By Marco Appel
Proceso Mexico, 12 June 2006
Translated by Barbara D. Wood of the National Secular Society
Spanish original: processo.com.mx
BRUSSELS, 12 June 2006 (Apro) After failing in its attempt to ensure that the European Constitution refer to Christianity, the Vatican is now trying to finalise a bilateral agreement - in ecclesiastical jargon, a concordat - with Slovakia. The nature of this treaty has raised significant concern among experts in international law and the defence of human rights.
And the reason? This concordat includes a broad definition of 'conscientious objection on religious grounds', one which threatens to legalise serious violations of the human rights of Slovaks by placing God's law above the national laws of a country where 70% of the population is Catholic. This attempt by the Vatican is without precedent.
In fact, it was the refusal by Prime Minister Mikulás Dzurinda of the Christian and Democratic Union party to sign this agreement that caused the ultraconservative Christian Democratic Movement to leave the government coalition on February 6th this year. This forced Dzurinda to call elections and these take place on June 17th. The new ideological makeup of the government will settle the outcome of the controversial concordat.
The national laws of countries in the European Union recognize the right of individuals to refuse to carry out acts that are contrary to their religious beliefs, as does the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, in no way is this right legally valid if infringes on the rights of others, yet this is exactly what the Vatican is attempting to impose in Slovakia.
In the agreements already endorsed between the Vatican and Portugal, Italy and Latvia, conscientious objection on religious grounds is limited to certain members of the clergy in respect of obligatory military service. Such military service, however, has recently been abolished in both Portugal and Italy and in the case of Latvia, it only applies to students of the Senior Seminary of Riga and to novices in certain other congregations. The concordats with Austria, Lithuania, Malta, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Spain do not refer to the concept of 'a conscientious objector' and other countries such as France, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Greece have all refused to enter into concordats with the Holy See.
But the draft of the Slovak concordat, signed in March 2003, brief as it is, - it consists of only 10 articles in a scant three pages - is nevertheless explosive. In the second paragraph of Article 6 it declares that 'conscientious objection used wrongly should not bring with it protection from legal responsibility'. However, the first paragraph of the same article states that the person exercising such conscientious objection 'should not be subject to legal responsibility.' The obvious question, which the document does not answer, is: 'who judges what is 'right' or 'wrong' usage'?
Article 4 is the most problematic. The first sentence lists what actions can be refused by citing religious conscientious objection. As well as including those serving in the armed forces, even in cases of general call-up, it also applies to 'certain acts in the area of medical care, in particular abortion, artificial or assisted fertilisation, experiments involving human organs, human embryos and cells, euthanasia, cloning, sterilisation or contraception'. Other areas include 'activities in the field of education', the 'provision of legal services' and 'labour laws and work-related issues that may fall within the considerations of the treaty'. And it goes on. In the second sentence the Republic of Slovakia undertakes not to impose obligations in these areas in hospitals and health centres funded by, or under the auspices of, the Catholic Church. And all of this without the slightest reference to the fact that the national Constitution grants women the right to abortion, in vitro fertilisation and contraception.
If ratified, the agreement will lead, in some situations, to an unprecedented infringement of democratic rights. For example, as a broadcast on International Slovak Radio highlighted, a Catholic employee who decided to exercise their right to conscientious objection by refusing to work on a Sunday and was subsequently dismissed, would, in all probability, succeed in being reinstated if they took their case to a labour tribunal.
Muriel Fraser is the editor of Concordat Watch, a website that critically examines Vatican concordats in relation to church-state separation and human rights. Fraser told Apro that the crucial point is that the agreement will allow the conscience of a Catholic to override the rights of other citizens. She explains: 'It will affect the rights of Slovak women to access legally established medical services, such as abortion and contraception. In addition, it will undermine the right to access reliable medical information. This is particularly dangerous, when one recalls the disturbing declaration by John Paul II stating that the presence of holes in condoms rendered them useless against the transmission of the Aids virus, something which has never been scientifically proved'.
These problems are not new. The Slovak press, for example, has extensively documented the existence of numerous hospitals all over the country that do not carry out abortions or provide family planning advice. An article by Katerina Richterová, published on June 21st 2005, referred to one of the best known public hospitals in Bratislava. The director of this institution told the journalist: 'For over a year now we have been telling anyone who comes here for an abortion that they had better go elsewhere'.
The concordat, if it is signed, will legalise the abuse of this human right.
Beyond the Law
Concern has been expressed world-wide. On April 20th last year, 129 organizations, made up of medical professionals, Catholic activists and academics from the United States, Europe, Australasia and Latin America, sent a letter to the Slovak Prime Minister, Mikulás Dzurinda, asking him not to ratify the treaty. Mexican signatories included: María Eugenia Romero, executive director of Gender Equality: Citizenship, Labour and Family, María Consuelo and Gillian García, director and coordinator respectively of Catholics for the Right to Decide, and Guadaloupe López García, coordinator of the Organization of Lesbians. The letter warned that the concordat violated the principle of separation of Church and State, confirmed in Article 1 of the Slovak constitution, as well as the International Convention for the abolition of discrimination against women.
The letter went on to expose something even more worrying: the fact that international law considers the Vatican to be a state like any other and therefore, that treaties with it acquire the status of an international treaty. As such, the provisions of a concordat would enjoy priority or precedence over Slovak laws and internal judicial procedures. The result: 'Catholics would be able to interfere in all state legislation, violating judicial impartiality and thereby creating two legal systems, one for Catholics and another for everyone else' says Fraser.
Alarm bells have rung in the European Union. In a communication dated April 21st 2005, 52 members of the European Parliament - among them the former European Commissioner for Science and Technology, Belgian Phillippe Busquin, - expressed their deep concern and asked Dzurinda to reconsider his plans to ratify the concordat. Their tone was firm and they denounced any eventual agreement with the Vatican, saying it would harm and suffocate the construction process of the European Union, given that it would ignore both the European Charter and the European Convention of Fundamental Human Rights, which are seen as the heart of European integration.
The same objection would apply to Article 2 in the first chapter of the European Constitution, whose ratification process is not proceeding for the time being. And they add to this the violation of the principle of non-discrimination, as stipulated in Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam. Nor do they overlook the fact that Catholic beliefs would define what is considered conscientious objection and they reject this as inappropriate and unjustifiable. They conclude that the concordat clearly contradicts Slovakia's existing legal obligations as an EU Member State and furthermore 'article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU guarantees the freedom of conscience and conscientious objection in a framework compatible with a democratic society'.
Therefore, the European Parliament demanded the intervention of the group of independent experts in matters of fundamental human rights which was created in 2002 by the European Commission, part of the EU executive. Their opinion was published on December 14th 2005. In the document, 41 pages full of legal details and comparisons between the laws of EU member states, the group confirmed that Slovakia 'will find herself in flagrant violation of her obligations to the EU and the international community'. Such a treaty, they affirm, would conflict with the human rights of third parties, 'including those of women to receive certain medical services and advice without any discrimination whatever'. And they finish off by stating that 'there is a risk that conscientious objection in the arena of reproductive health will make it practically impossible, or at the least very difficult, for women to receive advice or treatment, especially in rural areas'.
Nevertheless, there is a small minority in the European Parliament that defends the position that Brussels should not involve itself in a decision over which an individual country has exclusive authority.
Muriel Fraser explains that the Vatican has established the objective of re-evangelising Western Europe - where the number of faithful is falling - using Eastern Europe as the platform. The drive to achieve this by political means, first by John Paul II and now his successor Benedict XVI, is such that it can be described as a veritable 'war for the souls of Europe' Fraser points out that it is easier to recover Europe by influencing, in the first instance, the ex-Communist countries because these are traditionally Catholic - 95% in Poland, 70% in Hungary and Slovenia and 88% in Lithuania - while at the same time their governments lack experience in dealing with the Vatican. Additionally, they tend to be less critical than Western European governments about pronouncements from the Church, as, for example, in relation to separation of Church and State. The Vatican's strategy is for Slovakia to be a 'Trojan horse' and concordats to be its 'weapons'.
Experts in this area agree that concordats give the Vatican three important benefits. First, they act as a judicial 'padlock' which in respect of internal legislation, guarantees privileges in matters of worship, finances and others. Second, concordats provide a way for such privileges, some with the advantage of substantial state subsidies, to escape democratic control because they cannot be monitored by members of parliament. And finally, concordats create a kind of theological fiefdom, in which there is no room for certain individual rights, says Fraser. And even worse, these rights cannot be reinstated without the Church's consent, since concordats can only be revised with the agreement of both parties.
John Paul II's first visit to the former Czechoslovakia was shortly after the so-called Velvet Revolution in November 1989 which ended Soviet domination. After visiting the Czech capital, Prague, he went to Bratislava in the Slovak side part of the federation. To the amazement of everyone he kissed the ground at the foot of the aircraft steps, as if it were an independent and separate country. The highly symbolic gesture was engraved forever in the minds of the Slovak ruling class and when Czechoslovakia was broken up in 1993 it surprised no one that the first government of an independent Slovakia publicly thanked the Pope for his diplomatic support. In fact, the Slovak bishops made sure they played a key role in the self-determination movement during that time and when it looked as if a proposed referendum would threaten independence the bishops were steadfastly opposed to it. This is seen as one of the reasons that the Czech Republic is so hostile to any kind of agreement with the Holy See, and besides, the number of non-believers in that country is 40%, in other words, 1% more than those who follow Benedict XVI.
Others outside the Church point to even more sinister goings-on; it is said that John Paul II, with the support of right wing politicians and a group of revisionist historians in Slovakia, continually fostered the supposed strong historical link between the Catholic Church and the Slovak nation, with the aim of increasing influence over the population. Furthermore, they say that the Vatican has popularized the idea that Slovakia's 'golden age' coincided with a dominant Catholic Church, that is to say, between 1939 and 1945, when, according to Fraser, Slovakia was practically a Nazi protectorate. During this time, under the mantle of the Vatican - the president was a priest, Monsignor Tiso - 70,000 Slovak Jews were deported. At the end of the war Tiso was executed as a traitor and war criminal.
The pope went to Slovakia for a second time, in 1995. During this visit, according to the respected humanist academic, Ladislav Hubenak, John Paul II told the then Slovak Prime Minister, Vladimir Meceir that in this country 'a new model will be founded with the establishment of a society respectful of Christian values which will influence the future of the world'.
Two years later, during Slovak elections, the Vatican sent Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, its Foreign Minister and an expert on concordats, to instruct Slovak bishops how to negotiate with the government. Since that time the Vatican has signed three concordats with Slovakia and, while the outcome of the fourth remains uncertain, Fraser warns that its very existence is a dangerous precedent for countries with Catholic majorities, like Mexico, posing a threat to democratic values.