Coverage of U.N. Conference Shows Vatican Media Savvy : Influence: Office stressed Pope’s position in advance of the gathering on population, then sent its articulate spokesman to put church doctrine in world spotlight.


Never was Joaquin Navarro-Valls’ clout more evident than at the nine-day, United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Population and Development last September in Cairo.

Navarro is the director of the Vatican press office, so even before the Cairo conference began, he briefed the Vatican press corps on the Pope’s objections to the manner in which abortion was treated in the “draft programme of action” that the United States was expected to support at the conference.

On Aug. 8, a month before the conference opened, the New York Times published a Page 1 story about Navarro’s statement that the Pope thought the Cairo proposals on such matters as “fertility regulation” and “reproductive health” would “legitimize abortion.”


“Maybe one hour after the New York Times appeared, our representative in the United States . . . got a telephone call from the White House (asking), ‘Could you send down the text of what Navarro has been saying,’ ” an obviously pleased Navarro said in a recent interview in his Rome office across from St. Peter’s Square.

President Clinton didn’t go to Cairo. Vice President Al Gore did. Pope John Paul II didn’t go to Cairo either. But Navarro did.

Despite Gore’s presence--and despite the designation of Archbishop Renato Martin as the chief Vatican delegate in Cairo--”Navarro was the most important person at the conference,” says Alessandro Magister, who has covered the Vatican for 25 years for the Italian news weekly L’Espresso.

Wherever Navarro went, Magister says, “the world press would follow him.”

Kim Murphy, who covered the conference for the Los Angeles Times, says Navarro was probably no more important than other major delegates in shaping the final language of the document, but she agrees that in media terms, he was “the most interesting, the most watched, the most quoted, the most followed person” there.

Navarro’s active presence in Cairo--making statements, criticizing Gore, answering questions, even writing an Op-Ed page piece for the Wall Street Journal--shows just how media-savvy John Paul II is.

By sending Navarro to Cairo, the Pope ensured that his position would be forcefully and publicly articulated. Navarro says this increased pressure on delegates from some other countries to “change their position, not because of a moral consideration but maybe because they are fearing the press.”

“Diplomacy is not the only means of relationships between countries,” Navarro says. “Now there is also the press. So why not use the press . . . (use) public opinion.”

The primary aims of the Cairo conference were to formulate ways to keep world population from spiraling dangerously out of control and to help developing countries and countries with economies in transition. But the “development” aspects of the conference faded into relative obscurity as the Vatican’s opposition to the draft plan references to abortion hardened into what the New York Times characterized as “one of the most vehement crusades” of John Paul’s papacy.

Much media coverage of (and commentary on) the Cairo conference was critical of the Pope’s position.

Some questioned why a tiny, one-religion city-state with fewer than 1,000 residents--none of them women or children--was even permitted to participate in a policy-making conference that would affect women and children of all religions throughout the world.

Some Western diplomats and journalists further criticized the Vatican for what the Guardian in England called its “hypocritical alliance” with radical Islamic forces who share the Pope’s opposition to abortion, even as they criticize the Vatican as an agent of “western cultural imperialism” and as a supporter of Christian minorities in predominantly Muslim areas of Africa and the Middle East.

The Vatican denied any formal pact with Islamic nations and said it was simply asking all religious leaders to support its battle against abortion and what it sees as an assault on traditional sexual morality and family values. In other words, the Pope was doing what most individuals do in a tough fight--getting backing from those who agree with him on the issue at hand, regardless of their differences on other issues.

But Archbishop (now Cardinal) William Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the media made it seem that “the church was in a dark alliance with an international fundamentalist religious front to enslave women.”

Coverage of the Cairo conference so enraged church officials that when Keeler spoke at the bishops’ annual meeting two months later, he accused the media of having promulgated “a fabricated story line that . . . described a myopic Church imposing its outdated values on the world.”

During a seminar on “Religion & the Media,” sponsored by Commonweal magazine last year, Tim Russert of NBC News used similar language to describe the early stories coming out of Cairo.

Not everyone is critical of the media’s coverage of the Cairo conference. Tad Szulc, author of a newly published biography of John Paul II, thinks it was the Vatican itself that “screwed up.”

By criticizing Gore’s advocacy of the draft plan of action in Cairo, Szulc says, the Vatican “overplayed its hand” and turned the conference into an “incredibly adversarial thing” that was bound to be a Page 1 story everywhere.

Feminist groups--long critical of the Pope’s opposition to abortion and to the ordination of women as priests--were especially upset with the Vatican’s stance in Cairo; some commentators echoed their position. Despite the Pope’s longstanding, impassioned arguments against abortion, the late Hobart Rowen wrote in his Washington Post column that the abortion issue was “an emotional red herring (in Cairo). The real battleground staked out by the Vatican concerns the empowerment of women.”

Many journalistic reports depicted the Vatican as having single-handedly “hijacked” the Cairo conference, frustrating and enraging delegates from other nations by delaying deliberation on a wide variety of issues for more than a week with its insistent demands for “minor” changes in the “plan of action” as it related to abortion.

Jim Bitterman, reporting from Cairo for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” spoke of the Pope’s “stubborn objections to abortion language in the document.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized against the “discord” engendered by the Vatican having “monopolized” the conference. The Toronto Star said the Vatican had been “uncompromising.”

But Murphy, in the Los Angeles Times, pointed out that “a flock of nations” shared the Vatican’s objections, and she listed 30 of them. The original, U.S.-backed plan contained elements that many besides the Vatican found offensive, and Murphy noted that the final plan, approved by almost 180 nations, contained “important compromises with both Roman Catholic and Islamic nations aimed at assuring that sex education, reproductive health care and family planning programs comply with each nation’s own religious and cultural traditions.”

United Nations delegates, Murphy reported, “said the Holy See has demonstrated a quiet sense of realism in this year’s debate, fighting determinedly and skillfully for concessions on the abortion issue, yet barely mentioning another issue to which the Catholic Church has moral objections: artificial contraception.”

Because the ultimate changes in the conference’s “action plan” seemed very subtle--and involved essentially only one paragraph and one issue in a wide-ranging, 113-page document--much of the world media portrayed the Vatican as a “big loser,” in terms of image and policy, in the words of The Times of London.

The Toronto Star said the Vatican emerged from the Cairo conference “with its image bruised and battered and its future role in the U.N. in doubt.” The New York Times called the final document “a total denial of Roman Catholic doctrine.”

But the New York Times also noted that the Vatican had engineered changes in wording that, “though seemingly as semantic and nit-picking as a discussion of angels on pinheads, had a deeper meaning for the legalistic warriors of the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Vatican, which had refused to join the consensus at previous world population conferences in 1974 and 1984, joined the consensus in Cairo on six of the 16 chapters in the final agreement. But by having forced changes in the references to abortion and then withholding its approval from the chapters containing those references, the New York Times said the Vatican had “obtained concessions without abandoning its moral position.”

Philip Pullella, who has covered the Vatican for 10 years for the London-based Reuters news agency, put it more bluntly in a recent interview:

“The Vatican went (to Cairo) with an agenda and they got everything they wanted.”

Murphy thinks picking winners and losers in Cairo unrealistically reduces a complex issue to the equivalent of a baseball game. Navarro, however, waxes philosophical about the coverage--and criticism--of the Pope’s position in Cairo and elsewhere.

“Nobody around the world, reading papers or watching television, has any doubts about the main topics regarding the doctrine of the church nowadays regarding family life,” Navarro says. “They know what is our position, the position of the Catholic Church.”


The Abortion Debate

The September, 1994, meeting in Cairo was supposed to be an International Conference on Population and Development. But the “development” was largely lost amid the controversy and the coverage surrounding the Vatican’s opposition to language in the original conference proposal that the Pope thought would “legitimize abortion.”