Vatican on Trial at the United Nations

Modern dissident Catholics have sought for years to challenge the Church from within Catholic universities, theological societies, and various anti-magisterial associations. Their litany of complaints has been drowned out of late by the voices of renewed orthodoxy. The papacy of John Paul II has met every thrust and parry progressive Catholics have attempted from within.

However, one prominent dissident organization has adopted a new, external tactic. Catholics For a Free Choice (CFFC) has formed a strategic alliance with the substructures of the United Nations (UN); from this vantage point, the group is engineering an international campaign against the Catholic Church. In an election year—with anti-Catholic charges hurled from camp to camp—the import of the CFFC war on the Vatican ricochets through the halls of Congress to the presidential campaign.

Kissling’s Catholicism

Frances Kissling is the director of the CFFC, a contraception and abortion rights advocacy organization founded in 1970. Before joining CFFC, Kissling cofounded the National Abortion Federation, an umbrella association for supervisors of abortion facilities. Early CFFC history includes sharing office space with Planned Parenthood and funding from the Ford Foundation, Sunnen Foundation (producers of contraceptives), MacArthur Foundation, Ted Turner Foundation, and Playboy Foundation—all foes of Catholic teaching on human dignity. (Kissling has advertised her dissent in the New York Times and has lent her voice to the liberal media in search of a “Catholic” willing to excoriate the pope for the “retrogressive” policies of the Church.) With more than 30 years in the abortion industry and in abortion advocacy campaigns, it is small wonder that Kissling is repeatedly questioned about the use of the term “Catholic” in her organization’s name. The United States Catholic Conference has stated that no one publicly promoting abortion is Catholic.

Nonetheless, she and her falsely named organization have found a niche at the UN: the CFFC is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). While many radical NGOs promote “women’s reproductive health and rights,” “UN-speak” for contraception and abortion, Kissling is unique in agitating for abortion rights as a putative Catholic. The significance of her supposed Catholicity is that many UN population experts and advisors have bluntly identified the Church as an “obstacle” to the UN’s massive, global push for integrated population control in all its guises; from education to “gender justice” (such as redefining the family to include homosexual relationships) to “human rights” to “sustainable development” to “environmental preservation” (see “Catholicism UN Style” in the May 1999 Crisis). The Holy See’s delegates to UN conferences stand firm for traditional morality. Their tireless defense of the primacy of the family as the first unit of society sticks in the craw of ideologues bent on controlling the world’s birth rate. With Kissling on board as a “Catholic” speaking for “millions” opposed to the teachings of the Church, the UN depopulators seek to bolster their claim that there is an ethnic and religious consensus on “sexual rights” issues.

While feminists view abortion and contraception as a woman’s only salvation from the hell of “biology as destiny,” the northern hemisphere recognizes the economic, military, and demographic peril of the burgeoning third-world populations. Their joint antipathy for the teachings of the Catholic Church bred an alliance: The UN seeks to persuade emerging nations that “development” requires lowered population and the feminists found a powerful ally in the UN conferences that promote abortion and contraception as a universal “human right.”

Although all pro-family interests defend the traditional Judeo-Christian position, only the Catholic Church has a voice within the UN. The significance, then, of the felicitous liaison between Kissling and the UN comes into sharp focus. Both seek to silence the Church on sexual moral issues. To that end, the UN has invited Kissling to use UN headquarters to promote her “See Change” initiative.

Kissling’s Vision for Change

Kissling’s demand is that the UN demote the Holy See from its status as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer (as is Switzerland) to an NGO—the same status as Kissling’s CFFC. The Holy See has held its special designation since 1964. That designation permits the Holy See to participate in discussions while preserving political neutrality, including no obligation to send troops to participate in UN “peace-keeping” missions that have often devolved into questionable military engagements.

The “See Change” challenge began a year ago at the close of the Cairo +5 review of the implementation of the Program of Action five years after the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt. As in Cairo, when Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, and evangelical coalitions blocked the attempt by the UN and industrialized nations to impose abortion and contraception as a universal human right, at the five-year review last June, the Church again held the line. Frustrated feminists and UN Population Fund (UNPFA) officials were reduced to impotent name-calling and promises of renewed assaults against the Church. Kissling and her collaborators found that an opportune moment to launch their offensive with an eye on the upcoming Beijing +5 review (dubbed “Women 2000: Gender, Equality, Development, and Peace for the Twenty-First Century”) scheduled for June 2000 and its critical preparatory session (PrepCom) in March 2000, Kissling planned to spend the year gathering signatures of NGOs that would support her demand that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan demote the Vatican.

Before the March 2000 PrepCom, Kissling sent packets of CFFC propaganda to various national ambassadors and missions to the UN. The cover letter advised country representatives that the CFFC had prepared a “shadow report” on the Holy See entitled The Holy See and Women’s Rights: A Shadow Report on the Beijing Platform for Action. An additional publication in the packet, Catholic Voices on Beijing: A Call for Social Justice sought to explain Catholic social teaching on women as reflected in the Beijing Platform for Action (PfA) but to which, inexplicably, the Holy See was opposed. Somehow, Kissling determined that “progressive Catholic leaders” under the auspices of the CFFC were better able to “reflect” on “women’s human rights [there’s that phrase], sexuality, and reproductive health.” Unsurprisingly, the theological reflections in the third packet publication, Women and Roman Catholic Christianity, were provided by that indefatigable dissident, Rosemary Radford Ruther, a board member of the CFFC.

Fight for Families at Beijing

During the Beijing +5 review PrepCom held at UN headquarters, thousands of country delegates, advisers, UN functionaries, and NGO lobbyists assembled for the two-week marathon. NGOs may assist countries by providing data, proposed texts, and the views of the membership they represent. However, at the Beijing PrepCom, intense lobbying of the delegates by opposing NGO factions raised temperatures. Midway into the second week, negotiations began to grind to a halt. At issue were the same contentious points seen at Beijing: “sexual rights,” abortion as part of a “sexual health and rights” package with an undefined “other services” tacked on by the European Union and JUSCANZ (Japan, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand). The proposed insertion of the words “family” and “motherhood” caused howls from feminist NGOs and obstinacy from western delegates. Among many countries with traditional family values, the original protection afforded nations in the Beijing PfA, which provides for implementation within the context of cultural and religious values, was under fire.

New review language equating “women’s rights” with human rights threatened a widening of the original terms agreed on in Beijing five years ago. Sovereignty was at stake: Nations that have signed the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are bound by those rights; new content inserted into the phrase “human rights” imposes on signatories obligations not agreed to when nations signed the original declaration. Therefore, protecting the precise content and intent of the term “human rights” is critical. Familiar coalitions formed, with the Holy See and the G-77 nations opposing any liberalizing of the original intent of the PfA.

In addition to the wrangle over complex language, a deep animus developed in the NGO community. At past conferences, the NGO presence was primarily radical groups unable to effect their goals democratically at the local level that then sought change via the regional and international bureaucracy of the UN. Pro-family organizations, alarmed since Cairo, have mustered their troops and engaged the process. Some 400 pro-family representatives attended the Beijing PrepCom, to the dismay of feminists, who were accustomed to being the sole lobbying voice.

Charges of unfair practices were lodged against the pro-family NGOs. There were noisy complaints that the mere presence of the Franciscan Friars, as clerical men in gray robes, was intimidating for some women. Joan Grant-Cummings of the National Action Committee for the Status of Women charged, “The goal of these monks is clear. The point is to get themselves and legitimate organizations kicked out of these proceedings.” Several groups charged falsely—that “they have thrown water on us and disrupted our caucuses.” Fr. Conrad Osterhout, novice master of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal based in New York, described the participation of the 13 friars as a “prayerful presence.” Fr. Conrad hoped to inspire smaller nations to “hold their ground” against the radical imposition of western moral failures. One can only imagine what the presence of knights in shining miters may have wrought.

Gwen Landolt of REAL Women of Canada discharged Cummings’s complaint, noting that Canada’s delegation “is made up of nothing but radical feminists.” The U.S. delegation under the Clinton administration is also badly skewed. Among its NGO advisers is feminist nun, Sr. Dorothy Kelly, OSU. Kelly, an educator at the College of New Rochelle, served “in the peace movement in Ireland.” Sr. Kelly concedes she does not speak for the Church or for her order: “I am who I am.” She does, however, speak with the Clinton administration, which pushes for the full feminist agenda at all UN conferences. Another disturbing presence on the U.S. delegation’s adviser panel is Kit Cosby, deputy-director of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i’s. The Baha’i faith has only five million adherents worldwide. Yet, they are prominent at the UN, where they promote their faith, which forbids a priesthood and calls for an end to religious diversity; mankind must be spiritually unified. Kissling and Cosby have worked together in various women’s groups in support of the Beijing PfA.

A flier was passed out to country delegates by the International Council of Women identifying those NGOs wearing “Motherhood” or “The Family” buttons as the NGOs who were causing “difficulties” leading to “grave misrepresentation of women and their interests world-wide.” A group of feminists retaliated with buttons that read, “F.A.K.E. Women,” an acronym for “Feminists Alive and Kicking for Equality.” The Coalition in Support of the Beijing Platform, from the Human Rights caucus, sported PfA buttons and offered proposed text that noted “the recent upsurge in religious extremist movements [that] results in the reversal of political, social, cultural and economic advances of women, threatening women’s human rights.”

Radicals feared losing the significant territory they planned to gain during PrepCom by building on those concessions they won at Beijing. Pro-family lobbyists observed that much of the Beijing PfA is problematic, but their goal at PrepCom was to prevent any further erosion of international standards and legal terms in regard to life and family values.

See Change Campaign

At the height of the machinations, Kissling, as the NGO CFFC, held a press conference. CFFC advised the few reporters in attendance that “human rights groups from around the globe are calling for a review of the Holy See’s Non-Member State Permanent Observer status at the UN…. The Holy See misuses its special status to erect real obstacles to the promotion of women’s health and well-being, despite the contentions of resolutions recently introduced in the U.S. Congress.” Weeks before the CFFC press conference, Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which is also an NGO at the UN, found a ready ally when he approached Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) about sponsoring a resolution. Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) joined the sponsorship of the resolutions. Ruse, aware that the CFFC had gathered the signatures of 400 anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, sought to counter the CFFC with a show of support for the Vatican.

Kissling maintains that the Vatican’s status was “obtained in the UN almost by accident and it is that status of a state that we wish to see reviewed.” Kissling conceded that only NGOs had signed her petition—not a single country has joined the “See Change” initiative. However, Kissling took as positive the fact that no nation had come out in defense of the Holy See’s status. Her hope is tenuous, however, critics note. Member states, following diplomatic protocol, are unlikely to dignify an attack on a state by lower-echelon NGOs.

Kissling was joined by Anika Rahman of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP), a militant abortion-rights lobby. Rahman said:

The Roman Catholic Church…has elected to participate in the UN under the name of the Holy See, and it claims to speak for all Catholics around the world. In the context of the international meetings, particularly the one we are in the midst of, the five-year review of the Beijing conference, the Holy See has taken positions that are antithetical to women’s rights…. And I am here today to challenge the legality of the Holy See’s Non-Member State Permanent Observer Status…. In secular terms, it is as if the Soviet Union’s Politburo had had a non-member observer status at the United Nation.

Rahman listed four criteria for statehood as understood in international law, according to the CRLP. She admitted that the UN had not defined statehood for its purposes and that of the four criteria listed—a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other nations—the Holy See met only the last.

“Poppycock,” wrote Rod Dreher of the New York Post. “Kissling and her shrewish band of radicals have had enough of the pope’s big mouth…. They blasted the Vatican as an oppressor of women and a religious bully. The group bases its campaign on the claim that the Holy See is a religion masquerading as a nation-state…. The Holy See is a sovereign state inside the city of Rome…. Nearly 170 countries around the world exchange diplomats with the Holy See, a key player in international relations for longer than most U.N. member states have existed.”

Vigorous Opposition

The following day, Ruse held a press conference to announce his “Holy See Campaign” in support of the continued participation by the Holy See in its historic capacity. Ruse refuted the challenge to the Holy See’s statehood: “I can take you to Vatican City where you will meet permanent residents, men, women and children, carrying Vatican passports, living in a defined territory, and even mailing their letters with Vatican postage.” As for the “capacity to enter into relations with other states,” the Holy See has engaged in international diplomacy since the fourth century.

Ruse distributed to the press a “Declaration of Support of the Holy See at the UN” written by Princeton professor Robert George and William Saunders of the Family Research Council (FRC). The declaration was signed by 1,015 NGOs from 44 countries. Protestant and Jewish leaders added their support during the press conference. Tom Minnery, vice president of Focus on the Family, whose radio broadcasts reach 200 million people daily, joined Ruse at the press conference. Minnery said, “We share a common morality, though there are serious theological differences. The basic human right to life transcends theology”

The FRC’s director of national security and foreign affairs, Bob Maginnis, declared, “This is anti-Catholicism of the most vicious sort. The drive to expel the Vatican from the UN is obviously intended to intimidate pro-life delegations, especially those of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.” Maginnis correctly assessed the pressure that the developed world exerts on those nations dependent on western bankers for development loans: “U.S. foreign aid should never go to support radical population control measures.” (Ironically, during PrepCom, a pro-family NGO lobbyist, Dr. Pat McEwen, left her lobbying post to fly to Washington to testify before Congress on population control abuses in Peru. McEwen had just returned from a fact-finding tour with the Population Research Institute.) Maginnis warned, “If any offensive move to oust the Vatican delegation from the UN succeeds, the Family Research Council will call upon Congress to reassess American participation in the world organization.”

The most riveting comments in support of the Holy See were made by Rabbi Yehuda Levin of Jews for Morality: “I wish to condemn a group of radical extremists who wish to make this world body a religion-free, value-free zone.” Rabbi Levin compared the assault on the Catholic Church to the assault on the Jews:

Half a century ago, my family was the victim of a movement which wanted to rid the world of Jews and Jewish teachings and Jewish values. Today, the extremists seek to disallow and disenfranchise the Catholic community and their ideas. Often it is the Catholic presence which reflects our traditional Jewish teaching on respect for life and family. I call upon the UN and her members to reject this censorship, reject the bigotry, and reject this hate of the Vatican and of the Jewish pro-life and family [traditions] it expresses. Sixty years ago our people asked, “Where were you for the Jews?” Today we ask the world, “Where are you for the Catholics?”

Non-Catholics had strong opinions on the “See Change” assault. England’s Peter Smith of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children commented, “It is totally inappropriate for any NGO to even mention that they wish to have a state put out of the UN.” And Mormon Kay Balmforth, a family law attorney, echoed the sentiments of many evangelicals: “You don’t have to be Catholic to see that the dissidents are simply trying to eliminate one of the few voices they cannot intimidate or manipulate.” One Latin American delegate said privately, “We need the IMF guarantees, but the Vatican, they do not need money from the banks.” Said one caustic Catholic standing among evangelicals, “Does anyone seriously think a woman who accepts money from Playboy is a more worthy spokesman for women’s rights than the pope?”

Conference Curtain Falls

The dueling press conferences mirrored the mood of the delegations, ever more mired in contentious negotiations as the last week drew to a close. Due to the lack of consensus on many paragraphs of the draft document that PrepCom must prepare for the June Special Session of the General Assembly, PrepCom ended without a finished document, necessitating another round of negotiations at the end of May. Meanwhile, concerned citizens have time to make their views known.

Msgr. James Reinert of the Holy See’s delegation commented at the close of the final session:

We were able to put a lot of language on the table, and I think, too, that all the challenges to the status of the Holy See focused the attention of the world on what we do. And so, people have seen that the Holy See really does strive to protect the dignity and the rights of women. I ask myself, am I satisfied to leave here if I go home to my sisters and nieces with only contraception, prevention of AIDS, and “reproductive health”? Because that’s all you are getting from this. How many people died drinking from a polluted well while we spent two weeks arguing over whether we could mention motherhood or the dignity of the mother in the family?

Reflecting further as the delegations filed out, and the conference chairwoman stopped to give him a polite departing kiss (as if their sparring were all forgotten), Msgr. Reinert remarked, “I just wish, that after all this, the people in the developing world…if they only knew they were being…it’s a whited sepulcher.” When asked about the awareness level of American Catholics—how many understood that sovereignty, religious freedom, rights of conscience for health-care workers, parental rights, and protection of family were being traded away in this international arena—Msgr. Reinert replied, “I don’t know…very few. I wish people would see enough to challenge their government—to ask why the American delegation supports ‘sexual orientation’ when the word ‘homosexual’ is not in any agreed text. Why support for the family is lacking…. We need to invite the American bishops in on this and begin to communicate with American Catholics.”

John Klink, an adviser to the Holy See delegation, found hope in the fact that “the Holy See was able to ensure that language the EU wanted deleted was bracketed for further discussion” during the sessions to come. “Bracketed text means if people are made sufficiently aware of what’s happening—the NGOs, the press, the new, hopeful medium of the Internet, Church channels…. There is hope?’ Americans may make their concerns known to their representatives until the special session convenes June 5.

Hope may also be found in American politics. In addition to the resolutions before Congress as this article goes to press, presidential candidates may be forced to address Kissling’s “See Change” initiative and thereby raise awareness of the circus in progress at the UN. After Kissling’s press conference, Jim Nicholson of the Republican National Committee demanded that Al Gore repudiate two anti-Catholic groups that are calling for the eviction of the Holy See from the UN. The National Abortion Rights Action League and Women Leaders Online have signed the “See Change” petition. Members of Congress who sit on the advisory board of the Women Leaders Online include Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), and former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.).

“As a Catholic, I am appalled that Al Gore has courted the support of two groups trying to throw the Vatican out of the UN,” Nicholson said. “See Change’s anti-Catholic goal is to evict the Vatican from the UN, to silence the voice of Pope John Paul, and to prevent one billion Catholics from speaking up for morality and justice.”


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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