From Winter to Spring – and Back Again?

A report from the World Congress of Families in Warsaw

11 May 2007

The World Congress of Families (WCF) opens today in Warsaw, the capital city of Poland. It would be unthinkable for the Polish Catholic hierarchy to hold a meeting in the Palace of Culture and Science—one of the few remaining symbols of communism in this country—as Polish bishops and priests were strongly opposed to the communist government in the past. Nevertheless, the congress, whose honorary committee members include the Polish Primate Jozef Glemp, is being held there.

The World Congress of Families is organized by the conservative think tank the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society (based in Rockford, Illinois). Some 2,500 people from 60 countries are expected to attend. The initial theme of the meeting centered on the so-called demographic winter in Europe. However, more recently the organizers decided upon something more positive: “The Natural Family – Springtime for Europe and the World.” The Congress logo, showing the outlines of a man, three children and a visibly pregnant woman, adds emphasis to this statement.

A very quick look at the program is enough to ascertain the main, repeating topics:

  • The family in a variety of different contexts (political, economic, social)
  • The importance of traditional gender roles
  • Gay rights and pornography as threats to traditional marriage and
  • Ethical, religious and medical issues (abortion, contraception, euthanasia, infertility).

Initially Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was scheduled to address the opening ceremony. Perhaps the organizers decided that a single man living with his mother would not be the best person to talk about family issues, although there is no doubt that Mr. Kaczynski shares the vision of the family the Congress organizers represent. It may also have been a mere case of mistaken identity, but the most recent version of the program shows that the opening speech will be given instead by prime minister’s identical twin brother,President Lech Kaczynski, a husband and father of one daughter (who some weeks ago put her parents in an uncomfortable position, as children are wont to do, by divorcing her husband and marrying the son of a prominent left-wing politician). The president is also the honorary patron of the event. The Kaczynski twins have shown on many occasions their support for ultraconservative, antichoice ideas, as well as their vehement opposition to gay relationships. A report on recent events in Poland is available in a special supplement ofConscience – the Newsjournal of Catholic Opinion, published in Autumn 2006.

This was not the only change to the program. In the run up to the conference, much had been made of the fact that three members of the European Parliament would be addressing the Congress. However, as the Congress starts, the names of Anna Zaborska—an ultra-conservative member of the European Parliament, and Dana Scallon, who had in fact failed to be re-elected as an MEP largely due to her conservative positions on women and the family—had both mysteriously disappeared.  Only Inese Slesere, a member of parliament for the Republic of Latvia remained. In addition, Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also appeared simply as Wade Horn, Ph.D. having abruptly resigned just before the event from his position in the U.S. government. He had been severely criticized for his views that government support for childcare should be limited to the children of married couples and that wives should “submit” to their husbands. Horn was also responsible for the huge increase in funding for abstinence-only education. It remains to be seen if any other heavily touted speakers don’t show.

Warsaw seems blithely oblivious to the Congress. Despite the fact that the city mayor, Mrs. Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz (from the center-right party Citizens’ Platform), is a member of the WCF honorary committee, welcome signs are nowhere to be seen. The mayor has not mentioned her involvement in the congress in her recent public appearances. There are no billboards, posters or announcements. Among other honorary members are the ex-Speaker of the Sejm, the Polish parliament, Marek Jurek, who stood at the forefront of the battle to change the Polish Constitution so that it protected “life from conception to natural death,” the infamous Minister of Education Roman Giertych of the far-right coalition party League of Polish Families (LPR), and the Archbishop of Warsaw Kazimierz Nycz. None seem to be touting their involvement.

The Polish local organizing committee worked in the city of Lodz, an hour by train from Warsaw. One of its members, Mr. Wladyslaw Ciemnicki, appeared on local public television Thursday to speak about the preparations. It seemed clear from the interview that the organizing committee treated WCF as just another conference, just another opportunity to promote the city internationally. In discussing his involvement, Ciemnicki’s main theme was how the committee used a team of local schoolchildren to decorate postcards with a sketch of a sailboat (the town’s name Lodz means a boat in Polish). The cards will be distributed to Congress attendees. Ciemnicki, who was honored for his pro-family work by the Archbishop of Lodz in 2006, hardly mentioned the Congress program in detail, and did not say a word about the religious context. In fact he specifically used the term “above religion”—as if shying away from its main theme.

The Polish mainstream media have given almost no attention to the Congress so far. Brief mentions appeared on the main public TV channel (TVP1), which is not surprising as under the present conservative government the public station has broadcasted a talk-show whose moderator said that condoms are not effective in protecting against HIV infections (the show “Warto Rozmawiac”, hosted by Jan Pospieszalski). Other mentions were on a public radio station (“Jedynka”); the state-controlled big, nationwide quality daily “Rzeczpospolita,” and Catholic magazines “Gosc Niedzielny” and “Niedziela.”

The Web site of the major liberal Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza posted news releases from the Catholic Information Agency (KAI) about the protests from members of the European Parliament against Ellen Sauerbrey’s attendance at the WCF and an announcement of the event (also taken from the KAI agency). The announcement included a quote from Ewa Kowalewska, Director of Human Life International Europe, who said that the Congress will be an occasion for Polish people to see that they need not feel as a “backward” nation in their fight to protect life and the family. Both articles in the two Catholic magazines mentioned earlier include interviews with Allan C. Carlson, president of the Howard Center. Carlson stated that he hopes the congress will boost the development of the antichoice movement in Poland, claiming it did so in other host countries: Mexico, whose capital city recently legalized abortion, Ireland and Russia. He also claimed that Poland “will save Europe.” Whether Europe needs to be saved remains to be seen, as does whether anybody in Poland, let alone Europe, actually notices that the WCF is happening. 

Links:

Center for Supporting Families in Need

Conference “Lodz – a family-friendly city” in 2006

Conversation with Wladyslaw Ciemienicki