Day One: Few Present, Fewer Watching Online
Catholics for Choice Report on Day One, World Congress of Families 2009
10 August 2009
Today, the World Congress of Families (WCF) opened with only a mustering of a few hundred conference attendees, dwarfed in a venue that, as the congress Web site boasts, can fit nearly 4000. The congress, whose Web site was mysteriously defunct over the weekend, has tried to make up for this steep decline in attendance by having a live feed available on their Web site. However, according to the feed’s ticker, less than 50 people were tuned in throughout most of the day.
The attendees, few as they are, were welcomed via video message by Dutch Minister Andre Rouvoet. Catholics for Choice (CFC) European Advisory Group sent Minister Rouvoet a letter on August 7, 2009 urging him to withdraw from the congress. Dutch lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights groups and family planning organizations also protested the minister’s contribution. Over the weekend, CFC received a direct response from the minister via email, who underscored his intentions in speaking at the congress. He stated, “I am aware of the outspoken views on the family that many of the participating organizations have. That is why I want to challenge the participants next Monday with my welcome message by videoclip to build bridges on the topic of how to live together in a plural society with differing views on the family.”
In today’s welcome message, Rouvoet repeated this language and urged congress goers to “build bridges” and dialogue with those in the Netherlands who do not share their ideologies on family. And although the media reported that Rouvoet tried to distance himself from anti-gay remarks made at past congresses, he omitted any discussion on LGBT rights during his short video message. Perhaps Rouvoet is looking at this through tulip-colored glasses; however, in our opinion, if he intended his remarks to correct the damage done by the rhetoric of conference attendees, his words were ineffectual given the extremist ideology fervent throughout the rest of the day.
Head of the local organizing committee, Simon Polinder, responded to the Dutch minister’s welcome by criticizing the Dutch government for not being “family-friendly.” Polinder went on to say that, after the congress in Warsaw, the capital of a predominantly Catholic country governed by conservatives and the far-right party, the organizers were accused of being afraid of genuine discussion and thus the decision to hold this congress in Amsterdam. He said that while this congress was supposed to be about debate, many representing different viewpoints rejected an invitation to speak at the congress. He chalked these alleged rejections up the fear of the “other side.” To this, the audience roared (not so much of a roar, given their numbers) with laughter.
Alan Carlson presented his usual ultraconservative vision of the family, stating that according to the natural law all the variations from the standard family will not survive in the long run. For the “traditional” family, however, he was more optimistic and encouraged the audience to be optimistic as well. At the end of his speech Carlson presented two awards for pro-family leaders, the first awardee, described as a father of two, received a moderate applause and the second, a father of nine, received a standing ovation.
Nigerian speaker Theresa Okafor strongly, and falsely, declared that the term “sexual and reproductive rights” are a “cover up for falling birth rates.” She stressed the importance of “sexual responsibility” of Africans in regards to HIV-prevention and condemned the activities of Western organizations in Africa.
Anna Zaborska, senior member of Slovakia’s Christian Democrats (and, incidentally, the speaker from which Rouvoet tried to distance himself the most), rounded out the opening ceremony. She declared that the congress came just in time to provide recommendations for the new European Parliament, to which she was recently re-elected, whose task will be to “find a solution to the demographic bomb.” She committed herself to continue her fight for the family, so that young women would not have to be afraid that having babies would cost them their jobs. She also invoked the term “gender mainstreaming,” suggesting that the EU ought to introduce “family mainstreaming” at every policy level.
After a much-needed break, Sheri Dew started the afternoon plenary. She nearly drowned in a sea of words such as “purity,” “clean” and “virtue.” Virtuous people, she said, never need to worry about pregnancy, disease or pain of losing family to infidelity. Moreover, “virtuous parents tend to raise virtuous children.” She concluded by encouraging the audience to “go forward and make this world better by making it more clean.”
Dr. Peter Cuyvers tried to bring more optimism to the rather dismal meeting, providing numerous statistics to confirm that the family crisis is not so dire. He said that the 10 percent of families which are struggling get the most attention and concluded that society is not supportive to its members when they are busy raising children. He saw two solutions: support families during their childbearing years by allowing them to pay higher taxes in the periods when they are childless and enable fathers to be more involved in their parental responsibilities. He joked about cohabitating couples, cheering them up with data, which says that “even they” have a 50 percent chance to last. He also noted the extremely low rates for teen pregnancy and abortion in the Netherlands, but failed to mention comprehensive sex education in Dutch schools and free and accessible contraceptives.
One of the most important conservative thinkers in the Netherlands, Bart Jan Spruyt, made a long introduction about the nature of democracy and the factors that contribute to its collapse, such as secularization, decline of family life and disobedience of the law. He stated that in a “healthy democracy” freedom is the right to do what you ought to do; that is, live according to rules. Today, however, he suggested that freedom is perceived as the right to do and say what you want just because you think it is good. According to Spruyt, to protect families we need a new ascetism, which includes giving up on modern media that has undermined the structure and cohesion of our families.
Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs treated his lecture as a teaching session, giving many anecdotes and stories. For instance, he tried to show the dangers of relativism though a story of his aunt who used to be against abortion rights and then changed her mind and began to say the right to abortion can be a blessing. This is how “murder can change into blessing,” he concluded.
Msgr. Carlos Simon Vasquez spoke on behalf of Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, head of the Pontifical for the Family. The audience nearly fell asleep as Vasquez droned the words of Cardinal Antonelli. He used typical Vatican language, listing some of the cultural challenges of the present day, including “gender ideology.” He also said that the new forms of family life are a product of the fragmentation of the modern society and are not long lasting.
The evening workshop “Marriage, Sex and Rights of Families” featured Bill Saunders of Family Research Council who spoke about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Religious opinions, according to Saunders, must be respected and “militant secular visions of education” should be feared. He was one of a few speakers who made comparisons between the modern world and society during World War II.
Other panelists, Julie Baumgardner and Susan Dutton Freund, spoke about the programs “First Things First” and “Think Marriage,” respectively. These programs are each aimed at reducing divorce rates, teen pregnancy and solving marriage problems. The speakers shared a conviction that it is possible to train every possible skill, such as being a father. Every skill, that is, for heterosexual couples.
The “Family and Professional Help” workshop included a Polish priest Jarosław Szymczak from the Catholic university in Warsaw and the Knights of Columbus. His presentation started rather innocently as he focused on how to balance maintaining a good marriage and being good parents for the benefit of the spouses and their children. From there, his message devolved. He argued that a family counselor ought never to suggest divorce to couples struggling in marriage. His main advice to struggling couples was prayer. To prove his point he provided statistics: generally, 50 percent of civil marriages end in divorce. If a couple merely marries in church, without practicing their faith, they already, according to Szymczak, reduce the risk of divorce to 20 percent, whereas spouses who marry in the church and pray together are the luckiest ones – only one in 19 of these marriages break up.
The last speaker of the session, and of our day, was Marie Claire Hernandez,President of Family and Society in Mexico, who depicted addiction to online pornography as a disease of the soul, comparable to the recent epidemic of swine flu. After giving unsubstantiated examples of 10-year-old Mexican children already addicted to online pornography, Hernandez listed masturbation as one of the early symptoms of online pornography addiction. In her opinion young people today are prone to this addiction because they are “are unaware of value of purity,” which defends human dignity.
Despite the efforts of WCF to garner positive media attention, most of today’s press coverage (see below) of the congress focused on the work of Dutch activists with Catholics for Choice, WPF and COC, who each provided a counter-message to the congress, specifically in regards to Minister Rouvoet. This goes to show that the media, much like most of the world, are less interested in the irrational rants of the congress’ speakers and more in how sensible people are responding to the congress, if they are interested at all.
- Tilting at Windmills
- Day Two: What’s Going On? Where Is Everybody?
- Day Three Report: The Family in Crisis? Not So Much
- Brief biographies of key Catholic speakers
- Press Release: Catholics for Choice Calls on Dutch Minister to Withdraw from Conservative Conference
WCF Media Coverage