UN Agencies Agitate For Change Within Religions

By Stefano Gennarini, J.D. | September 21, 2016

“Does religion matter to the Sustainable Development Goals conversation? Does tension between religion and sexuality help or hinder?”

Azza Karam of the UN Population Fund posed the question to a gathering of roughly 60 religious figures and representatives of faith based and other aid organizations that work on sexual and reproductive health policies on the margins of the ongoing United Nations General Assembly.

The event, titled “Keeping the Faith in Development: Gender Religion and Health,” was sponsored by three powerful UN agencies: UN Women, the UN Population Fund, and UNAIDS. Invited panelists were not shy about challenging religious authority

Lopa Banerjee of UN Women highlighted a “deep need to question the structures of patriarchy that continue within faith institutions and to challenge them from within.”

“Gender is not only about women and girls. It is a transformative vision for all of society,” she said. Banerjee made the case for working with religious groups in order to “reach” within societies and cultures to cement gains for the gender agenda and make them “irreversible.”

“We often feel a tension between human rights and religious rights. That comes to the question of patriarchy. We sustain our patriarchy usually on the backs of women” said Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was presented as the UN Population Fund’s “go-to rabbi.”

He urged religions to embrace a “common extra-religious moral authority” under the banner of the United Nations, human rights, and the sustainable development goals.

Rabbi Visotzky then reached in to his pocket and raised his arm high in the air and waved two condom packets.

“I picked them up in the bathroom, courtesy of UNAIDS,” he said with a grin, downplaying how Jews, Moslems and Christians alike had internal debates about the morality of contraception.

Then he added, “This is not only a useful thing to have in your backpack or pocket book but a symbol of the moral authority that unites us across different religious boundaries.”

“For decades the Roman Catholic hierarchy has been against reproductive health,” said Luca Badini-Confalonieri a theologian of the dissident Catholic group the Wijngaards Institute.

He presented a statement “On the Ethical Use of Contraceptives” signed by approximately 100 scholars that urged the Catholic Church to change its teaching on sexuality, including with regards to the morality of the use of artificial contraception, masturbation, homosexuality and in-vitro fertilization.

Badini-Confalonieri tried to make the case that the Church was not against the “spirit of reproductive health itself” but the “technical means of reaching the goal.” He said signatories of the statement included bishops, priests and nuns, all “committed” Catholics that “love the Church,” he said.

“Contraception for family planning purposes is not intrinsically evil” he explained was the conclusion of the statement. “Responsible parenthood”—which until now for the Church only meant Natural Family Planning—can be achieved by using “non-abortifacient modern contraceptives,” he added.

“The statement is not advocating promiscuity or population control!” said Badini-Confalonieri seeking to “ease concerns.” But even so, he said the Church should promote the use artificial contraceptives with a view to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Church should “emphasize the social dimension of responsible parenthood” and “being aware of consequences of fertility on society, economic development, and environmental sustainability.” He called this a “more community oriented understanding of responsible parenthood.”

Badini-Confalonieri explained the statement in almost evangelistic terms.

“Once the morality of artificial contraception is accepted the Catholic Church will become a powerful force to promote responsible parenthood,” he said.

No official representative of the Catholic Church was present at the event. Over 500 scholars published a statement in support of the Catholic teaching against the use of artificial contraception at the same time and on the same day.

Not all the panelists were quite as sanguine about supporting a single UN guided understanding of reproductive health, or about openly confronting religious authorities.

Imam Shamzi Ali, President of the Nusantara Foundation cautioned about the need to engage “mainstream religious society” and not just the fringe, and the need to respect differing views within religions.

Mr. Anwar Khan of Islamic Relief warned against simply “dumping condoms” with the message to “stop having more babies” on the developing world.

“This is very sensitives, especially with people of color” he said, adding that “we have to realize we are not all on the same page.” He also warned that respecting religious communities was essential. “We represent the majority. We can either be an obstacle or an assistance,” he said.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, a Hindu religious leader in the WASH Alliance for clean water, sanitation, and hygene highlighted how girls need sanitation in order to succeed. She did not endorse wholeheartedly the message of reproductive health, explaining how Hindu religion is quite traditional on sexual mores.

During question time a handful of Christian and Muslim religious leaders expressed disappointment that panelists did not address gender identity, homosexuality, and sexuality more broadly.

I asked the panelists if they did not see a problem in three powerful UN agencies supporting and publicizing the views of dissenting Catholic groups like the Wijngaards Institute, particularly in an environment where Catholic aid and charity organizations that do not provide certain drugs are threatened domestically by the government or shut out of the international aid machinery altogether.

I also asked if the “transformative vision” of gender that Ms. Banerjee of UN Women referred to also included transgender bathroom bills for the entire world. A draft resolution on the rights of children that is currently being negotiated at the United Nations has dropped a reference to the need of adequate and separate sanitation facilities for girls in school settings. Specifically, I asked Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati what she thought of this.

There was no time for panelists to respond. But after the event Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati agreed that it was not a good idea to export bathroom bills to developing countries.

Also at the event, Ms. Karam presented a new UNFPA manual titled “Religion, Women’s Health and Rights” that outlines the doctrinal positions of major world religions on abortion and contraception alongside other less contentious issues affecting women. The manual lists several express condemnations of abortion by Pope Francis and Canon Law in the section on Catholicism and abortion.

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