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Release of International Religious Leaders’ Statement on MDGs and Reproductive Health Provokes Vatican Attempt to Silence Catholic Signers

September 8, 2005

WASHINGTON, DC—The planned release of an interfaith religious statement supporting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and calling for the inclusion of reproductive health ran into controversy last week as high ranking Vatican officials instructed Catholic bishops to ensure that “no ‘religious leader’ of the Catholic church and subject to our jurisdiction agree and sign” the interfaith statement.

The broad-based statement, A Faith-filled Commitment to Development Includes a Commitment to Women’s Rights and Reproductive Health: Religious Reflections on the Millennium Development Goals, is focused on the MDGs and poverty eradication. It is an initiative of the International Interfaith Network for Development and Reproductive Health, a project of Catholics for a Free Choice.

A memo issued by Cardinal Angelo Sodano articulating the Vatican’s orders resulted in bishops’ conferences warning bishops throughout Latin America against signing the declaration. The Vatican’s order puts forward oft-repeated misinformation regarding UN definitions of reproductive health, insisting that they include abortion, and mischaracterizes the religious leaders’ declaration as a statement promoting abortion. The memo was leaked to the Latin American press and was widely seen as part of an ongoing effort by the Vatican and the Bush administration to eliminate any references to reproductive health in UN documents.

In fact, the religious leaders’ statement broadly supports the overarching aim of the MDGs, which is poverty alleviation, and holds that women’s equality and reproductive health are key elements of achieving those goals. The statement will be circulated to UN officials at the forthcoming 2005 World Summit on September 14-16 and will be publicly released at a briefing and press event on the first day of the summit.

“It is indeed sad that at a time when the moral energy of the religious community is focused on alleviating poverty, which disproportionately affects women and children in the developing world, Vatican officials would seek to censor Catholics who join in an interfaith call for economic justice for women,” said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. “The overemphasis on abortion that has permeated Vatican relations with the UN is an obstacle to the achievement of UN goals that are consistent with the values of most of the world’s faith traditions.”

The statement urges government leaders and policy makers:

  • To ensure that women and men have access to food, shelter, education and comprehensive health care;
  • To provide universal primary education for all that includes lessons in peace-building, tolerance and living healthy lives;
  • To promote gender equality and eliminate violence and discrimination against women;
  • To provide prenatal care and access to adequate nutrition, medicines and education, and clean water for mothers and their children in order to reduce child mortality;
  • To provide information and services to women in order to prevent unplanned pregnancies, which often lead women to abortion, and to address illegal and unsafe abortion as a public health concern;
  • To ensure that sexual and reproductive health care and services include prevention of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections;
  • To promote greater understanding of the linkages between the environment and reproductive health, and encourage integrated actions to address these things; and
  • To ensure livable wages for all and demand that wealthier countries cancel the debts of developing countries.

Despite the Vatican’s attempts to interfere, the statement has already been signed by more than 190 religious leaders from 34 countries throughout the world—Catholic and non-Catholic—who are deeply committed to improving the lives of the world’s poor and marginalized people, most of whom are women and children.

“The Vatican has still not learned that censorship and silence no longer work. The Catholic faithful are as committed to having an independent voice in international public policy, a voice for the poor, as are leaders of other faith groups,” added Kissling. “We can only read this as a signal that style of Benedict the pope will be no different than that of Ratzinger the enforcer of orthodoxy. Freedom of expression appears not to be a core value of his papacy. We are confident that this attempt at censorship will backfire.”

The statement is available online in both English and Spanish.


Among the statement’s signers to date:

  • Rev. Rose Teteki Abbey, Presbyterian Church of Ghana, Ghana,
  • Rev. Gloria H. Albrecht, Presbyterian Church USA, Professor of Religious Studies, USA
  • Zainah Anwar, Muslim, Executive Director, Sisters in Islam, Malaysia
  • Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Co-director, Faith Voices for the Common Good, USA
  • Pamela K. Brubaker, Church of the Brethren, Professor of Religion, California Lutheran University, USA
  • Prof. Hyun Kyung Chung, Presbyterian Church of Korea, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY, USA; Institute of Study of Life, South Korea
  • Professor Tony Coady, Roman Catholic, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Australia
  • The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church, USA
  • Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, Jewish, Temple Kol Tikvah, USA
  • Dr. Nazir M. Khaja, Muslim, Chair, Islamic Information Services, USA
  • Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Roman Catholic, Professor of Theology, Pacific School of Religion, USA
  • Rev. Dr. George F. Regas, Episcopal Church, Rector Emeritus, All Saints Church of Pasadena, USA
  • Ulla Sandbaek, Lutheran Minister, Former Member of the European Parliament, Denmark
  • Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, Church of God in Christ, Clergy and Laity Concerned about Iraq, USA
  • Dr. Arvind Sharma, Hindu, Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University, Canada
  • Rev. William Sinkford, President, Unitarian Universalist Association, USA
  • Dr. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Roman Catholic, Krister Stendahl Professor, Harvard University Divinity School, USA
  • Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Buddhist, President, Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women, USA
  • James E. Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist Church General Board of Church & Society, USA
  • Sara Winkowski, Jewish, President, International Council of Jewish Women, Uruguay