Crises, Tidings & Revelations: A Letter from the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See

American religious leaders of many denominations have raised with me questions about the United Nations Cairo Conference on Population and Development and U.S.-Vatican relations. Consistent with this Embassy’s commitment to keep Americans in formed, I would like to share with you my thoughts.

The Cairo population conference made front-page headlines throughout the world. Much of that reporting focused on the Vatican’s concerted diplomatic opposition over many months to how abortion and the family were treated in the draft document, drawn up at the United Nations in late winter. Pope John Paul II himself made it his top priority to stress that in the “International Year of the Family” the United Nations should do nothing that would weaken the traditional definition or role of the family.

The Vatican was strongly criticized in many quarters for taking such a strong stand on moral issues. The final document that the conference approved was, however, changed significantly due to the untiring efforts of Pope John Paul II and other religious institutions and leaders throughout the world. The Vatican joined the consensus in favor of this final text, with reservations, because the Holy See could not, and did not, endorse sections containing wording contrary to Catholic doctrine on contraception and abortion in any form.

When it was over, many journalists and other observers summed up the Cairo conference in terms of who “won” and who “lost.” Some put the Vatican in the loss column because it could not get all that it wanted into the document.

At Cairo both the United States and the Vatican came away with their priorities served. The U.S. gained international support for an “action plan” to deal with the challenge of population stabilization. For the first time the Administration received international approval for a comprehensive approach to this global challenge, based on educating and empowering women. Vice president Gore played a leading role in forging a worldwide alliance to deal with population stabilization.

The Vatican, for its part, got the world to listen to its moral and spiritual concerns regarding certain aspects of the United State’s proposals. More importantly, the final document reflected the Vatican’s insistence that abortion not be considered either a right or a means of population control, that language which weakened the family be removed, and that there be a greater emphasis on improving the lives of the world’s poorest nations and stabilizing their populations.

Bringing the United States and the Vatican closer together took many forms. In April, the Holy Father told me he wanted to speak directly with President Clinton about his deep concern over the United Nation’s draft document for the Cairo conference. I returned to Washington immediately, met with the president at the White House, and arranged a telephone call between him and the pope. Their discussion was serious and mutually respectful. Afterwards, the president told his staff that he opposed parts of the UN’s draft document which weakened the role of the family. In addition to insisting that abortion not be treated as a fundamental right, the pope stressed that development is critical in talk of population and that the original draft document, which devoted only seven of 83 pages to development, needed changing. The president agreed.

In June, the president met with the pope at the Vatican and the Cairo conference was again discussed. In the weeks that followed we continued to be closely in touch on these issues. The administration wanted to ensure that the conference stressed that education, respect, and equal opportunity for all women, especially in developing countries, is a key to population stabilization. Both the United States and the Vatican are committed to ending the exploitation of women and children, and support the importance of quality health care and equal access to jobs. The rights of immigrants and the contributions they make to developed countries were also stressed, although the U.S. and the Vatican differed on family reunification. These points come across strongly in the final Cairo document, thanks largely to the strong leadership of the U.S. and Vatican delegations.

When you look back at where we started and where we finished, it is clear that it is a mistake to speak of “winners” and “losers.” The conference provided all countries of the world, including the Vatican and the United States, with a chance to have their voices heard and their opinions examined on many issues. There were successes for all.

To look at the draft Cairo document of last March — with little on economic development in poor and developing countries, talk of “alternative” family structures, and an implied international right to abortion on demand — and to see what came out of Cairo, is to appreciate that the Vatican’s concerns were heard and acted upon. The Vatican made great progress in injecting language that stressed the fundamental role of the family, respect for religious and cultural values, and that individuals have responsibilities as well as rights.

Both the United States and the Holy See were respected and listened to in Cairo. The press, with its unprecedented world coverage, served the useful purpose of educating people about the issues (although certain aspects of the press coverage were misleading). The Vatican disagreed with the United States on various points, but the two delegations met constantly and, at the end of the day, there was better understanding. Both achieved much of what they wanted, and the Vatican did so without compromising on the truth.

Pope John Paul II said recently that the world needs to focus more attention on the “scandalous contrast” between the rich and poor populations of the globe. This is a point on which the Vatican and the administration agree, and we will be working together in the coming months to focus the United Nations’ efforts toward this critical problem.

By the time the Cairo conference concluded, it was clear that the Catholic Church continues to be not only a voice for those without power and influence, but also a moral voice the powerful and influential must listen to. This administration will continue to play a leading role in social justice worldwide.


  • Raymond L. Flynn

    Raymond Leo Flynn (born1939), also known as Ray Flynn, served as Mayor of Boston, Massachusetts from 1984 until 1993. He was later appointed United States Ambassador to the Holy See (1993–1997) by President Bill Clinton.

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