There is a place in Slovakia called Bardejovska Nova Ves where pro-lifers have erected a poignant monument to the Unborn Child. It portrays a weeping mother, on her knees before a translucent child figure, depicted extending its hand towards the mother’s head in a gesture of forgiveness.
The heartbreaking scene, placed at the geographical center of the European continent, brings home to observers the common cultural ground the remains at the end of the decades of fanatically enforced separation between West and East.
Reunified top-down a quarter of a century ago, Europe is now gradually coming together at the base, on the ethical battleground presided over by the central planners in Brussels, where people from both East and West have to choose sides and either adhere to the new anthropological paradigm or defend their convictions against growing encroachments on the rights of individual consciences.
The monument in Slovakia attests to the generations lost under totalitarian oppression, but also to the irrepressible will of the people clinging to their humanity. Today the ex-captives, now ostensibly free, are confronted by the soft policies of the secularist establishment entrenched in both supra-national bureaucracies and non-governmental global organizations, all working to expand their influence eastwards.
The issues in the West
The ethical issue that causes the most universal outrage, in both the East and the West, is the rampant financial corruption in political circles, an evil that no one questions. Instead, there are deep disagreements in the areas of “life issues,” the family, and education.
There is no lack of examples of what the assault on traditional principles in these areas can look like in the West. The attacks are repeated and progressive. One of the most recent was the “Estrela Report on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights,” a motion presented to the European Parliament by a Socialist MP from Portugal, Edite Estrela. This was a radical call for all member states to provide access to safe and legal abortion and ensure non-discrimination, health care, and “sexuality training.” After a protracted and strenuous battle, Estrela was defeated in December 2013 by a thin margin of seven votes, thanks to a sprinkling of Catholic Social Democrats, who on this occasion broke ranks with their party. Game over? Hardly. Last March 10, Belgian MP Marc Tarabella tabled a non-legislative report on “progress on equality between women and men in the European Union in 2013,” which again invoked “ready access to contraception and abortion.” But secularist enthusiasm was once again crushed on learning that it had been amended to include the principle of subsidiarity. Enshrined in Catholic social doctrine ever since Rerum Novarum, subsidiarity has become the bottom line of defense, as Catholics and conservatives of other extractions catch on to organized maneuvers in the governing bodies to pass policies increasingly subversive of common sense.
The inclusion of subsidiarity was a victory, but the struggle over the creeping sexualization of children is hardly over; it has merely been pushed back, and onto the battlefields of the single nations, where things are by no means less complicated. One is reminded of the roller-coaster standing of Ireland, which lost favor with Brussels when it proved recalcitrant to orders in a series of crucial referendums, but has recently recovered it as Irish voters, hammered with repeats of the same referendums, at long last started giving the “right” answers. The ground was thus prepared for loosening the constitutional ban on abortion, which the current government legislated to allow, in cases in which the woman is at risk of committing suicide.
The Estrela Report was based at least in part on a sex education document that came from even higher up than the Euro-parliament—a 68-page list of recommendations called “Standards for Sex Education in Europe,” published on the authority of the most exalted body in the realm of health care: the World Health Organization. Available online in 10 languages, the recommendations range from the need for babies and children 0-4 years old to learn masturbation skills, to the need for children ages 12-15 to learn about family planning, prostitution, and pornography while also being alert to “the influence of religion on decisions regarding sexuality.”
Although it has circulated in the name of the world’s maximum authority on health, “Standards” is actually the work of about a dozen sexology specialists and a German governmental organization, the Bundeszentrale fur gesundheitliche Aufklärung, BzgA (Federal Center for Health Information). This may be why it is addressed to Europe alone, although why there should be standards for sex education specifically for the European part of the planet is a bit of a mystery. The BzgA also raised eyebrows worldwide several years ago when it published a booklet extolling the benefits of parents sexually massaging their young children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, BzgA has close ties to International Planned Parenthood.
The issues to the East
The old term “Iron Curtain” indicated the invisible barrier that isolated nations held captive by the Communists as they smashed their cultures and did away with the middle classes. Even today, what we know about our neighboring nations to the East is colored by the broad brush strokes of common repression, with few specifics. This is especially true of each nation’s gradual emergence not just from material bondage, but from mental bondage as well; in many places only the most trusted card-carriers were allowed to learn Western languages, and particularly English, and the former ruling class has been allowed to hold on to positions of non-electoral power and influence in many places.
What we do know is that the people underwent a vicious and determined undermining of tradition, and particularly of the principles which, in recent years among Catholics, have come to be known as “non-negotiable”: life, the family, and education. Under the Soviet Union homosexual acts were illegal, but family roles and stability were also discouraged by forcing women into full-time work and children into daycare from the earliest infancy, while the increasingly redundant male population was encouraged to drink their cares away with reserves of vodka unaffected by the scarcity of other material goods.
Education replete with atheistic, Marxist indoctrination was hammered into youth from infancy through the university years. Abortion was a matter for statist intervention, but droves of women readily underwent the operation, in some cases even without anesthesia, rather than bring children into a world of misery.
On the whole, the bishops have been very outspoken about the need to resist and confront the authorities on matters pertaining to life, the family, and education, with some differences from country to country. The Hungarian Bishops’ Conference, for example, knows that the widely popular and very determined OrbÀn government will protect traditional morality. However, in most other countries the bishops have found themselves once more having to defend Christian ethics against the powers that be. One of these is Poland, today’s poster child for the EU and the biggest net recipient of EU funding. Despite the fact that Poland is not a member of the common currency, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has recently been named president of the European Council. Could it be that with the economy humming and the country gaining in respect, the secularists have a better chance to paint the Catholic Church as a meddling, kill-joy relic of the past? To be sure, the Bishops’ Conference has kept up its guard, delivering all sorts of acts of insubordination, including a letter to the faithful that was read in all the churches at Christmas in 2012, condemning gender ideology and raising awareness about the content of sex education courses. In 2014 the bishops upheld the conscience rights of anti-abortion physicians. Last January they voiced their opposition to the controversial Istanbul Treaty, with its promotion of progressive gender ideology. Only a few weeks ago, for Lent, they promoted a bold campaign against adultery, having billboards put up all over the country admonishing passersby, “Shacking up is a sin.” The media lampooned the campaign, as is to be expected, but in the land of Saint John Paul II, the clergy is hardly likely to stand down.
Sex ed hits the East
One of the first countries to bear the brunt of the onslaught on traditional morality that comes with membership in the EU was Croatia, where the purveyors of smut for kids in the guise of sex education found a resilient and determined Catholic Church, ready to lead parents in the struggle to protect their children.
In 2012 the new left-wing government under ex-communist Zoran Milanovic focused on a direct confrontation and a revolution of values which would have given Catholic Croatia one of the most radical legislatures in the world, while putting increasing limitations on the Church itself. The study of religion was abolished in some classes in secondary schools, as was the freedom to minister to the police and to the military, and the bishops had to fend off an attempt to abolish the exemption from obligatory testimony normally granted to priests out of respect for the sacrament of confession.
But what really aroused public furor was the imposition—from third grade to the end of high school—of a more radical sex education program than the one recommended by the specialists at the WHO. The curriculum was based on the principles of sexology of the notorious Kinsey Institute—third-grade pupils learned, hands-on, about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” touching; fourth graders were encouraged to recognize gender stereotypes and the discrimination of “sexual minorities”; the fifth-grade program analyzed masturbation; the sixth grade included the analysis of pornography and of how it “shows the gender roles of men and women.” Sex was constantly presented as just any other physical act without any moral connotation, the word “love” was mentioned only once, and no mention was made whatsoever of sex as a means of transmitting life.
When the adoption of sex education programs was announced in late September 2012, parents’ associations as well as the Church hierarchy quickly rose to the challenge, under the guidance of Zagreb’s archbishop, Cardinal Josip Bozanic. The Bishops’ Conference launched a series of lectures for parents in all dioceses and parishes, and on Christmas Day leaflets were distributed in all the churches, explaining things in detail and providing guidance to parents on what to do, including the last resort of withdrawing their children from these lessons, despite the fact that absences were considered “unauthorized.”
In the ensuing struggle, the bishops were subjected to a smear campaign in the press, and received warnings from the government against “meddling.” Teachers and principals were denied the right to conscientious objection and threatened with dismissal if they did not implement the program in its entirety. The end of 2012 was marked by a wave of dismissals of principals, and the sacking of a journalist from a public television station for showing a program criticizing the founder of the Institute of Sexology, Alfred Kinsey.
In May 2013 Croatia’s Constitutional Court abolished the law that had introduced the so-called “health education” program into the school system and thereby trampled on parental rights.
The intensity of the struggle can be judged by the fact that almost all the countries now sandwiched between a coercive new West and a coercive old East are dashing to lock the definition of marriage into their laws. More and more countries are taking action to include bans on same-sex marriage into their constitutions, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. An amendment of this kind is currently pending before Parliament in Macedonia.
This has not come easily. Take the example of Croatia, where an immense popular effort collected the signatures necessary to summon a referendum and push through an amendment to the Constitution defining marriage as a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman. But the Socialist government did its best to sabotage the poll and intimidate the “yes” advocates, changing the laws around in an attempt to turn the referendum into a non-binding consultation. Ultimately, however, in December 2013, 66 percent of voters were able to pronounce a resounding “yes” to the traditional definition of family.
Slovakia’s Parliament easily passed a constitutional amendment, but when the pro-family groups decided to take advantage of their momentum with a popular referendum, it backfired, not because of a turnaround in public opinion, but because of low turnout at the polls. Despite support from Pope Francis—whose words, “I wish to express my appreciation to the entire Slovak church, encouraging everyone to continue their efforts in defense of the family, the vital cell of society,” were plastered on posters everywhere—more than 90 percent of those who turned out voted “yes” but were not numerous enough to reach the necessary quorum.
That victory is never won once and for all was made plain by the referendum in Slovenia. Arguably the most westernized of the post-communist nations of Eastern Europe, the tiny Mitteleuropean country recently became the first to cave to pressure to ratify same-sex marriage. Although as recently as 2012 it had held a referendum on the same issues (and 55 percent of the voters had voted “no”), last December 51 Members of Parliament out of 84 voted to approve a similar bill of law, while outside there were 2,000 people demonstrating against it.
“Curbs on Abortion Spread Across East Europe” was the alarmist headline of a news report from Macedonia in 2013. Warning that a “virus” of restrictive abortion legislation was “spreading from Eastern Europe,” the article attributed this to “Church pressure and misguided government attempts to stop falling birth rates.”
Behind the Iron Curtain, it was not easy to have an abortion or even contraception. This was not because of moral or religious principles, but because of the statist concept of human beings as an impersonal work force, which led the government to offer incentives for having children. Some even resorted to more ruthless measures, such as in Romania, where the regime would force women to undergo medical examinations to see whether they were pregnant and to prevent them from having abortions.
In Russia, Lenin’s ideas carried the day and resembled the position of feminists all over the world: he considered abortion a matter of preventive medicine, to be counted among basic human rights. In 1920, Russia became the first country in the world to allow abortion in all circumstances, and after the restrictions of the Stalinist era, abortion was once again legalized.
But it was a life of unrelenting hard labor, in a stagnant economy, with poor daycare options and unhealthy lodgings, that very effectively discouraged women from having children under Soviet rule. Today, this mindset has melded with the materialism and agnosticism of the West, and the abortion trends have continued, undermining Russian demographics. As of 2010, according to UN data, Russia had the highest number of abortions per woman of child-bearing age in the world.
This situation may be what triggered increasingly strong statements and actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin on both abortion and gay rights. While Putin’s background as a former KGB agent is well-known, today he is arguably the most prominent world leader to oppose the Western drift toward an all-encompassing nihilism.
While there is understandable and vigorous debate over Putin’s motivations and intentions, his many words and acts in this direction warrant listing. He has banned all pro-abortion ads, forbidden the subjecting of minors to gay propaganda or to statements that condone “nontraditional” relationships, prohibited the adoption of Russian-born children by people living in countries where same-sex marriage is allowed, made it a criminal offense to insult the religious sensibilities of believers, and has even severely criticized other countries for legalizing marijuana. He has made explicit statements about the West’s “moral bankruptcy,” noting that:
the excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.
Putin’s speaking from a stage that is visible to the entire world has won him the admiration of many outside Russia who would otherwise have remained inimical to his name and worldview.
As ever, Russia’s policies are also echoed in those of its neighboring countries, and particularly Belarus. Having inherited abortion and a 50 percent divorce rate from Soviet times, but remaining relatively insulated from the more aggressive cultural inroads made by the West, Belarus has adopted some strong pro-family policies, such as shouldering 25 percent of the rent due by families with three children and providing free housing for families with four or more children.
Even in the secessionist Donbass area of Eastern Ukraine, the motivating issues go beyond the economy or the patriotism of the ethnic Russian population to include concern at the EU’s relentless drive to impose a secularist ethic on member countries. Significantly, the prospective Constitution drawn up for their hoped-for new Republic of Donetsk contains the following stark provisions: article 31.3 prohibits any and all forms of “perverse” unions between people of the same sex; article 9.2 declares the Orthodox faith professed by the Russian Orthodox Church to be the religion of State; article 6.5 declares that all political authorities are to respect the traditional religious, social, and cultural values of the “Russian world”; and articles 3 and 12.2 ensure the right to life from the moment of conception.
What these provisions are meant to stave off is made clear in the alarmed words of one of the leaders of the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, Aleksandr Matyushin:
In Europe they have sodomy, same-sex marriage, a fully degraded society. On the Continent the most widely used name for newborn babies is Mohammed. Europeans are too worried about human rights and are always afraid of offending someone. In France the immigrants are getting more and more arrogant. Europe will be our undoing.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!