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Vatican’s “Morality Pact” still pending

The Vatican tried to push through a new kind of concordat in this small, newly-independent and Church-controlled country. This plan was so audacious that it led to protests both inside and outside Slovakia, and on 6 February 2006 caused the fall of the Government. The dangers posed by giving health workers an unfettered right to conscience, as in this draft concordat, were shown in Italy, which in 2014 drew a rebuke from the Council of Europe.

The dangers posed to women by the draft “Conscience Concordat” are shown by the growing health crisis in Italy. There the Vatican has found a new way to limit access to contraception and abortion. Where laws don't limit these services, they can still be made difficult to obtain if enough medical personnel and even healthcare institutions are willing to deny them to patients. An attempt to address the problem of unregulated objections of conscience at the European level failed and now it is left to individual countries. [1] 

Italy’s Ministry of Health reported that in 2012 the number of abortions had continued to drop, by almost 5% from the year before. At the same time, unrestricted use of conscientious objection in Italy has reached the point where, according to the Ministry of Health 80-90% of gynaecologists now refuse to perform the procedure, rising to as much as 90-95% in some regions. [2]

The few willing doctors now have to work gruelling hours and the ensuing delays in access are hurting women, too. In 2014 a Council of Europe committee warned that women's right to health was being endangered. [3] If this can happen in Italy, one might expect women in Slovakia to face an even worse situation if the conscience concordat is finally ratified.

  Slovakia and the “Conscience Concordat”

The Vatican attempted to elevate the “right to conscientious objection” far beyond anything it had ever done before, that is to say, far beyond the level of a concordat clause which exempts priests from military service. It extended the claims of “Catholic conscience” to make this the subject of a  whole concordat, which even the submission report admits is “unprecedented”. This would have allowed Catholics to refuse to do or to authorise on the job anything which conflicted with Canon (Church) Law.

Furthermore, the right to conscientious objection — and not just to objections which happen to be in line with Catholic doctrine — has been guaranteed by European law since 1950:

Freedom to manifest ones religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. (ECHR, Article 9.2) 

This “human rights” formulation of conscientious objection differs in two fundamental respects from what the Vatican tries to enshrine in concordats:

♦  first, it is universal: it applies to all kinds of conscientious objections and not just to ones which happen to be in line with Catholic doctrine and

♦  second, it balances the right to freedom of conscience against the rights of other people. 

The Vatican concordats, of course, define conscientious objection only in terms of “Catholic conscience” (by which they really mean only the conscience of the minority of Catholics who are extremely conservative [4]) and they also try to make this right into a religious absolute without regard for other rights.

However, the Vatican’s notion of conscientious objection does make it easier for the Church to enforce its doctrines on both its own flock and others. For instance, under a conscience concordat it might be hard, especially in rural areas for anyone to get access any services (like contraception) which were prohibited by the Church. Furthermore, any Catholic who was afraid of Church reprisals against him or his family would then be forced to discover that he had “orthodox Catholic scruples”, even if he truly felt that he had no right to impose Church teaching on others.

 Steady pressure to go ahead with the stalled conscience concordat 

♦  On 13 September 2007, while receiving the new Slovak ambassador to the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI called on Slovakia to sign the remaining concordats: “I am grateful for Your Excellency’s reassurance that the Republic is committed to fulfilling the other two points of the Basic Agreement regarding conscientious objection and the financing of Church activities”. [5]

♦  Until then the Slovak Health Ministry had been planning to cancel physicians’ right to refuse treatment on grounds of conscience. But less than a week after the promise to the Pope, this plan was abandoned. It was decided that health care providers, including whole hospitals, had the “right” to object to performing any services banned by the Church.

♦  On 18 September 2007, the Slovak Conference of Bishops greeted this move, but reiterated that the only way to make sure this was set in stone was to “adopt a treaty with the Holy See on conscientious objection”. [6]

♦  Although not set in stone as an international treaty, a law passed in June 2009 tightened up access to abortion. It obliges women travel back two days after receiving permission to actually undergo the abortion, in many cases adding costs for transportation, accomodation and lost working time. It ensures that their ID number will be forwarded to the Health Ministry, prompting concerns about privacy. And it raises the age requiring parental consent, from 16 to 18. Women's groups have argued that this will encourage more unsafe illegal abortions. [7]

♦  At the beginning of 2011 the Government appears to have tried to apply conscientious objection to eliminate abortion at the hospital level. On 25 January 2011 the Bratislava University Hospital, the country's largest teaching hospital, announced that it would exercise the right gained in 2007 to refuse to do abortions, even though not all doctors there objected to them. Doctors said they were obliged to follow this “mysterious” directive. However, this was reversed two days later, after the coalition partner of the ruling Christian Democrats expressed concern. The Health Minister denied that he was behind the move and announced that abortions would be continued to be allowed “for health reasons”. He said that the governing coalition was not against individual doctors applying their right to conscientious objection, but that no institution as such should do it across-the-board. [8]

Further reading: The first Guardian article shows that the Vatican hoped to have the “conscience concordat” quietly ratified before Slovakia' s entry into the EU brought unwelcome scrutiny. The second reports on the challenge mounted when the Vatican's plan backfired.

Morality pact boosts Vatican’s power in Slovakia 
(The Guardian, 21 April 2003)

“Slovakia is planning to seal a pact with the Vatican on conscientious objection, vastly increasing the influence of Roman Catholicism in the country's schools, hospitals, courts, and security structures.

“The law on freedom of conscience would be the first such pact between a European state and the papacy. It would allow doctors to refuse abortions on religious grounds, judges to throw out divorce applications because of their faith, and teachers to decline to take part in sex education classes because they offend their beliefs....”  

EU challenges Vatican’s draft abortion treaty 
(The Guardian, 5 January 2006)
• Pope proposes conscience opt-out for Slovakia
• Lawyers warn of breach of Union’s obligations

“An attempt by the Vatican to reduce the number of abortions in one of central Europe's most staunchly Roman Catholic countries is being challenged by the EU. A legal panel appointed by the European commission has attacked a draft treaty between Slovakia and the Vatican that would have restricted sensitive medical treatment such as abortions and IVF.

“The group of lawyers warned that the treaty, known as a concordat, could place Slovakia in breach of its obligations as a member of the EU. Slovakia could find itself "violating its obligations", says the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights....”  


1. The McCafferty Report which tried to protect women was soundly rejected by Europe (PACE)and then reversed by a resolution to instead protect both individuals and institutions who exercise conscientious objection. In 2010 the report, “Women’s access to lawful medical care: the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection” was voted down and a new resolution passed, “The right to conscientious objection in lawful medical care”.

"Breakthrough: Pro-life Lobby Soundly Defeats EU Attack on Conscience in Dramatic Reversal", Life Site News,  2010-10-07

2. “Abortion Rates Continue to Decline in Italy”, Zenit, 2013-11-14

3. “‘Violata la libertà sull' aborto’ Consiglio d' Europa contro l' Italia”, Corriere della Sera, 2014-03-08

4. To see how out-of-step the Vatican is with what most Catholics actually believe, see the numerous polls posted by the Catholics for Choice:

5. Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to H.E. Mr Jozef Draveky, new Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the Holy See, Castel Gandolfo, 13 September 2007.

6. “Catholic Church welcomes Health Ministry’s reversal”, Slovak Spectator, 18 September 2007.

7. “Barriers Go Up For Abortion”, IPS News, 26 July 2009.

8. Culture minister Daniel Krajcer to SME daily on behalf of coalition party SaS quoted in  “Bratislava hospital revokes decision to stop conducting abortions”,  The Daily News – Slovakia, 27 January 2011.

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