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The Vatican and Reproductive Freedom

A human rights perspective on the importance of supporting reproductive choices

By Frances Kissling
Special European Supplement

The following is the text of the opening remarks and testimony given by Frances Kissling before the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health at a hearing in the U.K. Parliament on Monday, July 3, 2006.

Richard Ottaway (Chairman): Can I welcome everyone to the final hearing  of this inquiry. I am very pleased to welcome Frances Kissling as the first witness.… The floor is yours.

I thought I would start back with the Cairo conference on population and development. As that conference was getting under way, various national academies of sciences around the world met and issued statements on the conference itself and on their hopes for that conference. I thought I would quote first from one academy of science that met at that point in time and that also met about five years later and made statements that were relevant to the conference. Let me quote from the June 15, 1994, Pontifical Academy of Science statement: “There is a need to control births in order to avoid creating insoluble problems that could arise if we were to renounce our responsibilities to future generations. Increases in the life span and advances in medical care have made it unthinkable to sustain indefinitely a birthrate that notably exceeds the level of two children per couple. In other words, this is the requirement to guarantee the future of humanity.”

Five years later at a study week called Science for Survival and Sustainable Development, the same academy of science considered emerging chaos theory and the vulnerability of the world and made the following statement: “Our planet is threatened by a multitude of interactive processes: the depletion of natural resources, climatic changes, population growth from 2.5 billion to over 6 billion people in just 50 years, rapidly growing disparities in quality of life, destabilization in the ecological economy.” Both of those statements, it may surprise you to know, were made by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which is the official science academy of the Vatican, and so, since the reason you have invited me here is to talk about religion, the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] and reproductive health, suffice to say, when you hear statements like that issued from the Vatican, you might ask: “What is the problem? Why have we for the last 10 or 15 years been dealing with an institution, in this case the Roman Catholic church, which seems increasingly opposed to everything that the United Nations, the European Parliament and governments of the world have begun to develop in terms of a new paradigm and new policies related to reproductive health?”

I think it is important for us to recognize, as we begin to analyze that question, that in every religious institution you will find both conservative and liberating tendencies, restrictive and liberating tendencies, and often they coexist within that institution. When it comes to the question of sexuality and reproduction, all of the world’s religions have deeply held beliefs emanating from how they describe or what they think is the nature of the human being and how that nature is to be lived out in the world. That is where we see the conflict that arises between a conservative view of religion and the efforts of those in government and in nongovernmental organizations to help couples and individuals achieve their goals in terms of family size, their own reproductive health and the expression of their sexuality. In our field, we tend to take two approaches.

At the present moment, we tend to take an approach to religion in which our emphasis is on the way in which religion is an opponent to sexual and reproductive health as we understand it. Indeed, we need to do that, because there are many ways in which these institutions are opponents.

At the same time, it is probably important, if we want to maintain a dialogue with religious institutions, to have a deeper understanding of where they are coming from and a better ability to work with them on some areas where we do agree. I think you can see from the two statements that I have read that there is indeed room for agreement on many central issues that [we] deal with, even with the Roman Catholic church.

To go one step further, in August and September of 1984 the then Pope John Paul II devoted his weekly general audiences to a series of speeches on family planning, reproduction and sexuality, and I want to give you some quotes of what he said at that point in time. He said Humanae vitae, the church’s encyclical that disapproves of the use of artificial contraception, “fully approves of the natural regulation of fertility and it approves of responsible parenting.” He then talks about something that many of you talk about: “Morally correct levels of birth should be established by taking into account not only the good of the couple themselves but also the good of the society to which they belong, the good of the Church and even the good of the whole of mankind.” Gaudium et Spes, which is a document of Vatican Council II that the pope also referred to, outlines four criteria that couples should use in determining the number of children that they have: “There should be a consideration of their own lives and their own needs; they should consider the good of the children already born and yet to come; they should read the signs of the times and their own material and spiritual level; and they should take an estimate of the good that having children or not having children at any particular time in their lives would do for their family, for society and the Church.”

Of course, we are dealing with a paradigm in almost all world religions in which the only legitimate use of sexuality and procreation occurs in marriage, and this is one of our great difficulties as
we talk about sexuality and reproduction: It is the insistence on heterosexual marriage as the paradigm for procreation. What the pope said, which is, I think, a good last word, was: “It is married couples themselves who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments before God.” I think probably most of us in this room are very surprised to hear these kinds of statements coming from an extremely conservative pope and an extremely political apparatus within a religion at this point in time. The question that I want to address in just the few minutes we have before we talk with each other is why, if there is this kind of understanding of the need for all of us to procreate in a way that is responsible, why, if the church really has no demand that couples have every pregnancy that could possibly come to them and do nothing to thwart pregnancy, do we currently face this enormous clash between religion—and not just Roman Catholicism but, I would add, conservative Christianity and some branches of Islam—exist? What is it that we are doing that exacerbates the possibility for dialogue with religious leaders who disagree with us? Because, ultimately, we must have some dialogue with these leaders. Here, it seems to me, there are a number of areas in which we need to look at our own rhetoric and values in order to understand whether or not we can reach out to these religious institutions.

“There is a need to control births in order to avoid creating insoluble problems that could arise if we were to renounce our responsibilities to future generations. ”

-Pontifical Academy of Sciences, June 15, 1994

First is the question of the history of population. I heard [Ms. Catherine Budgett-Meakin, MP] wonder what I would have to say about population, and you note that my church has no problem with considering population size, growth and stabilization as a legitimate political issue and a legitimate issue of social and economic interest. The good of the family and the good of individuals does have a relationship to population size and population growth, and no one denies that, but there is, within religious institutions, a fear that historically, the way in which population size, growth and reproduction have been used has reduced couples and individuals to instruments of state policy rather than human beings with full dignity. I think that we have seen a shift in the way in which we have constructed internationally the discourse about population that should enable us to bridge some of the differences that we have with religious institutions, and I think we have not taken adequate advantage of what has been called the “paradigm shift” within the population community to quality of care, reproductive health, human rights et cetera, in which many of these issues are areas in which we have common agreement.

The other problem is the one I referenced a bit earlier and that is the belief of religious institutions at the highest levels and at the formal level, that the only legitimate expression of sexuality takes place within covenanted, officially recognized marriages often lifelong but at least serial, not concurrent and that, therefore, unmarried adolescents as well as unmarried adults have no right to be sexually active and, therefore, we should not be worried about their controlling births. The way for them to control birth is to follow natural law and only have sex when they are open to pregnancy and children. Indeed, this is a very difficult problem to overcome in dealing with religions. The age-old set of Western religious beliefs, which have their origins in Aristotle and move forward through Aquinas and Augustine and other Christian leaders, about the nature of the human being, the nature
of the fall from Paradise and the demand for personal self-control in the exercise of sexuality, is still dominant in the theoretical and ethical mindset of Western religious institutions, and I would say even within Islam hold sway, how we deal with those questions remains to be determined and is to some extent outside the scope of this hearing.

However, we do have many areas of commonality in terms of a common concern among people of faith, including Roman Catholics, for the environment, for the alleviation of poverty, for peacefulness, for national security and for the prevention of chaos in the universe as ways in which we could bond with some of those institutions. We have been through a period of the last 10 or 12 years since Cairo in which a paradigm shift took place in how we think about questions of population and reproductive health. In that period of time, I think, the population community and the reproductive health community have shown to the world a changed mindset on these questions. In that context, I would hope that over the next five years, over the next decade, we could find a way to speak from a human rights perspective about both the importance of population stabilization and the importance of supporting the rights of individuals to reproductive freedom and reproductive
choice.

CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much indeed.  Plenty of food for thought there.  Steven, I think you have got a question.

MR. SINDING: I have written down about three more questions, Chairman, since hearing what Frances had to say, but I think I would like to start out a little bit where Catherine apparently was going before the hearing started and that is to ask you, Frances, to say a little bit about where you stand and where your organization stands these days on the issue of population growth.  You were identified during the Cairo debate as one who was concerned that the focus on population policies had so infringed individual rights and liberties in various parts of the world that you were deeply concerned about population policies and about the controversies around the movement that continues to be preoccupied with reducing high fertility and rates of population growth.  I am wondering today, in light of what has happened since Cairo and given the subject matter of these hearings, where you are on that issue.

MS. KISSLING: First let me say where I am and where Catholics for a Free Choice is and then perhaps a few comments about where I think colleagues, particularly in the feminist community, are at this point in time, because I think there is a shift.  I was, and remain, concerned if we see poverty alleviation and environmental degradation as two of the major issues that controlling or stabilizing population could help solve.  If we were to continue to see population control—and I say that word without any nuance on it right now, just a flat objective word—as a means to solving the problems of environmental degradation and of poverty alleviation, to be the paradigm under which we worked or the philosophy under which we worked, I would continue to be opposed to that kind of thinking.  I think that kind of thinking led to a number of serious infringements on people’s rights, whether those infringements took place in Indonesia, India, China or in the United States of America, wherever coercive policies or draconian measures that infringed on what I would consider to be people’s human rights in the cause of population stabilization occurred.  I think we needed to be concerned about that, and we needed to make our opposition to those things quite clear.  Also I think that my own concern about these was that I also agreed with, in this sense, a famous op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post at the time of the environmental meeting in Rio when, if you remember, Jessica Mathews was up in arms that the Vatican and the feminists were in bed together—a horrifying thought, but nonetheless—because both groups said that population size and growth should not be articulated as a major cause or solution to environmental degradation. (Jessica Mathews, “Politically Correct Environmentalists,” Washington Post, April 12, 1992) Again, speaking as a religious person who does have a deep respect for a religious sense of the dignity of human beings, if human beings become instrumentalized as the solution to what most of us think is a systemic problem, not a personal problem, then, indeed, it is one step to coercing individuals.  The dynamic that we went into Rio and Cairo with was a dynamic that we were looking at extensive abuse, at NGO movements both in the environmental world and in the population world which really were pushing the idea that birth control was the answer, and so this was, I think, a legitimate reaction to that.

It is 12 years later, many things have changed and, again, I have faith that people really do change, that we can change.  This is not just a surface change that has occurred in our field, but that, as human rights movements have become more active on these issues, as women’s groups have taken their place at the table, as organizations, like [the International Planned Parenthood Federation], have changed their own way of looking at these issues and instituted charters of rights, that all of these things indicate great progress.  As I said in my remarks, I would hope we can move into the next phase of this, to be able to have conversations about the effect that population size and rates of growth have on things that we all hold dear, particularly eradication of poverty and, in this sense, the MDGs, without having to do this in an accusatory manner, because all of the different camps have, in my opinion, gone very far towards proving their bona fides over the last 12 years.

MR. SINDING: I would like to thank you and pursue one point, and that is, I thought the papal statement which you quoted that recognized the tragedy of the tension between individual maximization of—

MS. KISSLING: Of freedom.

MR. SINDING: Freedom or value versus the social value, which essentially—in the end, what the Pope said is individuals have to figure this out for themselves.

MS. KISSLING: A profound human rights statement.

MR. SINDING: But the church has, in fact, always seen itself as an arbiter of social value and has always taken the position that it has the right to place certain limitations on individual liberty for the sake of the common good.  Governments have also played that role, and one of the purposes of population policies, whether they were coercive or not—and we could differ as to how widespread coercion was in fact in the pre-Cairo era—is that governments do in fact have the right to place certain limitations on unrestricted reproductive freedom for the sake of the common good, and I wonder whether you and that pope are on the same wavelength on that issue.

MS. KISSLING: It is impossible to say that a government might never have the right to impose restrictions.  We could all do doomsday scenario planning in which we could present a situation in which we might say, “In this situation, coercion at the most extreme, the setting of limits, with concomitant penalties for the violation of those limits is justified.”  If there was one woman left in the world who was fertile, would I say that maybe she could be forced to be pregnant for the survival of our species?  That is what doomsday scenario planning is about.  If we were facing massive starvation, would draconian measures be justified?  Perhaps, so I would not want to rule out the possibility that there might be circumstances under which even coercion would be permissible for the greater good.  However, I think that in the modern world, and in spite of the fact the Roman Catholic or other religions may not fully recognize this and some governments may not recognize this—which is why we have human rights organizations, because governments are always violating the human rights of their citizens and their noncitizens, government is not perfect—in that context, I would say that we have developed over the last 50 years an understanding of what human rights are.  Human rights start in our bodies, and there is nothing more central to the embodiment of human rights than the right to control when and whether you become pregnant and have children, which is my basic belief about human rights that says to me there is a big stop sign in front of the truck of government that says, “You cannot go forward.”  Can that stop sign ever be violated?  Yes.  Can history prove that the violations of that stop sign that have taken place up to now were essential?  I doubt it.

CHAIRMAN:  Could I ask you the central question in this inquiry?  To what extent do you feel population growth is impacting on the Millennium Development Goals?

MS. KISSLING: There is no question in my mind that it impacts and it impacts in a serious way.  Just as a simple, intuitive, commonsense reality without any major scientific background whatsoever, I would say that probably most people, including myself, think that the number of people and the rate at which people enter our society is a relevant question.  It has an effect on whether people can be fed, whether there is peace in a country, whether employment can be sustained, so, yes, population growth is a relevant issue in many ways.  It is a relevant issue when there is an insufficient amount of people to support a community, and it is a relevant issue when there are too many people, and there is such a thing as too many people to support what is there.

CHRIS McCAFFERTY: Given what you said earlier, the quotes you made in the beginning, Frances, it is very surprising to a non-Catholic like myself.

MS. KISSLING: And you should use these quotes.

CHRIS McCAFFERTY: It is good that they are on record because perhaps the wider population needs to be reminded of what has been said by a previous pope.  Why is it then, given those statements, that faith communities and the Catholic church in particular appear to be or, indeed, have been so very against modern methods of family planning?  That is my first question and, tied in with that, the man who would have been pope, Cardinal [Carlo Maria] Martini, has recently made some positive comments about the use of condoms, although obviously it is very limited, and he is talking, if I understand it correctly, about within a marriage, if one member of the partnership is HIV-positive, then it is a lesser sin to use a condom than to infect the marriage partner with HIV.  Is that progress, and does that simply reflect his view as someone who was perceived as a possible modernizing pope, should he have been elected, or is that the view of the Vatican?

MS. KISSLING: First of all, let me just say Cardinal Martini said many very interesting things, not just about condoms.  We have not yet taken advantage of the fact that he said the legalization of abortion was a good idea. In the same speech where he talked about condoms, he said, “I think that legal abortion is a good idea because it could save death from botched abortions,” and no one has yet picked up on his having said that as well, which I think is very important.

Also in front of me I have a list of about 20 statements that have been made by cardinals, bishops and bishops’ conferences, which I will be happy to leave with you, on condoms and AIDS, in which they speak out in favor of those, so he is not alone in holding that view.  If we went back to Humanae Vitae, because it is an encyclical against birth control, we could give you a list of probably 50 to 100 bishops and bishops’ conferences around the world who said, “Hold on,Humanae Vitae is not infallible, couples need to make up their own minds.” Within the Catholic church there has always been a strong body of opinion against the official teachings related to contraception, less against abortion, and certainly against condoms and AIDS.

The reason these things survive in the institution, and they survive among people who hold the highest levels of power, is because of the way in which the church continues to view human beings as being not trustworthy. That is the reality. He says in the final analysis individuals get to make up their minds before God, but in the final analysis we, as most religions, who teach that the fall from paradise had a profoundly negative effect on our sexuality do not believe that individuals can be trusted to act in a moral way of their own volition. They need to be told “no,” they need to embrace suffering, and the nature of the body is that the body must be restrained and controlled. The depth to which these things are believed about the nature of the human body, its relationship to sexuality and to mortality, is much deeper than most of us know and understand.

CHAIRMAN: That is a good answer.

VISCOUNT CRAIGAVON: I was going to follow up on the same point. Your answer to that problem you posed is we need the guidance of the church to help us go the right way. At the beginning you were talking about Humanae Vitae and how necessary it is to have a dialogue, but the difficulty I have got is that you are having a dialogue with people coming out with absolute points of view, many of which their adherences do not follow.  For example in America, as we all know, there is a huge majority of people who do not follow the teaching on contraception in the Catholic church, and there is a dilemma between trying to have a dialogue with the people pronouncing the absolute position and dealing with the real world, how people behave in the real world. To me it is a bit like economics, where the example you gave at the end of your last answer was very similar to the chancellor in this country who knows better than we do how to spend our money. It is the same thing.  The church is saying to us, “At the end of the day, we know better about how you should behave,” and then no one pays attention to them. I am wondering, what is the point in having a dialogue? Obviously on a human basis you would want to have a dialogue, but if people are then going to go their own way, what have you achieved?

MS. KISSLING: First of all, I think you are absolutely correct that very large numbers of people at the individual level, if they have the means to do so, do not pay attention to what their religious institution says to them about sexuality or reproduction, that the urge to either reproduce, control reproduction or have sex is much stronger than the urge to listen to what your religious leaders tell you. The key point is we are living in a society and a world right now where government is increasingly, in my opinion, responsive to and afraid of religious authorities. I can give you examples of here in the U.K. and I can certainly give you examples in America and the U.N. where our government leaders are saying, “We must respect everything, however absurd it is, that is put forward by a religious body.”  That happens in the U.N.: “We do not want to offend religion.” In that context, it seems to me that what we are facing, as we have faced in the United States and is now attempted in the European Union, is the cutoff of funding for family planning, the conditioning of funds relative to sex trafficking, HIV/AIDS, which exclude family planning in an effort to “honor” religion.

This extends even to lobbying by the Catholic church at major overseas development agencies. The extent of contact between [the U.K. Department for International Development] and the Catholic church is fairly extensive. DFID is great, it has taken great and wonderful stands, but I would not take any of this for granted in the long term.  In that context, because of the power of these religious institutions and the time in which we live, I think we really need to operate with them on two fronts. One is we need to be courageous and criticize them as we would criticize any organ of civil society that says silly things or dangerous things and not be afraid to do that.

On the other hand, I think we also have to reach out to these institutions.  There are bases to reach out to them. I can tell you that there are many, many good Catholics who are high-ranking and are simply turned off by the kinds of things they hear from those of us who work in reproductive health and population organizations, who say things like, “The Catholic church has this position because it wants more Catholics to be born,” “The Catholic church does not care about poverty,” all of the kinds of things that we do say. Religious institutions are probably one of the major providers of health care services worldwide.

Many would say in some countries they provide more and better health care for people than the government does. If we cannot find a way to give these people their due for what they have said that is useful and build on what they have said that is useful towards a change in position, then I think we unnecessarily isolate ourselves.  Progress can be made.   The Vatican’s position on condoms is going to change.  In five years’ time, I assure you, that position will be changed, and it will change because the Catholic church has had to be in dialogue with the HIV/AIDS community and has on-the-ground experiences of what damage this position causes. Change can happen, even in its so-called absolute institutions.  Otherwise, why would I bother doing what I do?

VISCOUNT CRAIGAVON: You were giving a little textual analysis of what Cardinal Martini had said, which is very useful, and you held up a list of people who sort of agreed with him, but people who live in the real world are sitting around saying—and I am taking the extreme absolute position on how evil condoms are with the Roman Catholic church at the moment: “That is not the real world. Why do we want a dialogue with people who feel like that? I have seen their version of science on television to back that up, but it is completely worthless. You have to have a dialogue, but I do not want to waste my time having a dialogue.” It is very good that you say that in five years’ time something is going to happen, which we are very grateful for.

MS. KISSLING: Dialogue includes criticism, and dialogue is not without critique.  In that context, I think it is perfectly fair for U.N. aides and the WHO to say to the Vatican, “This nonsense you have said about condoms is nonsense and is irresponsible,” and they have said that.  The Vatican continues to say this nonsense, but every day the Vatican says that nonsense, two or three bishops or cardinals and two or three Catholic agencies that take care of sick people change the way in which they practice. Dialogue is also criticism but you cannot dialogue with somebody in a critical fashion without once in a while throwing them a bone.  Why would they talk to us if every time we talk to them we do nothing but heap abuse on them? Why would they ever listen to us? To go back to U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, “There has to be a carrot and a stick.”  We employ the stick and very rarely the carrot, and so do they.

CHRIS McCAFFERTY: Frances, you are making me feel incredibly guilty about this.

MS. KISSLING:  I guess I must be a Catholic!

CHRIS McCAFFERTY: Recently I went on the government delegation to the U.N. on AIDS.  We talked within the group, and we thought it would be a good idea to make contact with, for want of a better description, the opposition in Washington. On my behalf, Ann-Mette made a lot of effort to contact politicians who take a different view, the church, which clearly takes a different view, and others who might be interested in having a dialogue, and it really was about having a conversation. We were unable to find anyone who was willing to have a conversation.  In light of what you were saying about dialogue, which I think you are absolutely right about, why do you think it is so difficult to have that conversation with politicians in the Bush administration and with members of the Roman Catholic church?   I am particularly talking about the United States.

MS. KISSLING: It is very difficult, and our levels of mutual distrust are very high. As I said, I think that kind of dialogue can happen.  I am presently engaged in such a dialogue with a Catholic official in an important Catholic organization.  It is an off-the-record dialogue, and it took a lot to make it happen, but it is very productive and has generated some good for women. I think it can be done. I would say there are structural ways to organize dialogue that we would need to pull into play, in the same way as the two sides of the debate in Ireland had difficulty coming together or the Israelis and the Palestinians had difficulty coming together.  There were methods used to make those dialogues happen. If the Protestants went to the Catholics and said, “We want to have a dialogue with you,” the Catholics would say, “Forget it, we do not want to have a dialogue with you.”  If the Catholics went to the Protestants and asked the same thing, they would say, “No,” they needed to use third, neutral parties to create dialogue, and we would have to do the same. If a right-to-lifer calls me up, they are not likely to get very far, but if a neutral party calls me up and says, “I would love to get the two of you together, I think you are both good, decent people, I promise you there will be good ground rules and confidentiality, we are sincerely interested,” you might get somewhere.  I think these kinds of dialogues can be created.  Whether they are useful or not, people may differ on. [The International Planned Parenthood Federation] did this at one point, sending letters to the pope asking for a meeting, and on the same day…issued a press release that they were sending a letter to the pope.  You are never going to get a meeting with the pope like that.  You are never going to get a meeting with the Pope anyway, but you are never going to get a meeting with the pope like that.

We are always doing these things, and we want to do them publicly.  Our adversaries think we are really out to trash them, but these are not sincere efforts.  We would have to do some hard work if we really wanted to have dialogue. If we believe dialogue works and that it has been helpful in other conflicting situations in the world, then it might be worth putting some energy into making these things happen.

MS. BUDGETT-MEAKIN: I find all that you have said so refreshing, and it has shaken my stereotypical view of what I have found by my own experience by being part of the U.N. process for the [World Summit on Sustainable Development] and all the rest of it.  It has shaken my taboos, if you like. I wonder what you can say about the misinformation that gets spread around, but also something about the taboos and stigmas that get caught up with all these extremely difficult issues, particularly to do with the Catholic church. I have talked about an unholy alliance, and you have already summarized that unholy alliance, but I go on being very worried about the result for women, and therefore by extension for men, by the misinformation and taboos that surround this. I wonder if you can pick up some of this.

MS. KISSLING: I think it is a very serious problem.  I would not want to leave this hearing as if I were a representative of the Roman Catholic church telling you how wonderful it really is and that you just have to be nice to them and they will be nice to you.  There are very, very serious difficulties in this arena, and there is an enormous amount of misinformation, as you said.  That misinformation ranges from the thing that most occupies us these days, which is condoms with holes, to condoms do not work, condoms do not prevent other kinds of sexually transmitted diseases, the continued misinformation about abortion and breast cancer, the misinformation about the dangers of contraceptives, the misinformation about sexual satisfaction, the basic piece of information that is put forward, which is that people who use natural family planning have better and more satisfactory sexual relations than people who use pills and diaphragms and that this creates better communication between couples. There is an enormous amount of misinformation at all levels. In every quarter, we must overcome our reluctance to criticize religious institutions, and we must call on others to criticize religious institutions.

Religious institutions that enter the public arena enter it in the same way as any other group does. If an environmental group makes a statement, their facts have to be backed up, and if they are not, we are ruthless in criticising them.  If they do, things need to be done in terms of the things that are said by the Roman Catholic church.  Every institution needs to be called to account to criticize.  I would say specifically, for me, that the U.N. is an extremely disappointing institution in terms of the way in which it responds to religion. It is the most frightened institution, and it is more afraid of religion than it is of terrorists.  If a religious institution says something, we are immediately told that we must respect everything that they say because it is a matter of private belief and we have to be respectful, even to the point of going beyond the scope of this hearing in the sense of saying this. Ronald Dworkin, a noted U.S. constitutional scholar, wrote an excellent piece in response to the Danish cartoon situation in which he said: “There is a right even to ridicule.”  Ridicule is a legitimate component of the democratic process.  When religious institutions enter the public arena or the health care arena, we need to feel comfortable employing all the methods of democratic discourse, from dialogue to ridicule as the two ends of the spectrum, in order to respond, and this information must be challenged.

CHAIRMAN: Frances, before you came in I said to the panel here, “I am not sure if one witness can fill an hour,” and you have been going for a good 50 minutes, and I still have people who want to ask questions, but I have got to wind it up in five minutes. There are two questions, and I would be grateful if you can give short answers.

MS. WYER: You have made a number of points about dialogue and suggestions about dialogue, naturally focusing on the Catholic church.  I wondered if you could speculate a bit about what you think the role of dialogue within your organization, the World Council of Churches, could be, the impact of that, and also recommendations about how one would constructively go about that, given that it is a very complex organization for a large number of religions.

MS. KISSLING: Again, I think that dialogue should take place.  Roman Catholicism is not the only religion in the world, and one of the things we need to do is reach out to and be in dialogue with other religions.  Institutions like the World Council of Churches are extremely difficult to deal with because they represent multireligious bodies and they also are fearful of offending any one of their constituent members, but there are divisions within the World Council of Churches that one can deal with.  There is a women’s desk in the World Council of Churches.  It is not very powerful, but I would start with the women’s desk.  There are groups in the World Council of Churches who are dealing with the question of poverty.  I would try to make links with some of those.  There are, within all religious bodies, health care institutions that one can and should deal with.  I do think that there are opportunities.  Some of the things are very simple, it seems to me.  When there are religious meetings going on, why are we not there?  When the World Council holds its biannual jamboree in Kenya, why are none of us there?  This is a long process, and it involves listening and attending before speaking.

LORD REA: I apologize for being late, I was attending to a visiting Guatemalan delegation and, in fact, that is relevant to my question.  A couple of weeks ago I was with a parliamentary group who visited Guatemala.  We were only there for a very short time, but we had the opportunity to see the population problem there. There is still a much higher fertility rate in the rural areas in Guatemala and other countries in Central America, nearly almost as high as anywhere in Latin America, and those I spoke to told me that the Catholic church has a particularly strong influence among local people and that particularly strong in this Catholic influence is of course the more fundamentalist group Opus Dei.  I wondered if you had any suggestions as to how one deals with that particular group within the Catholic church and the influence they have, particularly with uneducated people.

MS. KISSLING: One of the things I would say is that in developing countries, I would look to developing partnerships and relationships with other Catholic groups that are much more in tune with the way in which we think.  For example, I would say that talking again in a Catholic context, there are many religious communities of women and priests who are all over the world who have missions everywhere, Dominicans, Franciscans, Maryknoll, priests and nuns who are working with these very indigenous people, and they themselves are fighting Opus Dei and conservative groups.  The Catholic church is not without its own internal struggle, and you can spend a lot of energy ranting and raving about Opus Dei, which I think is a good thing to do, but you can also very productively make partnerships with these women’s orders and these priests’ orders who have been human rights houses.  I have been to visit the Dominicans’ human rights missions. I have been in Chile, where nuns have houses for women and go so far as to accompany these women for abortions when they need them. In Africa, we have the same situation.  There are many, many institutions that one can collaborate with and strengthen those institutions so they can fight Opus Dei and they can fight conservative bishops et cetera.  It is the same philosophy you would use for development and democracy in any other part of the world. You go and find those civil society institutions that you think are there to put things in the right way.  Do the same thing when you deal with religions. Find religious groups who are doing the right thing, who have a base in indigenous communities, support them and link to them.

LORD REA: That would be very useful information for our final report.

CHAIRMAN: Frances, I am quite sure we could go on for another hour, but I am afraid I have to end it there.  We have really appreciated you coming along and what you had to say.  Thank you very much indeed.

MS. KISSLING: It was my pleasure.  Thank you for asking me.