Magazine article Conscience

Evangelium Vitae Today: How Conservative Forces Are Using the 1995 Papal Encyclical to Reshape Public Policy in Latin America

Magazine article Conscience

Evangelium Vitae Today: How Conservative Forces Are Using the 1995 Papal Encyclical to Reshape Public Policy in Latin America

Article excerpt

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CONSERVATIVE CATHOLIC activists have historically played a central role in shaping public policy in most Latin American countries. In the last decade or so, the manner in which these activists work has been transformed, pushed in large part by the Vatican. In large measure, this transformation has been developed to counter the successes that women's rights and reproductive rights advocates have had in placing their demands on national and global public agendas. Far from retreating in the face of this onslaught, conservative religious activists have strategically adapted to the new context so as to continue influencing public policy and legislation. What's new is not the content of their beliefs, which continue to be strongly patriarchal and supportive of a very traditional social order, but rather the strategies and arguments they use.

The World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) saw sexual and reproductive health issues became part of international human rights agendas. The conferences distilled years of activism and mobilization so that sexuality issues could enter the contemporary global language on human rights. As such, they were important moments in the development of these new forms of conservative Catholic activism since the legitimacy attached to sexual and reproductive rights required a new response. The old arguments and strategies were unlikely to continue to be effective. The primary purpose of this article is to consider these conferences as markers of a "new global grammar" to which the most dogmatic Catholic entities, particularly the Vatican, its representatives in the hierarchy and its colleagues like Opus Dei (see box), had to adapt and react. In so doing, they began to generate a new type of Catholic activism that continues to be strongly patriarchal and which also tries novel ways of influencing public discussions without becoming any more flexible with regard to the hierarchy's dogma on sexuality.

ENCYCLICALS AS POLITICAL PROGRAM

Official hierarchal documents on the topics of family or sexuality are a combination of religious and political arguments. The boundaries are difficult to trace, but the encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" from March 1995 can be read as both a religious document that captures and reconstructs the official doctrine of the Catholic hierarchy with regard to issues such as abortion, and as a programmatic document that delineates the main political strategies proposed by the hierarchy for the new climate that was created by these international conferences. A central purpose of the encyclical was to reaffirm the official position of the hierarchy that abortion is both "serious and deplorable." But the encyclical also can be considered to be a political manifesto that laid out some of the key dimensions that constitute the new forms of Catholic activism pushed by the Vatican and which have had significant impact in regions like Latin America.

A "CULTURE OF DEATH"

A general theme of the encyclical, which permeates patriarchal Catholic activism, is to label the movement for sexual and reproductive health rights (never directly called that) as being part of a "culture of death." The encyclical affirms that:

   This situation, with its lights and
   shadows, ought to make us all fully aware
   that we are facing an enormous and
   dramatic clash between good and evil,
   death and life, the "culture of death" and
   the "culture of life." We find ourselves
   not only "faced with" but necessarily
   "in the midst of" this conflict: we are all
   involved and we all share in it, with the
   inescapable responsibility of choosing to
   be unconditionally pro-life.

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The political and legal demands of feminism and the movement for sexual diversity are considered--by the hierarchy--to respond to a cultural ethos encompassed in the term "death. …

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