Vatican adopts a softer line in opposing U.N. women's conference declaration

September 16, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- When Mary Ann Glendon and her delegation were sent to the United Nations World Conference on Women here, they were given one instruction from Pope John Paul II: Be witnesses to the truth.

The truth, that is, as seen by the church in Rome.

Those instructions again put the Vatican in conflict with most countries of the world, culminating yesterday with the Holy See's leading an unprecedented number of states in opposing the conference's final declaration, a blueprint for the global women's movement.

Unlike last year's conference on population in Cairo, Egypt, however, the conference on women saw the Vatican take a quieter, mellower stand on the issues it believes are wrong, such as abortion.

Diplomats who took part in the closed-door negotiating sessions say the representatives of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics played a game of patience, winning a few crucial fights.

Rather than opposing the entire declaration, this year the Vatican expressed disapproval of the parts it could not support. A record 42 countries joined the Vatican in registering opposition to parts of the 149-page document, which was adopted by the conference last night.

"It was a completely different performance from before," said Annabel Miller, assistant editor of the Tablet, a London-based Catholic newspaper. "They were quiet and professional and won the fights they wanted to win without standing out too much."

Some of the credit for the Vatican's new, softer line should go to Mrs. Glendon, the first woman to head a papal delegation.

The pope is due next month in the United States, where his stops include Baltimore. Mrs. Glendon and her reputation as an affable compromiser may have been seen as a way to improve the church's image at international gatherings, as well as its sometimes troubled relations with U.S. Catholics, said Vernon Kirby, with Catholic cable television.

"They still carry the banner of the pro-life, pro-family point of view," Mr. Kirby said. "But their tone has been different at this conference."

Sitting in a room at the Holiday Inn near Beijing's airport last night, Mrs. Glendon said that the Vatican faced several difficult battles at the conference, among them Western countries interested in "adding to the catalog of rights" by promoting homosexual rights.

"This conference in Beijing had no mandate to rewrite the corpus of human rights. Before you start creating new rights, you have to do the kind of careful thinking that went in to the basic human rights documents," Mrs. Glendon said.

As with several other aspects of the document, with the help of some Islamic countries, the Vatican won the battle against a clause that would have included a woman's right to determine her own "sexual orientation."

Another victory for the Vatican was in restoring human rights language. Critics say the Vatican's interest in human rights, especially where it calls for the "dignity of human life," stems from the church's opposition to abortions.

In any case, a sharp attack last weekend against European Union countries, which opposed the language, brought the desired results: Within 48 hours, the human rights language was in the document.

"It has to be humiliating for them to see that their allies are in the Islamic world and not the Catholic world. Even in South America, they only have Argentina on their side. Where's Brazil, Peru and Columbia?" asked Frances Kissling of Catholics for Free Choice.

Mrs. Glendon said people in Western countries have lost touch with community values and responsibilities, wallowing instead in too much self-indulgence.

Her own experiences, the Harvard law professor said, were influenced by the church and its support of social justice.

As a 25-year-old in 1963, she took a church-organized bus ride from her home in Massachusetts to Washington, where she heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

"I emphasize that this bus ride was organized by a church because the civil rights movement that I knew in 1963 and 1964 . . . was a very religious movement," she said.

The next year, as a young lawyer, she did legal work in the South with the liberal Lawyers Guild.

Later in life, however, the legal research that made her famous was not on civil rights but abortion, where she championed more states' rights in setting abortion laws -- ironically, the argument sometimes used by those who opposed civil rights.

"I see a seamlessness between my interest in equality at a time when we had something very close to apartheid in some parts of the United States, and my interest in the abortion issue. Abortion is equally threatening to our social fabric."

In many ways, her mixture of what many Americans would view as liberal and conservative views mirrors the church's own attitudes, a combination that was on display in Beijing during the two weeks of negotiation over the document on women.

While the church opposes abortion, its policies on wealth redistribution show that it is not a fundamentally conservative organization, Mrs. Glendon said.

Carrying the pope's encyclical letter "On Social Concern" as ammunition, Mrs. Glendon points out that the pope favors eliminating Third World debt by the turn of the century and also says that wealth is only "mortgaged" from society, with the rich owing support to the poor in exchange.

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