Eyes are on Rome in the coming weeks as the Catholic Church goes about the undeniably fascinating process of choosing its next pope. But there's some pretty fascinating "Catholic" stuff going down in New York right now at the United Nations, which is holding its 57th annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
This year's topic is violence against women. No surprise, the delegates are univocally against it, including the delegates from the Holy See's "Permanent Observer" Mission at the U.N. In this connection, the Holy See has urged nations around the world to recognize women's inalienable right "to life" and to "security," rights articulated in the justly admired Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What might be surprising to most Americans are some of the additional and genuinely bold human rights positions staked out by the Holy See at this conference. These are positions likely to make more than a few developed nations more than a little uncomfortable.
Take, for example, the Holy See's position on health care and medicine. The Church is arguing for a "right" to basic health care in situations involving violence against women and men. Not to mention a "right" to medicines for populations which are either in danger, or unable to afford a medicine they desperately require for their health. These of course are not new positions, as Catholic institutions have been at the forefront of providing health care for victims of violence in all corners of the globe for centuries, but they are consistent positions which put people in need ahead of interests in profit.
The Holy See is also requesting global agreement to oppose forced sterilization and forced abortions. In light of recent stories about the brutal treatment of mass-sterilized women in India, forced abortions in China, and Israel's forcing contraception on Ethiopian immigrants, these provisions seem urgent and timely.
On another neuralgic issue -- migration -- the Holy See has staked out an extraordinarily progressive position by supporting special assistance to women migrants and even going further by urging assistance not only to documented migrant women, but to the undocumented. Hurting women are hurting women, human beings in need of assistance, documented or not. This is not the only place the Catholic Church is making noise for taking leadership on the migration issues; take, for example, the announcement last week by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to dedicate $1 million to mobilizing Catholics for comprehensive immigration reform.
The Holy See is also standing firm on the protection of women's freedom of religion, belief, conscience and thought. After all, around the world, surveys repeatedly show that women value their religious practice more than or equally with men. The Catholic Church is well aware of attempts to justify harm to women under the cloaks of "custom" or "religion." But there are intelligent and simple ways of distinguishing harmful practices from all others, without throwing out religion with the bathwater.
Whether or not the Holy See succeeds in convincing some of the most privileged countries in the world that the "right to life" and "security" should be extended to women and men before birth as well as after, or whether such nations push for abortion rights under the guise of other language ("safe abortion," "sexual rights," "reproductive rights"), the wider world should be more familiar with the extraordinarily strong human rights platform proposed at the U.N. by the global Catholic Church.