Is God a Republican?

By Frances Kissling & Jon O’Brien

Spring 2000

She began to cry. Her shoulders shook uncontrollably as sobs came from deep within. “Why, why, why do they say such hateful things when our families are dying in Africa?” she asked. Catholics for a Free Choice, which is very seldom without an answer, did not have one this time. We were at the United Nations, and this distraught woman was a government delegate from an African nation at a meeting to review progress toward implementation of the Platform for Action (PFA) since the Fourth World Conference on Women. The UN conference held five years ago in Beijing outlined specific goals for progress for women that governments from around the world committed themselves to achieve.

The African delegate was upset by comments made by a fresh-faced American teenager during a Q&A after a panel on religious support for the Platform for Action. The teen had protested “why oh why must we constantly hear about condoms to prevent AIDS” when all people needed to do was to stop having sex outside of marriage and the problem would be well…solved. The African woman was upset but angry too. One can forgive naivete but it is harder when ignorance masquerades as the moral high ground from which to survey those who suffer and die. There was a lot of that about during the United Nations Beijing PrepCom in March.

Those same issues came to the surface at our successful press conference at the UN to discuss the latest on The “See Change” Campaign. Initiated by CFFC in March of 1999, The “See Change” Campaign requests a review of the Holy See’s status at the United Nations as a Non-member State Permanent Observer. Growing from 70 initial endorsers to over 450 organizations worldwide, the campaign has been very successful in focusing international public attention on the unique status held by the Roman Catholic church at the UN. In addition, press and nongovernmental organizations from the United States to Spain and Bangladesh have covered the campaign and individuals from all over the globe have signed postcards to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Sometimes it is hard to evaluate the impact of any advocacy effort. Not so with “See Change.” Aside from the outpouring of support from people and groups from every continent and the media attention it continues to generate, this campaign really seems to have the Vatican worried. It surely cannot fear that the UN will actually take up the question of their status. Most likely they are simply concerned that the campaign has led ordinary folks and diplomats to look at the Holy See in a less privileged way. As the Beatitudes put it, “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth.” Not much humility emanates from the Holy See bureaucrats, however.

First there were the statements by leading Vatican officials dismissing our efforts. The Holy See’s official spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls called the campaign “a clumsy attempt to silence the Catholic church.” Archbishop Renato Martino, the Vatican’s representative at the United Nations, asked defensively: “What privileges are they referring to?” Fr. Bernard Przewozny OFM, with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said “See Change” supporters “want merely to eliminate the Vatican because it stands in the way of the affirmation of pseudo moral values of liberty and self-determination.”

This was followed by the launch of a counter-campaign by the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which joined forces with the right-wing evangelical groups Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council to counter “See Change.”

In the US Congress, several Republican members-Sens. Rick Santorum (PA) and Bob Smith (NH) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ)-introduced resolutions critical of The “See Change” Campaign and lauding the role of the Roman Catholic church at the United Nations. The resolutions come as no surprise since Republican members of Congress are desperate to counter charges of anti-Catholicism. First, Republican candidates for president spoke at Bob Jones University, which holds extreme anti-Catholic views-going so far as to call the Roman Catholic church a “cult.” Then Republicans in Congress rejected a Catholic priest who was nominated to be the House chaplain.

How much the reaction of the political right-wing here in the United States to “See Change” is merely an electoral smokescreen to conceal the fact that the Republican candidates have some explaining to do can best be illustrated by the actions of the Republican National Committee. Day after day for several days they rehashed the same press release about “See Change,” its endorsers and, in a flimsy juggling act, even managed to attack the Democrats. They tried to make the charge that “See Change” is all about abortion even though most of the campaign members have no position on abortion. We logged onto their website every morning to see what brilliant new angle the backroom boys at the RNC put forward.

Then we noticed that the source within the RNC for much of this “See Change” condemnation was a group called the Catholic Task Force. Embarrassingly, their mission statement proclaims God on their side with the triumphant words: “We have studied the political record of all major political parties and we believe that the Republican Party is closest to the teachings of the Catholic church.”

Members of the Catholic Task Force include well-known conservatives and antiabortion leaders such as former Vatican Ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady, Mary Cunningham Agee of the Nurturing Network and Women Affirming Life, Rep. Bill Archer (TX), Rep. Henry Hyde (IL) and Sen. Rick Santorum (PA). Perhaps it is not surprising that these Republicans would see the positions of the Republican Party as close to the teachings of the Catholic church, but one wonders if they looked beyond the Republican Party’s opposition to safe and legal abortion. A simple read of the issues on which the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the US has taken a position shows how little consistency there is between Republican Party positions and the social justice mandates of the Roman Catholic church. On the other “life” issue-capital punishment-no one has a stronger anti-life position than Gov. George W. Bush (TX), who has presided over more than 100 executions in his two terms as governor. And what Catholic teachings, we wonder, can these Catholic Republicans be referring to as finding fulfillment in the Republican Party platform? Is it a commitment to alleviating poverty, to demilitarization, to affirmative action?

It was more than twenty years ago that former Notre Dame University President Father Theodore Hesburgh noted that when the US Catholic church made opposition to legal abortion its political priority we found ourselves supporting candidates who disagreed with 95% of the church’s social justice agenda.

The Republican Party’s Catholic Task Force is proof of this prediction. We cannot help but wonder when the US bishops will repudiate the statement of the task force and point out that God, to the extent that she takes sides in political campaigns, is on the side of the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. Hardly a description of the Republican, or for that matter the Democratic, candidates for president.

Before the RNC removed a list of the Catholic Task Force members from its website in early April, we did notice another name: John Klink. Mr. Klink, whom the RNC identified as a vice-chair of the task force, is also a frequent member of Vatican UN delegations. He served on both the Cairo and Beijing delegations-delegations that took the positions that condoms cause AIDS and that emergency contraception should not be made available to women who have been raped in war situations. Mr. Klink has also represented the Vatican in UNICEF and was part of the Vatican decision to stop supporting UNICEF because the agency was the co-author of a manual for refugees that included information about emergency contraception.

The attacks on The “See Change” Campaign are part of an overall strategy of church conservatives in which a genuine religious commitment to justice is transformed into the worst remnant of state religion-whether manifest in the UN, the US Congress or US presidential politics. The “See Change” Campaign is a healthy antidote to this strategy.

Frances Kissling is president and Jon O’Brien is vice president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Catholics for Choice