Back on Message, World Congress on Families Still Fails to Inspire

14 May 2007

The last day of the World Congress of Families was clearly planned to counteract the nightmarish visions of global demoralization presented on Saturday. The speeches were more faith-oriented and the late Pope John Paul II was mentioned on every possible occasion, especially as May 13 was the anniversary of the 1981 attempt on his life. The presenters have been obviously trying to please the Polish audience, continually referring to the late pope as John Paul the Great.

Some speakers tried hard to maintain a hopeful tone, while others gave in to pessimism and shared their own conspiracy theories with the audience. Bill Saunders, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Life and Bioethics, suggested that the fact that Pope John Paul II signed the document establishing the Pontifical Council for the Family on the same day as the attempt on his life was not a coincidence and that the “forces on evil” had something to do with the assassination attempt.

In another embarrassing no-show of a key speaker, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo did not attend. His address, read out by Rev. Grzegorz Kozak, was so long that my neighbor fell asleep and snored loudly. He was not the only one—a 45-minute lecture on values and demographic issues proved too much for several other listeners as well. Even when he made interesting points, they were somehow unrealistic. Trujillo noted, perhaps correctly, overpopulation was a myth because the state of Texas could alone supply enough food for the whole world. However, the chances of Texas feeding the 815 million hungry people in the world in the short run are unlikely.

As I looked around the room, it was sad to see that so many of the participants were white. In the speakers’ bios I noticed only one black speaker and not many people Arab or Asian speakers. The age range was pretty diverse, but I later learned that many participants were families with children who had won a competition to attend. Some prize!

Paige Patterson, representative of the US Baptists, focused on the negative impact of women’s increased independence. He seemed very unhappy that the “members of fairer sex” were becoming more educated than men instead of staying at home. “Mom and a hot apple pie have been replaced by institutional day care and cold Apple Turnovers at McDonalds,” he complained.

Rev. Wieslaw Jankowski of the often mentioned Institute of Family Studies at the University of Stefan Kardynal Wyszynski in Warsaw tried to keep to on topic and described the project of family formation, which includes summer meetings and conferences. It’s strange that conservative Catholics so commonly speak of themselves in military terms. There are so many groupings of “knights” and “legionaries” of Christ or Holy Mary. In the project described by Jankowski, military terminology is used to describe children as young as five years old. The young boys’ minds are formed and in the process they become the “Squires of St. Joseph” and later, once they have gained more skills, they become the “Knights of St. Joseph.”  Girls, on the other hand, are at first “Brides of Holy Mary,” learning to be obedient, tactful and punctual among other things. They are rewarded by wearing white dresses and ornaments.

Thomas Ward, founder of the National Association of Catholic Families, tried to create the peaceful atmosphere during his presentation by displaying a slide show of pictures of Pope John Paul II, digitally edited to depict him as a saint sitting on a cloud. The idyllic mood of the photos did not match Ward’s words, as he starkly depicted the world in dark colors—damaged by contraception, full of the “horrors of IVF” and threatened by the “homosexual revolution.”

Polish member of parliament Dariusz Kleczek maintained the serious tone and focused on the abortion issue. Kleczek was deputy chair of the parliamentary committee that analyzed draft amendments to the Polish constitution on abortion. After the amendments did not pass, he left the Law and Justice Party to join the former speaker Marek Jurek in his new political project Prawica RP. Kleczek repeated the same outrageous views presented by many Polish right-wing politicians who oppose all abortions—even the violation of a woman’s dignity after rape should not allow her to have an abortion. According to him, “a bit of common sense and sense of justice” suffices to understand that. He also condemned Amnesty International for supporting some abortion rights.

On Sunday, the Polish parliament expressed its support for the World Congress of Families by holding an interparliamentary forum, “Family Is a Chance for Europe and the World.” Speakers included Anna Zaborska MEP, chair of the E.U. Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and Stephan Buffetaut, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee. The panel discussion also included Allan Carlson, Greek MEP Marie Panayatopoulos-Cassiotou and Dana Rosemary Scallon a former MEP from Ireland. Some 50 parliamentarians from different countries took part and adopted a declaration, in which they stressed that marriage is a union of man and woman and urged governments to fully implement pro-family policies.

The closing ceremony was long and the concert hall emptied by the minute. The remaining audience seemed to enjoy the childish and simple rhymes written and read by the Utah Young Mother of the Year, Shelly Brown Locke. A letter from the first lady of Mexico, Marta Sahagun, was read out. Interestingly, the press release about the conference for the day lead with the two people who did not attend, Trujillo and Sahagun. Finally, a Warsaw Declaration was adopted and Allan Carlson announced it would be sent to the pope, the president of the European Parliament, the UN Secretary General and other key decision makers.

When I left the conference venue I was brought back to reality in an instant. In front of me was a group of young English men on a bachelor/stag party. The groom-to-be was dressed in a shimmering top and women’s black panties, which displayed a large part of his behind. They were oblivious to the World Congress of Families, as one imagines, is the rest of the world.

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