By Doreen Beagan

For eighty years, the Catholic Women’s League in all corners of Canada has served God and country in ways great and small. The League’s range of concerns and support for worthwhile causes are well known. Its 105,000 members make its voice very strong.

Resolutions passed at this year’s national convention in Charlottetown included opposition to the sale of human fetal and reproductive tissue, and a call for action to curb teen suicide. Members often join with similar groups of other faiths to work for common objectives. Increasingly these are social issues international in scope.

It is particularly because the CWL has such immense potential to be a force for good, that the executive decision to participate in the World March of Women 2000 has caused such dismay and consternation among members and onlookers.

As word spread, anger grew among grassroots members. Across the country, councils at the parish, diocesan and provincial levels, passed resolutions that ranged from refusal to participate, to calls for the resignation of the national executive.

But any hopes that the decision would be reversed during the national convention in Charlottetown were dashed on August 14.

Motions intended to limit or quash involvement in the March did not make it to the official agenda. Instead, outgoing president Sheilah Pellerin used her report to justify the decision and allay the fears of members.

“We disagree with some of the demands made by some of the groups involved in the March… [But] we do not have to fear the views of others. The March is not about abortion or lesbianism, but about poverty and violence against women. … It is our duty as Catholic women to offer [them] support in solidarity in every way we can,” she said.

Many of the voting delegates responded to Pellerin with a standing ovation. A motion of affirmation for the March decision, presented by Claire Heron, a past president, was strongly supported.

Some members counter that it is not the “views of others” but the commitments made by governments that they should fear, and not the demands by “some of the groups involved,” but those put forward by the organizers of the March.

One delegate expressed concern that many of the 76 honorary and life members – the largest block of the approximately 170 voting delegates – may have had little opportunity to become informed on the issues, and less opportunity to register their concerns.

Flawed arguments

It appears that few of the members or their leaders understand the issues or the implications of their decision. This was evident in their flawed but apparently effective arguments in favour of the March, such as Pellerin’s statement: “It is not to the advantage of Catholics or the pro-life movement to acquiesce in the mistaken impression of those who believe that to oppose violence and poverty means endorsing abortion and same-sex unions.” That, of course, is not at all what those opposed to CWL participation in the March claim.

One delegate said, “I fail to understand how a program in my parish, attended by our sisters in the Anglican and United Church, will cause more abortions.” Another asked, “If a woman was drowning, would we refuse to rescue her because she was a lesbian?”

A theme at the convention was the need to be present “in the forum” with a Catholic and Christian voice. There were frequent references to following the Vatican’s example in its response to the United Nations’ World Conference on Women at Beijing in 1995. Supporters of the March said the CWL should be “seeking to lift up and develop what is true and helpful while naming and vigorously denouncing what is false and harmful to human flourishing.”

A major difference overlooked in this argument, however, is that the Vatican is fully aware that this is primarily a spiritual war and today’s forum is a battlefield. The stakes are so high that it is especially important to heed Jesus’ advice to his apostles to be on guard and to be “wise as serpents.”

The Vatican understands the need for adequate precautions, for it has carefully assessed the nature of the battle, the enemy, the tactics and the strategies. It is especially careful to follow Pope John XXIII’s caution, referring to social and economic activities (quoted on the cover of the current League magazine): “Do nothing to compromise religion and morality.”

A further long-established guideline for dealing with complex moral issues says there is a hierarchy of values that places spiritual matters higher on the scale than material ones. It says it is wrong to pursue a material good (for example, working to alleviate poverty) in a manner that involves doing a serious spiritual harm.

In this connection, all Christians working to end poverty should be aware that depopulation is one solution to world poverty seriously proposed some decades ago, quietly adopted by some First-World governments, and still very actively pursued. Of course, it is never called depopulation.

In this war, the “bad guys” aren’t always readily identifiable, so it is important to study and learn from their actions and pronouncements.


Modern social engineers cleverly garner the support of the compassionate by stressing their praiseworthy aims (such as ending poverty), while downplaying innocuous-sounding but highly objectionable goals that piggy-back on the more acceptable ones. (A quick perusal of the March organizers’ Advocacy Guide to Women’s World Demands 2000, shows extensive use of this tactic.) Once support is gained, the next step is to change the definitions, and expand the boundaries of the territory gained. By then, target organizations generally find it increasingly difficult to disassociate themselves from the project.

The Guide uses another highly successful tactic: code words, and distorted language. CWL life member and pro-life leader Jakki Jeffs of Hamilton, Ont. pointed out “Their language is not our language.” Barbara Gobbi of Prince George, B.C. stressed, “It is essential to interpret their language in the same way as the drafters, organizers and promoters of the March.”

Pro-life and pro-family activists are all too familiar with this “newspeak” that calls abortion “reproductive rights” or “women’s health services,” and describes any expression of concern about homosexual and lesbian activities, as violence or hatred.

Experienced pro-lifers react with skepticism when they notice the contradiction between Pellerin’s statement – “The condensed version of the Canadian demands, on which the organizing committee is focusing, does not include a demand for abortion services” – and to the oft repeated defence of the CWL’s participation – “We are not marching for the Canadian demands which admittedly include reference to abortion. We are marching for the World demands.” Saying they were supporting only the World demands, the leaders constantly assured their members that the World demands are free from abortion demands, making participation acceptable.

Of course, the head of the international organizing committee, Diane Matte, is on record as stating that the pro-life philosophy is incompatible with the World demand for women to “control their bodies and reproductive functions,” and that pro-life groups are not welcome to participate.

The March agenda

But it isn’t just the March’s abortion demands which are objectionable. Referring to the Advocacy Guide, Jeffs said, “I hope the voting members have looked at the documents that the March says we must support if we are participants.”

Those documents include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Declarations and Platforms of Action from the Cairo population conference and the Beijing women’s conference.

Portions of these and other recent UN documents have generated very grave concern among churches, national and international pro-life and pro-family groups, and some governments – so much so that various states have placed reservations on sections of such documents, or refused to implement them.

This is intolerable to some influential groups on the world stage, including organizers of this women’s March, who are using the occasion to push their agenda once again.

In the Guide they state very clearly that they are marching to demand implementation of all parts of all UN conventions and covenants, with any needed changes in the country’s laws, to give among other things, rights related to “sexual orientation” and “reproductive freedom.”

It is not surprising to find that this is the agenda. What is surprising is that, having studied the Guide, Pellerin and the national executive could so confidently assure their trusting members that “the March is not about lesbian rights or abortion.”

Incredible naivety

Moved by the League’s emphasis on ecumenism and by a laudable desire to help suffering women, Pellerin and others on the executive stated frequently that the League can support the main objectives of the March and participate in it on their own terms “because we have made our pro life stance clear.”

To battle scarred veterans of the pro-life, pro-family battles, this indicates incredible naivety. They know it is unrealistically optimistic to say, “We have written to state our pro-life position and our understanding of the issues and terminology. That will protect our organization and our membership.” It will not.

It is equally naive for this Church-affiliated group to say “They will respect our position,” when they know that a major goal is to urge governments to “condemn any authority – political, religious, economic or cultural – that controls [a code word] women and girls ….” and to “recognize in their statutes and actions, that violence [a code word] against women … cannot be justified by any custom, religion and cultural practice or political power.”

Such naivety suggests that the CWL has not employed the “wisdom of serpents.” But League participation will add strength and credibility to the March and its demands.

It is unfortunate that instead of re-examining their position or joining forces with true pro-life and pro-family allies, League leaders and members attacked those who opposed participation – especially the messengers who first brought the news, The Interim’s on-line service, LifeSite News, and Campaign Life Coalition. One influential member told me with total conviction, “Campaign Life is trying to destroy the CWL.” I was also told, “Right to Life won’t oppose us; they wouldn’t dare – they know we give them too much money.”


A CWL fact sheet states, “Decisions at the national level are a true reflection of the opinions expressed by members … at the grassroots level.” Yet some members claimed publicly that they received no information until late April, and first learned of their participation in the March (already underway) from The Interim and LifeSite News. Many claim that they had absolutely no opportunity for input, and that the grassroots were ignored.

Pellerin rejects those claims. She explained that all the provincial presidents sit on the national executive, and participated in the decision to take part in the March. She said the executive deliberated a full year before making a decision, and that information mailings were sent to the each council in ample time for members to consider the implications of the decision and give their feedback.

Pellerin was unconcerned about the enormous polarization and division generated by the March decision. She said “In the past we have always reconciled and healed each other. I don’t think it is a problem that will stay with us.” Some members are much less confident.

There is much to admire in the work and the members of the CWL at all levels. But one cannot help wondering why so many – especially among the leadership – have been unable to read the signs of the times. Perhaps, suggested one delegate, it’s a matter of spiritual blindness.