Tidings and Revelations: Bottom Line at Beijing

Of all the questions asked me by reporters as the Holy See’s U.S. press liaison in connection with the Fourth World   Conference on Women, one stands out: “What are the fundamental differences in world view that separate the Holy See from its opponents at this conference?”

There are two primary areas in which to consider differences between the Holy See’s positions and those assumed primarily by western democracies—the promotion of basic human rights for women and women’s “health.” The Beijing Plat-form for Action considered a great variety of concerns about human rights such as women’s access to education, political empowerment, and economic resources. Also in this category, but mentioned rarely and, if so, in a negative light, were the issues of freedom of religion, marriage, and family.

When it came to human rights for women, the Holy See—in its preparatory and Beijing statements—always started in the same place. Women posses human dignity. (Here I am tempted to point out to detractors the often-seen feminist bumper sticker “Feminism is the Radical Notion that Women Are Human Beings.” I can only assume its drafter meant Christian feminism, since that is its origin). Needless to say, the Holy See’s particular positions regarding economic, political, and educational rights were ringing endorsements of the necessity of full equality and justice for women. This was often followed by a call for recognition and accommodation of the special gifts women bring to each and every area of human life. Also, the members of the Holy See delegation were among the few voices at Beijing calling for commitments of new resources for women, considering the inhumane disparities they often live with daily. Most countries, despite their progressive words about women’s rights, were not willing to make this financial commitment.

The Holy See also urged language offering strong support for women’s religious freedoms and for the institutions of marriage and family, upon which so much of women’s and men’s personal and social well-being depends. These were raised as integral to real social justice for women.

Opponents of this vision operated from dramatically different presumptions. First, they did not have, nor allow the Platform to express, the understanding that women’s dignity is a “given.” That it is inherent in being human. That it cannot be granted or revoked by any public or private entity. Thus, when the discussion came to money, they did not press for the necessity of righting fundamental wrongs against women, now. Second, they held basic suspicions against the institutions of marriage, family, and religion. They viewed them as the instruments of women’s oppression and no part of a project to enfranchise women. In this, they evidenced a strong streak of early 1970s’ feminism.

While women themselves have largely discredited this exaggerated “hermeneutic of suspicion,” many delegates from the wealthier western nations apparently hadn’t heard. The Holy See, on the other hand, acknowledged the potential for abuse of marriage, family, and religion, but advocated measures to strengthen them, not to further discredit them. After all, it was pointed out, most women and men still find their primary happiness and freedom in their relationships with God and the family.

A second major fault line across which disagreements broke was “health,” in particular, “reproductive health.” Here, the differences between the Holy See and its opponents were of two kinds. The first was the difference between a view of women as mostly determined by their reproductive biology, versus a more holistic view of women’s health. The Holy See adopted the latter position. The former, which won out in the final Platform, was championed by countries like the United States and Canada and by the European Union. It was reflected in the almost obsessive attention the document paid to sex and reproduction. For example: AIDS, killer of 4 million persons annually, was mentioned 40 times more than one class of diseases, tropical diseases, which kills 600 to 800 million annually. The section of the Platform on “the girl child” mentioned sex education (with insufficient parental oversight) so often, it would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.

Another difference between the Holy See and its opponents regarding sexuality is even more profound. Essentially, Catholic teaching sees human sexuality as inherently relational. Sexual relations are acts which affect couples, families, and eventually communities. Witness the raging debate in the U.S. over the disastrous public effects of widespread out-of-wedlock childbearing. Furthermore, sexual relations deeply affect each individual actor. They can uplift and can degrade us.

Opponents of this vision see sex as a matter of individual preference, having primarily physical effects— satisfaction, pregnancy, or disease. From this vision comes the final wording of the Platform—to which the Holy See took reservations— chock full of all sorts of newly created and individualistic rights to control sexuality and fertility. There is no recognition of relational responsibility, only rights to ensure that sex is consensual and that no woman gets a disease or a baby she doesn’t want.

And so run the philosophies behind the detailed positions at Beijing: one paints a world in which women — with no God-given rights to rely on — have to fight tooth and claw for recognition of their most basic needs and deserts, a world in which they have all sorts of “sexual rights”—to be let alone, to be free of abuses within families and religions—but no support for strengthening those very institutions, institutions from which most women and men derive their greatest happinesses.

The second paints a vision of dignified women, created in God’s image and meriting worldly recognition of this. It also paints a world in which sex is good, but so fragile, so easily abused to women’s special detriment, that sexual relations must be treated with kid gloves.

There is no question which world most women would prefer to occupy.

  • Helen Alvaré

    At the time this article was published, Helen Avare was director of planning and information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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