern organizations that are so remote from everyday life?

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that the family is entitled to protection from society and the state. But there is no evidence in the historical background of the declaration that the drafters expected the United Nations itself to play much of a role in protecting the family—except insofar as families would benefit from the humanitarian activities of agencies like the World Health Organization and the U.N. Children's Fund.

Now that the United Nations and its specialized agencies have developed into sprawling bureaucracies symbiotically entwined with large international lobbying associations, it is still far from obvious how institutions at that level can best assist families. In fact, the current activities of many international organizations often cause one to wonder whether the family needs to be defended by them or protected against them!

What is beyond question is that, in today's world, more and more families are being affected for good or ill by the operations of various sorts of distant international actors—ranging from multinational corporations to international bodies (worldwide like the United Nations and the World Bank or regional ones like the Organization of American States and the European Union), not to mention a vast array of non-governmental organizations (a term which includes groups as different in their approach to families as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Catholic Church).…

The Declaration's Vision

The first important manifestation of interest in the family by an international organization took place in 1948 when the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man was issued in Bogota, Colombia. This remarkable document was one of the principal influences on the family-related provisions of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved in Paris later that year. Reading those two documents today, one is struck by the pervasiveness of references to the family. Both declarations announce that the family is the fundamental unit of society; they recite that everyone has the right to marry and establish a family; that the home is inviolable; that a worker is entitled to a standard of living suitable for himself and his family; and that the family in general and motherhood and childhood in particular are entitled to the protection of society and the state. The U.N. declaration provides in addition for spousal equality and for the prior right of parents to choose the education of their children.…

The Family as Obstacle

To understand why and how the family-protection principle came under attack in the United Nations, let us consider a remarkable series of events that took place in 1995. Early that year, the U.N. secretariat for the International Year of the Family issued a booklet stating that “the basic principle of social organization is the human rights of individuals, which have been set forth in international instruments of human rights.”

That idea sounds innocent enough until you begin to wonder how it fits with the 1948 declaration, which provides that the family is the basic unit of society. The U.N. secretariat anticipated this question. It is true, they admitted, that “several human rights documents” refer to the family as the basic social unit and that they guarantee protection and assistance to the family, but “the power of the family is and should be limited by the basic human rights of its individual members. The protection and assistance accorded to the family must safeguard these rights.”

No one could reasonably object to that proposition if it simply means that no rights, including the rights of the family, are unlimited. But, together with other U.N. developments, notably the subtle erosion of the moral authority of parents in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1995 guidelines looked very much like part of a deliberate effort to set individual rights in opposition to family relationships, to insert the state between children and parents, and to undermine the status of the family as a subject of human rights protection. This interpretation gained plausibility in November 1995, when the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child angrily attacked the Holy See for its reservations to these very aspects of the children's rights convention. Since all these documents were issued by the United Nations itself, it appeared that the fox was in the chicken coop.

The current activities of many international organizations often cause one to wonder whether the family needs to be defended by them or protected against them!

All doubts on that score were removed by the U.N. Women's Conference that took place in Beijing in September of that year. When I first read the draft conference document prepared by the U.N. Committee on the Status of Women, I could hardly believe my eyes. How was it possible that the proposed program of action for a women's conference barely mentioned marriage, motherhood, or family life anywhere in its 149 pages? And that when marriage and family life—and even religion— were mentioned, they were presented mainly in a negative light—as sources of oppression or obstacles to women's progress? The explanation is that the U.N. Committee on the Status of Women had become, to a great extent, the tool of special interest groups promoting a brand of feminism that was already passé in the countries where it originated. The Beijing draft thus parroted many of the tired clichés of 1970s feminism—a feminism that had alienated the great majority of women through its inattention to the real life problems of work and family, its hostility to men and its disgraceful indifference to the welfare of children.

In the pre-conference negotiations, these old-line feminist attacks on the family were combined with efforts to promote a notion of more recent vintage—the idea that the family—and sexual identity—are just arbitrary categories, socially constructed and infinitely malleable. At the Beijing conference itself, a coalition led by the European Union continued this two-pronged effort to “deconstruct” the family and to remove every positive reference to marriage, motherhood, the family, parental rights, and religion.…

A stranger to these controversies might well wonder why anyone would want to undermine the principle of family protection, especially at a time when families are undergoing exceptional stress in every part of the world. The standard answers one hears to that question are framed in the language of individual liberty, gender equality, and compassion for victims of spousal and child abuse. We are told that the family cannot be permitted to stand in the way of women's and children's rights. And that, in any event, the family has been too narrowly defined so as to unfairly prefer heterosexual marriage over non-marital cohabitation and same-sex unions.

But it would be a mistake, I believe, to regard the assaults on the family-protection principle as merely misguided efforts to promote freedom and equality. They are also about power and interest, though to what extent it is difficult to say. Much of the leadership and financial support for these initiatives comes largely from persons who are interested not in the rights of women or children or homosexuals, but in preservation of privilege. They are seeking not liberation in general, but social control for themselves.

Their less obvious motives can be discerned in the strange new rights they propose—rights which often turn out to be double-edged “rights for me, duties for thee.” The so-called “reproductive rights,” for example, may represent autonomy for some women, but they also provide a convenient cover story for efforts to control the family size of the poor by any means possible. The proposed “right to die” may satisfy the desire of some affluent people to feel that they are “in control” until the very end, but who can doubt that it portends a duty to die for those who are sick, helpless, and unable to afford medical care? As for “sexual rights,” it does not seem fanciful to regard them as a modern version of bread and circuses, a promise of unlimited sexual liberty as a distraction from the loss of genuine freedom and the denial of economic justice.

The most unpleasant designs of the backers of international anti-family initiatives can be discerned in the iron triangle of exclusion they are constructing in their home countries: They are excluding new life through abortion and sterilization, they are barring the door against the stranger through restrictive immigration policies, and they are turning their backs on the poor through cutbacks in family-assistance programs. Where foreign aid is concerned, they will give millions for “reproductive services” but pennies for maternal and infant nutrition, clean water, or primary health care.…

What Is to Be Done?

Many men and women of good will, offended by these developments and discouraged generally by the failure of the United Nations to live up to its early promise, believe that pro-family groups should have nothing further to do with the United Nations. But there are several theological and prudential reasons why that option is problematic for Catholics.

In the first place, Catholic Christianity requires us to be active in the world. We are called, each of us with our different gifts, to be the salt of the earth, the leaven in the social loaf, workers in the vineyard for the coming of the kingdom.

Second, as the Church has often recognized, the United Nations, despite all its flaws, waste, and failures, has accomplished much good, especially in poor countries, and it offers much hope in a world where the nations are faced with many challenges that cross national boundaries. In Familiaris Consortio, the Holy Father told families that the social and political role of the family has been “extended in a completely new way” because of “the worldwide dimension of various social questions” (No. 48). That role, he said, now involves “cooperating for a new international order,” participating “in the authentically human growth of society and its institutions, and supporting in various ways the associations specifically devoted to international issues” (ibid.).

Third, as the Holy See's activity in the United Nations has shown, even a few voices can make a difference when they speak the truth and call good and evil by name. Much of the best language on social justice in recent U.N. documents is there because the Holy See proposed or defended it. Thanks to the Holy See, the United Nations remains committed to the principle that abortion is never to be promoted as a means of birth control. Even at Beijing, when greatly outnumbered, the Holy See was able to save family-protection language by shining the spotlight into those proceedings.…

[It] seems irresistible that the withdrawal of the Holy See from the United Nations would only serve to give comfort to the agents of the culture of death. The time has come to recognize, however, that the Holy See in the United Nations has too often been like the little Dutch boy who prevented a flood by keeping his finger in the dike. The time has come to heed the Holy Father's urgent call to families themselves to become “‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society.”

The Pontifical Council for the Family recently reiterated this call, reminding us that “the family is not helpless.… Families must associate, organize and build family politics.…[T]hrough the democratic processes of participation, the family should ensure that the state recognizes its autonomy and rights, and its value as the resilient community of the future.”

As a mother and grandmother, I know very well that it is not easy for family members to answer this call. Each of us will have to discern prayerfully what it is that we must contribute. But Pope John Paul II reminds us that there is one thing all families can do, regardless of their situation in life. They can strive to “offer everyone a witness of generous and disinterested dedication to social matters through a ‘preferential option’ for the poor and disadvantaged” (Familiaris Consortio, 47). Beyond this, he exhorts Christian families “to become actively engaged at every level” in associations that work for the common good and the good of the family.”

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us resolve therefore to answer the Holy Father's call to become protagonists of family politics. Let us not despise politics—for, as Aristotle and St. Thomas taught, it is the great art of ordering our lives together for the common good. Let us rather retrieve politics from those who would pervert it for evil purposes.

Let us fight for the right to determine democratically the conditions under which we live, work and raise our families.

Let us resist the self-appointed experts who pretend to know better than we ourselves how we should raise our children.

Let us take back our children's education from proselytizing secularists.

Let us rescue our art, music, and literature from the hucksters of hedonism.

Let us not starve the United Nations, but let us put it on a wholesome diet.

Let us pledge ourselves to play whatever role we can in building the civilization of life and resisting the culture of death. Like the Hebrew children of old, we can do so with the confidence that, when we obey the command to “choose life,” the Lord himself “marches before you; he will be with you, and will never fail you or forsake you” (Dt 31, 6).

Excerpted from Mary Ann Glendon's presentation last month to an international theological-pastoral congress on the family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Glendon headed the Vatican's delegation to the 1995 U.N. conference on women in Beijing.