Central American feminists and human rights advocates are protesting what they call the “abnormal” and “suspicious” inclusion of the Vatican as an extra-regional state observer to the Central American Integration System (SICA).
Rights groups claim the inclusion of the Holy See in Central America’s integration process is—to paraphrase the Bible—like letting in a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).
“The Vatican has an expansionist plan to influence public policy in other nations,” says Marta Maria Blandón, director of Ipas Central America, an international public-health organization for women. “For the Vatican, Central America is paradise because these countries have a weak culture of secularism and there is already a lot of confusion between the roles of government and church.”
The inclusion of the Vatican as a SICA observer, which happened quickly and quietly during a private ceremony in San Salvador on Monday afternoon, was done in a manner that was “arbitrary, clandestine and undemocratic,” Blandón charges. Feminist groups throughout Central America are preparing to push back against SICA’s decision by protesting before their respective foreign ministries in an attempt to revoke the Vatican’s observer status, she said.
“The majority of Central American nations establish the separation of Church and State in their constitutions, so the integration of the Vatican as a representative of the Church in this regional body violates the secular nature of our governing institutions by making them subject to observation by a religious organization,” reads a protest statement from a coalition of feminist and human rights organizations in El Salvador.
The coalition argues that the Vatican is theocracy, not a democracy, so it doesn’t have much to contribute to SICA’s stated mission of consolidating democracy in Central America.
Furthermore, the Salvadoran activist group argues, only half the population in El Salvador still identifies as Roman Catholic (Nicaragua and other countries in the region show a similarly precipitous decline in church membership). The inclusion of the Vatican in SICA, therefore, gives “preferential treatment to half of the population while discriminating against the other half, especially the indigenous populations whose religions were persecuted during the colonialization.”
Vatican: the Church stands for unity
Luigi Pezzuto, the Vatican’s apostolic delegate to El Salvador and SICA, thinks the mission of the Roman Catholic Church and SICA are compatible because they both stand for “inclusion,” “unity,” and “dialogue among nations.”
“In reality, the Catholic Church has always contributed to the unification and development of Central America through numerous school networks, including universities that are run by local churches operating in each country in the region,” the nuncio said in a statement at the SICA signing ceremony on Monday. “The same can be said of the Church in the area of healthcare through our hospitals and clinics. And don’t forget all our pastoral programs in favor of family, marriage and defense of life and human rights.”
As an observer to SICA, the Vatican can participate in presidential summits, ministerial-level meetings, and in other events that are “considered to be of common interest.” The Vatican is the ninth extra-regional nation to be accredited as an observer of SICA, joining Australia, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain, France, Italy and Japan. Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, the UK and Uruguay were also recently approved as extra-regional observers, though none of those countries have been formally incorporated yet.
Puzzuto said the Vatican “intends to be actively present” in SICA to represent “human and Christian values” needed for the “true integral development of people and communities.”
Integral development for whom?
Feminists argue that the concept of integral development of people and communities shouldn’t be based on literal interpretations of 2,000-year old scripture.
And when it comes to a modern understanding of human development—especially that related to gender equality—the Vatican is two millennia behind, activists charge.
A coalition of Central American feminists argues that Pope Benedict XVI’s recent denouncement of gender theory as a “fallacy” stands in stark contrast to a recent pledge by all Central American countries to incorporate of gender equality “a strategic issue of high priority in SICA and its member states.”
“(The Catholic Church’s) concept of moral positions is deeply worrisome due to the repeated actions of the Vatican against the rights of women, gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights; they are trying to impose their moral concepts and norms on all of society,” reads the joint statement, which calls on Central American governments to respect their constitutional commitment to secularism.
But for theologian Maria López, the real point of concern is not the blurring of church and state—something, she says, that has always existed in Central America.
The real issue is the region’s susceptibility to the Vatican’s agenda—something that Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador have already demonstrated by banning all forms of abortion, including life-saving interventions to save a women’s life.
While underdevelopment has long weakened Central America’s defenses to the Vatican’s advances, even Chile—one of the hemisphere’s most developed countries—has banned all forms of abortion, suggesting that other countries in Latin America are also susceptible to the Church’s influences.
“All of Latin America remains fertile ground for the church, both Catholic and evangelical,” López says.