A Smidgen of Sophists – World Congress of Families, Sydney 2013

As a young woman, I felt strongly that, should I have an unplanned pregnancy, I would not want to have an abortion.

But then the day came when, duped by a man who told me he was sterile, I agreed to unprotected sex when I was not on the pill. The next day this wicked Welsh charmer blithely told me he’d ‘made up’ the part about being sterile.

I fell into a panic. The very last thing I wanted was to be pregnant to this bastard who’d so easily lied to get into my pants! Sure, I’d been stupid, but should I really have to pay for that moment of stupidity for the rest of my life?

I visited the Family Planning Clinic and they gave me a ‘morning after’ pill. I’m not even sure if it was legal then, but they gave it to me. The relief was overwhelming.

Fortunately – more by good luck than good planning – I was never in the position of needing to have an abortion. But, this incident clarified my position in the pro-life, pro-choice debate. I realised you really don’t know how you’re going to feel about an unwanted pregnancy until you’re faced with it. When it’s a purely academic question, you might think you would never have an abortion, but the truth might be quite different when you’re faced with the reality of an unwanted pregnancy.

I came to the view that, regardless of what my personal choice  might be, I couldn’t know in what circumstances other women might be making their decisions. Whether or not I’d choose an abortion for myself was immaterial. It was a woman’s right to make her own decision – ideally in consultation with  a doctor whose only interest was what was best for their patient. I became pro-choice.

So, I was delighted this week when a friend put me in touch with David Nolan, director of communications for the Washington-based, Catholics for Choice. I am always happy to work with and promote the efforts of religious organisations which challenge the antediluvian views of their fundamentalist frères.

According to their website, Catholics for Choice:

“… was founded in 1973 to serve as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health.”

With a not-inconsiderable budget of $3 million per year, Catholics for Choice imagines a world:

  • Where all women and men are trusted to make moral decisions about their lives.
  • Where the decision to start a family is thoughtful and planned.
  • Where policy makers and advocates are free to support policies that create a more just and compassionate society.
  • Where life-saving health interventions aren’t blocked by sectarian interests.
  • Where abortion is safe, legal and truly accessible, and both contraception and child care are available and affordable.

Instead, they argue, we live in a world:

  • Where abortion remains illegal or unavailable for millions of women around the world, even when it could save their lives.
  • Where a woman who needs emergency contraception at a hospital or pharmacy is denied because of the religious beliefs of the pharmacist behind the counter, or the nurse in the emergency room.
  • Where policy makers are ostracized in their churches and harassed by their clergy because of their support for sex education or reproductive healthcare for poor women.
  • Where a rape survivor in a war torn country can be told by the Vatican that she must continue the pregnancy that resulted from her attack.
  • Where more than 40 million people live with HIV and AIDS while the Vatican lobbies against the use of condoms.

“In all parts of the world,” says Catholics for Choice, “women, men and their families suffer because they lack the resources to plan their families, and the comprehensive information and education to keep themselves safe and healthy.”


The Catholic hierarchy’s powerful lobby plays a huge role in influencing public policy and affects everyone  Catholic or not  by limiting the availability of reproductive healthcare services worldwide.”


The Catholic hierarchy’s ban on contraception and abortion has a disastrous impact on women’s lives, especially the lives of poor women who may rely solely on government-run programs for access to reproductive healthcare services.”

Unlike Mother Church, Catholics for Choice recognise that:

“It is women and their families who pay the price every time theocracy trumps democracy in the debate over women’s healthcare.”

Hear! Hear! This is a theme I’ll be returning to in my next blog post about Catholic dogma and medicine in Australia.

Currently, the World Congress of Families is being held in Sydney and Catholics for Choice has a number of delegates attending and reporting back on the disinformation and propaganda being perpetuated as part of this fundamentalist talk-fest.

leaveittobeaveronlineYou see, the World Congress of Families hasn’t been convened to support all families – just the ones who fit with their closed-minded, fundamentalist Christian/orthodox Catholic view of what a ‘natural’ family is. Theirs is a “Leave it to Beaver” concept of the family; a concept which, to be frank, the rest of us discarded along with Leave it to Beaver reruns, back in the 70s.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics attests, not only does the “Leave it to Beaver” family no longer exist – it never existed. It is an idealised, sentimental, entirely fictional, utopian view of family life which suppresses the dysfunction which is, too often,  a hidden feature of the much vaunted nuclear, patriarchal, ‘traditional’ family.

If your family consists of two mums or two dads, a single mum or dad, one or more step- or adoptive parents, or even, perhaps, a family with two dads and two mums yours is not the kind of family the World Congress of Families want to protect – although they certainly have a unhealthy interest in discussing how very bad you are for your kids!

What the World Congress of Families is really about is finding ways to  impose its own narrow, religious view about what a family is on the rest of society. A big clue about that agenda  is that day one of the proceedings included a Greeting to WCF VII from the Vatican, followed by a few words from Archbishop Paglia (speaking via video), on behalf of the Pontifical Council on the Family.

This is not a kumbaya, everyone is beautiful, celebrate diversity kinda gig! It’s a pursed lip, tut-tut, ‘it would never have done for the Bishop – it would never have done for His Grace’ kind of affair.

Looking through the program, there’s a host of the ‘usual suspects’ whose mission in life is to impose their religious doctrine upon those of us who don’t share it: Bill Muehlenberg (sigh!), Angela Shanahan (groan!), Miranda Devine (*eye roll*), David van Gend (unprintable!), Miriam Grossman (unspeakable!), Nicholas Tonti-Filippini (flippin’ heck!), Mary-Louise Fowler (conference chair and also head of the Australian Family Association), Peter Westmore and Pat Byrne (president and vice-president of the National Civic Council – ’nuff said!)  … and so on, ad nauseum.

MissionaryIf you put ’em all in a pot, melted ’em down ( missionary style!), drained off the contam-inated water and served up the rest, you’d have a nice big bowl of unadulterated bigotry, balderdash and bile; the three major food groups for would-be religious zealots.

What is heartening is that the vast majority of Christians don’t agree with the bullshit being cast about with gay abandon at the WCF.

For example:

Not to put too fine a point on it, despite it’s rather grand sounding name, the World Congress of Families is a neighbourhood meeting for a fringe group of religious fundamentalist bigots and theocrats; people who hold an extreme minority view on issues relating to the family and who want to impose that view, through policy, on the rest of us.

So, it’s wonderful that Catholics for Choice are there taking notes and holding their feet to the fire.

Catholics for Choice describe the World Congress of Families as a ‘festival of verbal and logical hijinks’ and their reports on the hijinks are highly entertaining.

The Introductory Report  suggests that, even amongst its followers, the World Congress for Families has gone off  with all the force of a (rather pathetically organised) damp squib:

“The 2013 World Congress of Families (WCF) kicked off in Sydney a few hours ago to little effect, even among its own. Hours after the opening ceremony welcomed attendees, neither the website, the Twitter feed nor the Facebook page mentioned great speeches, rousing applause or magnificent crowds. In fact, each still had the conference as starting in the future and was holding out hope for more registrants, with the long-extended early bird price open to every bird.”

According to Catholics for Choice:

“Australian columnist Phil Scott, writing for Gay News Network, has provided the best description so far of the organizers: “This organisation hails from Rockford, Illinois, courtesy of the Howard Centre for Family, Religion and Junk Mail. They believe in the ‘natural family’ (heterosexual variety) and promote reparation therapy for homosexuals. Reparation comes from the verb ‘to repair.’ Did you guys know you were broken? Funny, neither did I. Guess it depends on your perspective.”

But it seems likely that all that good advice on how to force women to have children they don’t want and how to turn gay people straight has not found a large, receptive audience in Sydney. Catholics for Choice note the rising desperation in the tone of the Congress’s correspondence as the opening day drew closer:

“The World Congress of Families 7 Sydney is almost upon us and as you COUNT DOWN the days to the Congress, the Organising Committee is COUNTING UP the participants—we need your help….[We] would like to see double the number of delegates registered … to know that this Congress is on track.”

GAC CrowdFunny, we didn’t have that kind of problem with the Global Atheist Convention – we filled the enormous space of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. It was wall to wall heathens!

Catholics for Choice report on Day One of the proceedings is now published, and subsequent reports will be up on their website soon.  Apparently, the Sydney WCF has attracted – wait for it – around 250 delegates.  With 84 keynote and invited speakers on the program, that’s a ratio (at best) of about 3 audience members per speaker. (Chrys suppresses an almost uncontrollable urge to let loose with a loud, manical laugh):

When I was working in the theatre we used to refer to this kind of pathetically small turnout as an ‘audient’ – too small to be referred to with the collective noun, ‘audience’.

Still, you’d expect those who did attend to be enthusiastically in favour of speakers who barrack for the ‘natural’ (aka heterosexual) family. But, says Catholics for Choice, the speeches are getting less than a luke-warm reception.  For example, Australian Bishop, Peter Elliot’s, “celebration of the family, used as a justification for keeping the status quo ante on all issues of marriage and sexuality, was not met with the enthusiastic reception one would expect from the family’s staunchest protectors. Instead, we had silence.”

According to the Catholics for Choice spies observers:

“Throughout the day various forms of tortured reasoning, often the hallmark of conservative politics, were in evidence. They included the mistaking of correlation for causation; fallacious appeals to nature (sometimes known as the “is-ought” problem); selective empiricism; and the “best defense is offense” tactic of ascribing one’s own moral failings to others.

Time and time again, speakers would contend that the very existence of the family constellation with which they are most comfortable was proof that this type of family was both inevitable and morally correct.”

Commenting on the speakers’ contortions as they tried to ram ‘square-peg’ academic research into ideological round holes (ooh, that sounds slightly salacious doesn’t it?) Catholics for Choice report on ‘appalling breaches of academic rigor and honesty’ and “data” produced by ideologically driven research which ‘mistakes moral rigidity for scientific rigor’. Why am I not surprised?

The whole thing sounds rather sad and underwhelming. The problem is, apparently, that even those who are attending this sorry symposium realise their defence of the ‘natural family’ simply isn’t gaining traction; not in society nor even with their fellow Christians. They are ideological outliers – a rapidly diminishing population of social pariahs. An iota of extremists. A morsel of monomaniacs. A pinch of puritans. A tiddy-bit of traditionalists. A zero-population of zealots.  A smidgen of sophists.

As Catholics for Choice insightfully conclude:

“Once the door closes with a bang on all the groups who aren’t ‘our sort of people’, you’re left shut in with only people like yourself to talk to, and what is there to say?

If today was any indication, there’s a lot of silence and not much substance.”

If you’d like to be kept up to date on the World Congress of Families Sydney, 2013, email djnolan at catholicsforchoice dot org and ask to be put on their WCF mailing list. I know they’d like to spread the word.

Chrys Stevenson

10 thoughts on “A Smidgen of Sophists – World Congress of Families, Sydney 2013

  1. Veronique

    Reblogged this on V's Blog and commented:
    Thanks to Chrys, I now know about this organisation. It is so heartening when the Catholics understand when they have to live their lives in the reality that we actually live in.

  2. john lake

    When there are millions…many millions…of Roman Catholics in the world, whose lives are being destroyed by the Pope and co, how can we Humanists rise up more forcefully to counter them. Slowly, slowly catchee monkey…but maybe the Sunday Assembly to take on all the ratbags???

  3. Jayel

    Aah, this did my heart good! I felt the smile on my face broaden to a Cheshire Cat-like grin to hear that not only are some Catholics organising to protest the interfering and judgmental teachings of their ‘leaders’, but also that events such as the World Congress of Families are finding it hard to rally many troops to their cause, at least in Australia (is it possible that most of the audience were ‘spies’? :-)).

    Still puzzles me why the more progressive Catholics stick with their church and label, though.

  4. dcarm85

    Insightful, funny, informative. Most importantly, hope-inspiring! There *are* rational Christians out there who shun their loonies like we do – and they’re organised and funded!!!

    1. Jayel

      Surprisingly, the moderator of the site has posted some comments that I made, one of which points out a factual error in their declaration. Seems that Dr Lennon is not the only one who is loose with the truth.

  5. Jayel

    Chrys, it’s the link in my comment of May 22


    They cite the universal declaration of human rights and its statement on marriage, presumably as support for their position, and claim that it is “signed by every nation on earth”. I wondered if this were actually the case, did a quick Google search and came up with a link to the page of United Nations Association of Canada which states that “Since the Declaration is not legally binding technically, there are no signatories to the Declaration. Instead, the Declaration was ratified through a proclamation by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948 with a count of 48 votes to none with only 8 abstentions. This was considered a triumph as the vote unified very diverse, even conflicting political regimes.”

    I see I’ve already got two down votes for my efforts!!! 🙂


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