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Ultra-Conservatives Unite
Report on the World Congress of Families II
by Gordon Urquhart

This is the original of Gordon Urquhart's text published in slightly edited form by the Guardian on12 November, 1999 with the headline "That's not faith, that's provocation."  Urquhart's book The Pope's Armada (London: Transworld, 1995 and Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1999) is a critically acclaimed and terrifying portrait of several ultra-traditionalist movements in the Catholic Church. Published here with permission of the author.

There was a time when dialogue between religions had the laudable goal of international peace and understanding.  In the past decade, however, a new and potentially dangerous form of interfaith collaboration has emerged.

From the 14th to 17th November religious leaders from different traditions gather in Geneva for the World Congress of Families II.  The aim of the event is to affirm that ‘the natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature and centred around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage.’  Its specific purpose is to ‘discuss ways to counter…anti-family initiatives advanced at the UN and other world bodies.’  Key items on the menu include ‘the myth of overpopulation’, preserving traditional roles for men and women, the exclusive rights of the traditional family, parental rights, the struggle against legalised abortion and the dangers of the rights of the child, all served up with a generous helping of anti-gay propaganda

Costing $1.5 million and expected to attract two thousand delegates, the Congress is the most important manifestation to date of this new form of interfaith collaboration based on the deeply conservative values which unite the most reactionary believers of different faiths – in particular fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.  According to Allan Carson of the Howard Center, a conservative American think tank, one of the two sponsoring bodies of WCFII, ‘the contemporary “coming together” of religious people occurs only among the most orthodox of each group, people that are the least likely to compromise on basic doctrine.’   They are united not only by their moral principles but also by the fundamentalist rejection of separation between church and state; they are therefore committed to imposing their views by political means.

It comes as no surprise to find that Christian traditions represented at the Congress include evangelical Protestants and Mormons : the Mormon NGO Family Voice is the second major sponsor (entertainment for the event is provided by Ma and Pa Osmond).  It is disturbing , however, at this showcase of international fundamentalism, to find that the Catholic Church is strongly represented – and at the highest level: the opening speaker is Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, the President of the Vatican’s Council for the Family and one of John Paul II’s right-hand men.  Furthermore, the planning committee of the Congress included three members of Lopez Trujillo’s Council.

Although the Holy See now prefers to appear as a simple participant in this new form of interfaith collaboration, in fact it was the Vatican, under the direct instigation of John Paul II, which first enlisted the support of fundamentalist Muslim nations for its conservative policies in the run-up to the Cairo UN Conference on Population and Development in 1994.  Determined to oppose woman’s rights, reproductive rights, sex education, contraception, and gay and lesbian rights in the Conference document, Rome was desperately short of allies among Western nations.  With fundamentalist Muslims, however, they saw eye to eye on all these issues.  The Vatican claimed that, with the backing of Islamic and other Third World nations, it was speaking for the majority of humanity, while those advocating a liberal approach were a small band of American and European extremists.

Following Cairo, the Vatican launched a vast programme of contacts with fundamentalist Muslim countries, based on commonly-held moral values. The alliance was further strengthened at the Beijing Women’s Conference of 1995 when personalities from the US Christian right, such as Allan Carlson and James Dobson of the powerful Focus on the Family organisation, added their enthusiastic support.  Carlson, in particular, took on board the Catholic ‘natural law’ ideology in support of traditional morality.

Two years later, the World Congress of Families I was held in Prague in the presence of a host of Vatican dignitaries.  Conservative groups from all over the world sent delegates.  Amongst participants from the UK were Valerie Riches, spokesperson for Family and Youth Concern, much-quoted by the Daily Mail on moral questions, and Dr Majid Katme, the Muslim co-ordinator for the pro-life organisation, SPUC.

Katme has played a key role in lobbying Muslim nations on behalf of the Vatican at UN conferences and is therefore an authoritative spokesperson for the new multi-faith coalition.  His was one of the most extreme voices at the 1997 Congress.  In a speech entitled ‘Practical Lessons from the Cairo, Beijing and Istanbul Conferences’, he launched a blistering and bizarrely-worded attack on the UN, condemning the promotion of ‘new, perverted types of family without mention of marriage, such as two men together or two women together (homosexuals) or single-parent families’ and ‘the devaluation of womanhood, femininity and motherhood; and the facilitation for mothers and wives to go like the men to the labour market, with the neglect of her natural, great job as a mother and a wife.’  Responsible for ‘all these destructive, disease-ridden, immoral, anti-God, and anti-family values’ in UN documents were ‘a gang of extremist feminists who are sick and twisted in their minds, perhaps having had very bad life experiences’.  Katme advocated the need for ‘A BATTLE PLAN [emphasis in original] to be on the offensive and not on the defensive in order to oppose and expose this filth.’

Vatican officials cannot be unaware of the potential dangers of the explosive cultural brew they have concocted.  In this country we recently witnessed the direction the new interfaith co-operation could take when British Islamic leaders declared a fatwa against the American writer Terrence McNally for depicting a homosexual Christ-figure in his play Corpus Christi.  Anti-abortion killings in America which have been linked to the teachings of Catholic pro-life groups are another troubling precedent.

The official Church has washed its hands of this kind of violence in the past. Currently, however, the protagonists of the World Congress of Families are loudly proclaiming their unanimity.  Having fanned the flames of intolerance, it will be difficult for Rome to disclaim responsibility for an eventual conflagration. The Vatican’s behaviour appears at the best opportunist and at the worst dangerously irresponsible.

Gordon Urquhart

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 20 November 1999
Last updated 10 March 2001
Electronic version copyright © 2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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