National Catholic Reporter ®

November 30, 2001 
Vol. 1, No. 14

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Tough to make common cause when
Vatican takes a bin Laden view of modernity

On matters of sex and the family, Catholic leaders can sound remarkably like the Taliban, decrying modernity as a vast moral wasteland, a citadel of the “culture of death,” where human life is a commodity and pleasure the prime directive. 

I’m certain that no one in the Vatican finds the idea of a world run by Osama bin Laden the least bit attractive. That said, there are elements of his critique of the West — as hedonistic, lax, awash in the sins of the flesh — that do find an echo in certain curial circles.

     On matters of sex and the family, Catholic leaders can sound remarkably like the Taliban, decrying modernity as a vast moral wasteland, a citadel of the “culture of death,” where human life is a commodity and pleasure the prime directive. 

     Such hostility is reciprocated. Politicians, humanitarian officials and activists, especially those involved in international bodies such as the United Nations or the European Union, often take it as an article of faith that Catholicism is obstructionist, anti-woman, and anti-democratic.

     In my experience, both sides are often prepared to believe the worst about the other, to impute ill motives and to suspect plots, to see their conflict in Manichean terms as a struggle of good against evil. The gap can be so wide as to seem unbridgeable.

     This worrying impression was confirmed by two recent experiences.

     The first came Nov. 22-24, at a Vatican conference in the old synod hall, which is located next door to the papal fire station. It marked the 20th anniversary of Familiaris Consortio, the concluding document from the 1980 synod on the family. The conference was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, headed by Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo.

     Lopez Trujillo and his collaborators were gracious and open, and many interesting ideas were floated over these three days. Yet I was struck by the bitterness, the scorn directed at the contemporary world, felt by many participants. 

     Lopez Trujillo, for example, compared the impact of liberal social policies to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist awakens to discover he has become an insect. That, Lopez suggested, is the modern condition; abortion, divorce and homosexuality are robbing us of our humanity.

     Archbishop Carlo Caffarra, an Italian and a key Vatican advisor on moral issues, ruefully observed that contemporary culture has “completely ignored” the teaching of the church. He complained that the modern human being is “decapitated,” deprived of intelligence. 

     American John Klink, a layman who advises the Holy See’s delegation to the United Nations, bluntly asserted that “the abortion lobby” is manipulating the UN to “push the envelope of social change.” He described population control groups as having an “anti-life, anti-family totalitarian agenda,” and referred to a document from one such group as “like a Third Reich plan from the 1930s.”

     Four days later, I found myself on the other side of the aisle. 

     It happened in Brussels at a Nov. 28 hearing of the European Parliament on “the role of religion in international policy making,” where I had been asked to chair a session. The event was sponsored by parliamentarians Lousewies van der Laan, Joke Swiebel, and Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, all leftists of various stripes. 

     The ringleader was van der Laan, a Dutch polyglot associated with a wide range of progressive causes. She spoke, for example, during the World Gay Pride rally in Rome in summer 2000.

     The hearing had a clear anti-Vatican tilt, with much of the organizing work carried out by Catholics for a Free Choice, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-choice advocacy group. The parliamentarians had invited the Holy See’s mission to the EU to send someone, but perhaps sensing a stacked deck, they declined.

     Here, too, interesting points surfaced. Cecile Richards, daughter of former Texas governor Ann Richards, described her efforts to organize religious progressives. Paul Numrich, a research associate at the Park Ridge Center in Chicago, gave a balanced and informative overview of the roles of faith-based groups in the UN.

     Yet most panelists, in one form or another, had come to complain.

     Roberto Blancarte, a Mexican academic, defended the “lay state,” a popular concept among European-influenced political theorists. It refers to a state in which religion is a private matter with no public role. He decried the “recolonization” of public life by organized religion.

     The usual stock issues drew hurrahs. One participant complained that the pope’s image will soon be on a coin circulating throughout the Euro zone. Catholics for a Free Choice head Frances Kissling spoke about her group’s “see change” campaign, designed to strip the Holy See of its status as a sovereign state at the UN. She provocatively asked if there is “any room for infallibility” within a democratic institution.

     By the end, there seemed a consensus in this crowd that religious institutions by their nature seek political power, and put that power to nefarious ends. There was an obvious sense of the Vatican, and most other organized religious bodies, as an enemy. (So much so that one female Protestant minister actually felt compelled to apologize, on behalf of religion, to all present).

     I had the sense that the people in Brussels would have felt like soldiers trapped behind enemy lines at the Vatican, and vice-versa.

     I should stress that the clash I’m describing is largely restricted to issues concerning sex. On other matters, whether it’s banning land mines or feeding children, the Vatican and international bodies can be excellent partners. The Vatican was the fifth nation on earth, for example, to ratify the UN convention on the rights of the child.

     Yet one look at today’s headlines is enough to illustrate that sexual and family issues are vitally important. Personally, I fear that the worldviews held by those on either side — Lopez Trujillo, to take an illustrative example, and van der Laan — are so far apart that conflict is the only option. One struggles to imagine the two of them sitting down over coffee to seek common ground, though should it ever happen, I would pay real money to be a fly on the wall.

     If rapprochement were to occur, both camps would undoubtedly have to give. On the Catholic side, at least, I think I know where the rationale for doing so might come from.

     The Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes called on the church to work alongside men and women of good will to build a better world. Realizing this dream requires a special effort to avoid demonizing those with whom we disagree, to keep the positive “signs of the times” in balance with the negative. 

     Thankfully, there are people in the church who realize this. On the Sunday after the Familiaris Consortio conference, I lunched at one of my favorite Roman eateries, Dal Sardo on the Via Gregorio VII, with a moral theologian friend who teaches at a pontifical university. I described Caffarra’s talk, and asked, “If one’s view of the contemporary world is so hostile, how you do you ever have dialogue?”

     My friend sighed, and replied: “With great difficulty.” Then he added: “But you know, Caffarra’s way isn’t the only one.” 

     Perhaps the Vatican should consider sending my friend to Brussels … to see if someone would meet him halfway.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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