A Small Show and an Embarrassing No-Show
12 May 2007
On the first morning of the World Congress of Families, participants entering the Palace of Culture and Science were welcomed by teenage girls from a Catholic school dressed in traditional and very old-fashioned school uniforms. In case anybody had forgotten what the main theme of the congress was, numerous couples with small children were also parading around with baby carriages.
The opening ceremony attracted some prominent local figures, known in Poland for their conservative views. But the main attraction, President Lech Kaczynski, was a no-show. Guests and speakers included Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, children's rights government representative Ewa Sowinska, former speaker of the Polish parliament Marek Jurek and Minister of Education Roman Giertych. In addition, the bad boy of the Polish far-right and a fierce opponent of gay rights, Wojciech Wierzejski clapped along. A former member of the European Parliament for the ultra-conservative League of Polish Families, photographs of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Wierzejski have appeared in a local newspaper making the notorious roman salute, commonly associated with Nazism. Before a recent gay rights demonstration he said, "If the deviants start demonstrating, they need to be bashed with a thick stick." Next to him sat the Polish MP Tomasz Cymanski of the Law and Justice party, who is best known for listing his stay-at-home wife among his material possessions in the required parliamentary record.
Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz opened the proceedings quoting Pope John Paul II. The thin, brittle line between the public role a politician plays and the private views she or he may have was quickly crossed. The political program of Mrs. Gronkiewicz's party, Citizen's Platform, has never been particularly pro-family in terms of economic benefits and tax regulations. Her appearance at an event where homophobic and other conservative views are presented so openly clashes harshly with the image of her own center-right party, predominantly reasonable in its thinking, moderate in its views and unafraid of, if not supportive of, the European Union.
In a significant embarrassment to the conference organizers, the much-heralded keynote address by Polish President Lech Kaczynski did not happen. Instead, he sent Mrs. Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka (the Undersecretary of State in the president's office) to read out his speech. Mrs. Junczyk-Ziomecka expressed Mr. Kaczynski's concern about the growing number of families with only one child or no children at all. He blamed increased wealth, a lack of respect for the authority of the state and an increase in self-centeredness for the relative small family size that predominates today. With perhaps typical hubris, he failed to note which if any of these factors prevented him and his wife from having more than one child.
The Polish Minister of Education Roman Giertych focused on his usual favorites. Repeating themes he has raised on several previous occasions, he railed against a world that he claims promotes "homosexuality, pornography and other deviations." But, he stressed, this world was coming to an end, to be reborn through the family and people who want to protect traditional values. He demanded the introduction of a new global charter of rights for the family which would include a definitive statement that murder was always a crime, no matter if it affected a three-month-old child or a fetus three months before birth. Giertych spoke as if his proposals would soon become Polish law-a somewhat optimistic assumption, considering that his party is a minor coalition partner, usually forced to vote according to the wishes of the Law and Justice party. He continued by calling for the school system to be freed of any references to non-traditional family types and announced that next week a law will be introduced prohibiting any type of "homosexual propaganda" in schools. This is clearly worrying at any level, but knowing that for Giertych and his supporters even science-based classes about contraception can be labeled as homosexual propaganda, it is especially so. Giertych concluded that the state must fund school education "about life and that abortion is a crime which should be severely punished." Giertych has been the subject of student demonstrations outside his home, with people objecting to what they see as efforts to introduce more religion into education and attempts to tamper with high standards for admission to universities.
Adding his thoughts on abortion, Marek Jurek, the former speaker of the Polish parliament and a devout Catholic who sometimes attends traditional Roman Rite masses, told the gathered audience that E.U. institutions accuse Poland of "not forcing doctors to perform a prenatal child homicide." He was one of several Polish speakers to stress that the international participants in the conference came to Warsaw for the WCF because Poland is seen as a country which wants to protect the rights of the family.
Ewa Sowinska, the government representative for children's rights, proudly reminded the congress that on the basis of a January 2000 law, she had the legal duty to care for the life of every child from the moment of conception. (Sadly, the law does indeed include such a duty as part of her job description.)
The long-awaited speech from Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant U.S. secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, was banal in the extreme, having been very carefully written to avoid any controversial statements.
Sauerbrey was the subject of protests from members of the European Parliament because of her attendance at the event. She claimed that most U.S. efforts to support the family came via its foreign policy and spoke extensively about refugees and the work of her bureau in their support. While she mentioned educating boys and girls, the education of women seemed highly important to her in the context of motherhood-educating young women about the importance of family life would result in lower child mortality and improved domestic conditions, she claimed. Sauerbrey also discussed human trafficking-an issue the Bush administration has highlighted regularly. (For a discussion on this, see Jennifer Block's "Sex Trafficking: Why the Faith Trade Is Interested in the Sex Trade" in Conscience, Summer/Autumn 2004. In her concluding remarks, Sauerbrey asserted that the U.S. adamantly opposed interference with the right to found a family and claimed that China was an example of a country that did not support such a right. (For more information on this, read "The United Nations Population Fund in China: A Catalyst for Change.")
A musical interlude at this stage could have been construed as supporting child marriage, with clips from a Catholic television show for children called "Ziarno" shown on a big screen with a boy and girl, about five years old, walking in the meadow, holding hands and singing "We'll walk the world together as a husband and wife."
Later in the day, speakers gave textbook examples of manipulating information. Allan Schaefer of the Alliance for Separation of School and State tried to show how poor the quality of African public schools is by highlighting a picture of a man sleeping with his head on the desk. He claimed it was a public school teacher sleeping during his own lesson. What it really was, we don't know. Margaret Ogola, an advisor to the Catholic bishops in Kenya tried to make the case that homosexual unions are the biggest threat to the family and society in Africa. A tough one to swallow, given the well-documented problems with poverty and war in that continent.
The breakout session I attended, "The mother in the home and the new home economics" was standing room only. Jill Savage, executive director of Hearts at Home, an organization specializing in advice and support to "professional moms," presented. After praising the role of stay-at-home mothers at great length, she reassured those in doubt that a woman who has children in her twenties would still have plenty of time for pursuing a career after her children reach the age of 18. This idealistic, if not naïve, view does not gel with reality. While clearly a woman entering the workforce in her mid-forties for perhaps the first time in 20-odd years might still have a rewarding career, it's unlikely to have any similarity to one of a woman who has worked for much of that time, even if she has a good college degree under her belt. Another speaker, Carol Soelberg received a long and loud ovation when she said she was the mother of 13 children. During her presentation she very favorably quoted Oprah Winfrey, a mother of zero children, who encouraged women to recognize their important role as mothers.
The day ended with a concert by the children's group Arka Noego, which once played for Pope John Paul II. One of the adult leaders of the group-Robert Fredrich-was a heavy drinker by the age of 15. Following a stint in a heavy metal band called Acid Drinkers and serious health problems, he gave his life to God. He is now a father of seven and a devout Catholic. A perhaps fitting end to a day where extraordinary leaps of faith were required to make sense of much of the proceedings.
- Day Three: Back on Message, WCF Still Fails to Inspire
- Brief biographies of key Catholic speakers
- In Their Own Words: Quotes from the conference