A Catholic Politician in the Nordic Public Square

An interview with Timo Soini, leader of the main opposition party in the Finnish parliament

Timo Soini is an interesting and somewhat unusual figure in Finland’s political establishment: a Catholic who is not hiding his Catholic faith while living in a highly secularized society, nor mincing his words whenever he needs to uphold “non-negotiable values” relating to family, marriage, and life.

Soini is the driving force behind the exceptional surge of the Perussuomalaiset party (in English, the “Finns Party” or “True Finn Party”), which he has led since 1997. During the last general elections in April 2011, the Perussuomalaiset party won 39 seats (19.1%), a dramatic increase from their previous five. The party’s platform is based on “the right” of all members of society “to a life of human dignity”, as expressed in the English resume of the parliament’s official website.

“We are an independent, nationally minded party that presents an alternative and serves as a counterweight to non-criticism of the EU [European Union]”, the resume goes on, “standing on a foundation of Christian-social values”. Soini is a bit more specific in his Finnish blog, stating that he needs “nobody’s permission to be pro-life” and that “marriage should only be between a man and a woman”. His party’s recent success has revolutionized Finland’s political scenario, forcing an unusual alliance between the social democrats and the traditional right-wing conservative Kokoomus National Coalition Party seeking to keep Soini to be kept out of government so the latter party can remain the leading opposition party.

As a presidential candidate for the second time in the January 2012 presidential elections, Soini received the third most votes—almost 10% of the total. The unprecedented result of this political “earthquake” was that the socialist candidate was, for the first time, out of the run-off, causing the editors of Helsingin Sanomat, the largest subscription newspaper in Finland, to declare, “Timo Soini rewrote the electoral history books.”

Timo Soini graciously granted the following interview to Catholic World Report recently.

CWR: What can you tell us about your recent visit to Rome?

Soini: I was in Rome early this year, in April, and at the Vatican for the ordination of priests. It was celebrated by Pope Francis, and I was there with the Finnish Ambassador to the Holy See, Alpo Rusi. I also met cardinals Turkson and Tauran. It was very interesting; it was a real blessing that I could take that opportunity for a series of discussions. It was my third visit to Rome. I went there with my wife; we arrived on a Saturday and the following day we went to St Peter’s Basilica for the mass celebrated by Pope Francis and then returned home on Monday. We went to see the catacombs and to the Vatican museums, and our Ambassador to the Vatican made it possible for me to meet the two cardinals and then we went to the mass. Here in Finland we are more ordinary people and it is a real sensation for us to see so much luxury in terms of paintings and artistic masterpieces. I also met a friend of mine, Oskar Juurikkala, who is in Opus Dei and is studying to become a priest.

CWR: What was your reaction at the changing of Popes?

Soini: It was amazing when it happened. I was in the Main Parliament’s Building hosting a working dinner with a number of mostly Muslim ambassadors from Iraq, Egypt and other Maghreb countries. We were having our discussions that evening when the news came that white smoke was being puffed out of the pipe, and then of course I had to check a few minutes later to see who the new pope was going to be. Then there was the second message that the pope had been elected, and that it was Cardinal Bergoglio.

I must honestly say that I did not know who the pope was. I know some names, of course, but then when the dinner was over I rushed home and tried to find out more news through Google and other internet sources, and looked at whatever channels were available. That was really big news when Benedict stepped down, in a way it was shocking because you did not at first know why he is doing this. Is he ill? Why? But he explained the thing very well and I think he was strong to do it—not many, even popes, would have had such a courage, that say that due to health reasons, “I cannot do it.” Because the normal pattern has been that [the pope] will die in that office, and of course it was shocking with all the speculations and what we normally hear in Finland in the media about Catholics—the usual tirades and clichés on the Church being old fashioned, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, pedophilia-tainted and the like.

And I know it all too well, as a Catholic Christian politician I have gone through all of it. A good example of this was that when the Pope was in Brazil, it wasn’t the news that he met three million young people, it was kind of that the Pope was in Copacabana. And the other news was that the Pope said the homosexuals can be priests. Yes, they can, but in Finland just nobody dares to say that the homosexual act is a sin. And that is nothing special to Catholics; I can say it amid heavy criticism since I am Catholic. But if you are a Lutheran, you will be simply rejected.

CWR: Besides being a politician, you are also a writer. What are the ideas and purposes underlying your two books?

Soini: The first book [Maisterisjätkä, 2008] is a story about my background, the family I come from, when I joined politics, and also the circumstances of my conversion to Catholicism, which took place in Ireland in 1987. I never said or wrote details before of what happened, but I was in St Mary’s cathedral in Killarney in the southern part of Ireland in August 1987, when something happened while I was in that cathedral which prompted me into converting to the Catholic faith. But it is not so easy to convert in Finland, where it can take up to seven or eight months before the whole process is finalized. This is more or less what this book is all about.

But the new book is from 2008 onwards to date, from our beginning as a small party and myself being just an MP. And what has happened in the five years from our humble beginnings when the Finns Party was a little party and what happened, and when and why, within this spell of five years that now we are the most famous party outside Finland, the Finnish Party. The Finns Party is the most well-known party in Europe and also in America, because we are something different, because of this “eurocrisis”, and because of this landslide victory and in this book, to be published next spring [2014], I will tell a story, my view, what happened, why it happened, what kind of methods we are using as leadership, what kind of policies we are carrying out, and something about the development of this party, for example its rapid growth and all the problems which go with it as well. Many have predicted that when a party grows so much, it is not possible to keep it together, but after two years and four months we are still here in one piece. This is made possible by the fact that we have rules, and MPs have to abide by them, otherwise they are out. I am very strict on this and am not prepared to condone unbecoming or inappropriate behavior and/or statements.

CWR: There is the matter of controversial issues—

Soini: In fact, I am very strongly against so-called “homosexual marriage”, but I have nothing against homosexual people. All people are in a way sacred because of the sacredness of life, but marriage is only for a man and a woman—and this is big issue, up to the point that in Finland I am very much under attack for this. For example, because I am pro-life, I am openly against abortion. The Nordic welfare state does not tolerate that kind of thinking, because it would rather not to talk about it. Recently there was a very big, bad, and sad story on Finnish television about half of abortions being performed at home, and then they say women feel bad afterwards. But normally if you are losing a child you feel bad, but you are not allowed to say this kind of things aloud in Finland. If our party would like to take a pro-abortion line, I have already said I cannot sit as a chair of the party. And that is why we say that this is a matter of conscience, but I have said personally, I am against abortion. Those issues are also in the book.

Q. What is the position of the Catholic Church in Finland?

Soini: I am very satisfied that now we have a very good bishop, Teemu Sippo, who is not in a very easy position, because the publicity of the Catholic Church here in Finland is that [Catholics] do not tolerate contraception, hate homosexuals, are anti-abortion and the Church is full of pedophiles. Her reputation has been better; the so-called Murphy sex abuse scandal [after Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy, who died in 1998 and is alleged to have molested deaf boys in a school for deaf in Wisconsin] has done a lot of damage. I know that it is not the mainstream Church, just few rotten tomatoes; most of the priests, most of the nuns, and most of religious are decent, good people, but the label has been stamped.

The homosexuals are a very strong lobby in Finland. They know I am a lost cause, as in a way is also the Christian Democrat leader, Päivi Räsänen, for her opposition against abortion and gay unions. They are used to us, but if anybody else in politics should or had courage to say these things, he or she would be viciously attacked. When you are doing abortion at home, you are poisoning your child and then flushing that child down the lavatory. That is what happening and you dare not criticize it. In Finland, if I want to make headlines this evening, I would simply have to say that abortion is a sin. Of course it’s a sin! If somebody is asking me about it, I would say that this is not just Timo Soini speaking—but people do not understand that if you join the Catholic Church, the faith is then Catholic faith and since I am a practicing Catholic that means that I am following Church teachings, it’s as simple as that.

But Finnish people are thinking that when you are member of a Church, you can still have whatever opinion you like. But this is not Christianity; that is your own religion. And they are very strict in the sense that if you are a politician, then politics and these kind of issues are to be totally separated. But how can you separate abortion, marriage, and the like? We have an initiative in this House to legalize so-called “gay marriages” in Finland; it is approaching.

When I was in the Vatican, bishops told me that we should not even use the words “gay marriage”, because it is totally unacceptable: marriage is only between a man and a woman. It’s a same-sex relationship, and by no means a marriage. But this is a very hot topic and is pushed by a very, very strong lobby. Everybody who dares to somehow object, in the Lutheran Church or in the political realm, will be viciously attacked, like Päivi Räsänen was this summer.

CWR: Can you elaborate a bit on her?

Soini: She is a Lutheran, and is national chairman of the Christian Democrat Party (Kristillisdemokraatit), a small party of the government coalition, and she is a Cabinet Minister, Minister of Internal Affairs. Politically speaking, she has a very high profile and is very brave, but I have to say that most of the people don’t like her. She is a real character. For example she sparked an uproar by accusing the abortion law of providing more protection to animals than unborn human babies in Finland. Räsänen, who is also a medical doctor, says that a fetus at the age at which Finland allows abortion is not a piece of tissue without emotion, but an individual who can feel pain. Whereas Finnish law provides that animals being slaughtered must be killed painlessly, she said that Finnish politicians will not even discuss the pain that fetuses can feel during abortion. Räsänen is also on record for having claimed that healthcare workers should have the right to conscience objection, since Finland and Sweden are the only two countries in Western Europe in which healthcare workers do not have this right.

In Nordic countries—not only in Finland, but also Sweden, Norway and Denmark—abortion is a topic which is not discussed; in other words it’s taboo. Because if you discuss about it, then when does a fetus become a human being? We know that life begins at the moment of conception, but how can you define that within 20 weeks you can abort it, but in thirty weeks you will charged of murder? I think that this can only be changed by changing the heart of men and women, and not through legislation. When I was running as a president, they were all over me. I said I am pro-life against abortion, but apparently they were not interested in that, they insisted on asking how do you feel if you have a 14-year -ld daughter who gets pregnant after having been raped: would you accept her child? That kind of rhetoric was used and I replied, “OK that is a tough question and I cannot judge anybody.” But 97% of abortions are socially motivated, 2% is disease-related and 1% can be the result of pedophilia, rape, incest. But they do not want to talk about this 97%; they want to talk about this 1%.

CWR: You spoke about an approaching initiative to legalize so-called “same-sex marriage”. What is it about?

Soini: Yes, there is an initiative for the present legislation, which allows the registration of same-sex partnerships, to be “upgraded”, if we may say so, into a legislation allowing full-fledged homosexual marriages. Of course, they say the Church, the Lutheran Church will not be forced to bless such “marriage”, but as Catholics we know that marriage is a sacrament, with all which goes with it. One of the main differences between homosexual partnership, or union, and marriage is in terms of adoption, which is the next step. Under the present legislation, if two men who were married with children decide to form a homosexual union may adopt only their previous existing children, but if gay marriage is enacted, such restriction will fall away.

CWR: Is there anything you would like to convey to our readers?

Soini: As chairman of the Parliament’s Commission for Foreign Affairs, last January I led a delegation of MPs to Jakarta, Indonesia, where we had lots of meetings with local leaders, such as ministers, politicians, and businessmen. But my special interest is with the protection of minorities and in Indonesia there are 240 million people, of whom 220 million are Muslim, 10 million are Protestant and seven million are Catholic. And I said to our Ambassador that I want to meet the Archbishop of Jakarta as a representative of a religious minority and that was an official part of the programme of our delegation. The whole of our delegation attended the Jakarta cathedral and we met the Archbishop of Jakarta; we visited the cathedral’s museum and I must say that the leader of its museum, Mrs. Susyana Suwadie, particularly struck me.

It was like when I went to the Catholic Church 25 years ago. There was a nun and when I went there the lady asked me first, as chairman and representative of the committee: do you want to pray now or later? And this is something the Finnish delegations are not facing in any way, and it was about 25 years ago and I said let’s take this presentation and I’ll pray later. She was magnificent since she had the courage to say that kind of thing to a head of delegation she had never met. Because usually one would say this church dates back from the nineteenth-century, the ceiling is so-and-so, the organ is this, and so forth. But she asked me, the Chairman, “Mr. Soini would you like to pray now or later?” She was there for me; that was very moving, and that is something good to us Catholics when we go throughout the world. The mass is the same, the faith is the same, because the Christian faith is not connected to your nationality. We don’t have the Finnish Catholic Church, because it’s the Catholic Church in Finland.

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About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.