Amnesty International has recently taken a monumentally courageous step for which I am profoundly grateful. But it may cost them dearly.
This month, in it's 28th International Council Meeting in Mexico City, Amnesty International reaffirmed its April decision to support abortion rights in certain circumstances such as sexual violence, rape, incest, or where the health, human rights or life of a woman are endangered. This is especially relevant in places such as Darfur, where rape is widely used as a weapon of war and terror. But the policy decision has created a huge outcry from powerful forces within the Roman Catholic Church. The voices of disapproval and outrage are ringing everywhere; from the Vatican right down to long time peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan. A large group of Catholic clergy and organizations are calling upon Catholics worldwide to join them in a financial and personal boycott of the human rights organization.
The Vatican declared that "Amnesty International has betrayed its mission". The head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Marino stated, "AI has betrayed all of its faithful supporters throughout the years, both individuals and orgnizations who have trusted AI for its integral mission of promoting and protecting human rights". He went on to say that "Individuals and Catholic organizations must withdraw their support for Amnesty International worldwide". Upon announcing his own withdrawal from AI, British Bishop Rev. Michael Evans, along with other clergymen, cited the 1989 United Nations International Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention states that a child needs "special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth." The Bishop went on to say that "such appauling violence against the most vulnerable and defenseless form of human life in a woman's womb" cannot be tolerated.
Combined with a lack of self awareness and serious self reflection, hubris can be one of the most insideously dangerous traits within human personality. When this kind of self righteous, myopic thinking dictates to the minds and hearts of the masses, it always has disastrous social consequences. We need only look to historical events, both past and present for the proof.
Since so many in the clergy are eager to point to the UN International Convention, I think we should consider the Church's own record regarding the 'safeguard' and 'care' of its own children. If these men are sincerely concerned about the welfare and protection of minors, why are they not calling for Catholics worldwide to stop giving financial support to their own church? In light of the countless crimes of sexual violence and rape perpetrated against children within their own parishes, where are the resounding calls for a boycott of the Church itself?
Rev. William Skylstad, head of the U.S. Conference of Bishops claims that "The decision undermines Amnesty's long standing moral authority". I can think of no institution with less moral authority when it comes to the protection of children than the Catholic Church. I wonder what sort of 'legal protection' and 'safeguards' Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had in mind back in 2001 when, as 'Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith', he issued an edict ordering Bishops worldwide to keep all incidents of clerical pedophilia from legal or public disclosure. The Cardinal, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, ordered that all information regarding child sexual abuse be sent to Rome, and handled through 'secret tribunals'. The reputation of the Church itself must take precedence above all other considerations - including the health and welfare of its victimized and abused children. Loyalty to the institution supercedes caring and concern for the 'most vulnerable' within its own flock.
Why do these men express more caring and concern for embryos that are part of a woman's womb, than for children who are real, whole human beings; indivduals whom they personally know or know about? Why are children whose psyches and bodies have been abused, violated and permanently damaged, not treated with basic human concern or respect? Where are their 'human rights'? These clergymen say that the 'unborn' cannot speak for themselves or defend themselves. So why has the Church stifled the speech and rendered defenseless, children who have real lives. Why such callous disregard for the 'already born'?
Perhaps in the eyes of these men, the victimized children are not seen as human beings, but as potential threats to the power and image of the Church. It is far easier to take a strong stand about the impersonal, theorectical concept of potential life, as defined in the 'letter of church law', than to actually feel compassion toward an identifiable child who could potentially 'rock the boat'. Adherence to dogma does not require true empathy or humanity. But it does serve well the interests of empire. The survival of the Church trumps the 'Spirit of the Law'. Isn't this precisely what Jesus was speaking about?
Before any individual, institution or government can claim moral 'authority' they must first, at the very least, establish moral 'crediblity'. This implies proof of a fully working conscience and evidence of character. These qualitites cannot be inherited or simply self declared. For this church to speak against Amnesty International, to the point of attempting to undermine it's very existence, is blatantly hypocritical and disgraceful. AI is being discredited and even demonized, because it chooses to hold to its own sense of integrity and conscience. Cardinal Martino says, "To selectively justify abortion, even in the case of rape, is to define the innocent child within the womb, as an enemy and thing that must be destroyed..."
It seems rather obvious to me, that no male has the innate authority to legislate what goes on within a woman's own womb. It is a sacred place which 'Nature', in its infinite wisdom, obviously designed and entrusted to feminine wisdom and care. And the notion that Catholic clergymen claim the right to dictate to any woman concerning her most intimate physiology, is really quite audacious. These are men whose very lifestyle suggests a belief that distance from women fosters closeness to God. It is mind boggling to think that they actually percieve themselves to be credible authorities in this realm. The very idea is just grandiose and foolish.
Empathy is the prelude to compassion. But it can only be developed through direct, personal connection and essential identification with the 'other'. It is the deepest form of interpersonal understanding. If this is missing, then generic legalism, in all of its guises, becomes the fall back position. The 'letter of the law' rules the day. I believe this is something Jesus spoke of as well. These men have chosen to distance themselves from the very people whose lives and bodies they wish to control; over whom, they once again, proclaim 'moral authority'.
Amnesty International has made itself quite clear. It will not be blackmailed into submission by the Church. This tactic of secular 'ex-communication', the 'boycott', will not bring AI to its knees. Neither the heart nor the soul of this organization is for sale. Amnesty International has indeed surpassed itself. I believe it will surely survive -even without the blessings of the Pontif and his legions. After all, Amnesty International does stand upon a much higher principle; one that transcends the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church.
Rita Corriel is a practicing psychotherapist, activist and writer living in Pennsylvania.