The World Congress of Families and the Limits of Dialogue

Though social radicals blather on and on about it, they are almost complete phonies about dialogue. For them, dialogue either means radicals talking to the more radical, or radicals hassling bishops over women’s ordination or some such nonsense. It is a way for the left to stall the socially sane, to keep them talking so that nothing ever happens. I just returned from the World Congress of Families in Amsterdam where this understanding of dialogue was on full display.

Amsterdam was chosen by the World Congress of Families international planning committee (I am a member) because that city and the Netherlands in general perfectly embody the kind of culture traditionally minded people abhor.

Amsterdam itself is awash in hard-core pornography. You can walk down almost any street downtown and see stomach churning scenes of sexual degradation. Hash and pot are openly flaunted. While I did not see it, I understand that use of harder drugs is winked at by authorities. Abortion is legal as is homosexual marriage – and neither is particularly controversial. Not content to enjoy the fruits of their own licentiousness, the tiny government of the Netherlands is one of the leading global funders and promoters of this kind of culture, particularly in the developing world.

We were surprised when a small Dutch group applied to host the 2009 event, which generally attracts between 1,000 and 4,000 social traditionalists from around the world. The Amsterdam group even got the government, the tourist office anyway, to promote Amsterdam’s case as the venue. At one point during their presentation, I asked them if they knew who we, the organizers, were: “We are the religious right. Do you understand this?” The government guy said that all opinions are welcome in the Netherlands.

The host committee made it clear from the beginning that they live in a different atmosphere than do American social conservatives. They are a minority in a culture dominated by social radicals. Therefore, they wanted to reach out to those of good will on the other side, those who support the family, to participate, even to speak at the Congress and generally enter into dialogue.

The program they put together was certainly not like Congresses from years past. One member of the organizing committee said it was the first “peace and justice” World Congress of Families. There were panels on families with HIV/AIDS, migration, and gender issues. There was even a speaker from the United Nations promoting U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document much reviled by Congress organizers.

So nervous were the Dutch hosts that they asked various speakers to tone down their talks. Mostly they were concerned over strong language about homosexuals, a very powerful Dutch lobby. I was asked to edit my talk on the United Nations. In the peroration, I called upon the listeners to “defeat our opponents in the courts, in the parliaments, in the academy” and so on. The local committee told me that talk of “defeating” our opponents would be offensive to Dutch ears.

I took my puzzlement to Jan Peeters, a sharp Dutch journalist, who explained to me that the Dutch are raised to believe in dialogue above all. He said there are never any strikes in Holland because labor and management will sit down and talk ad infinitum, and that talk of “defeating” ones opponents would offend at least some Dutch.

Yet even with all this outreach, the social radicals in Holland plotted disruption of the Congress. While protesters vandalized the Congress offices, these plots never materialized beyond a few scraggly demonstrators on opening day.

Even so, the newspapers in Holland were dominated for days by how the Congress was bringing homophobia and intolerance to Holland. So intense was the criticism that an important member of the Dutch host committee dropped out a few days before the Congress and took several speakers with her, because we were allegedly bringing “hate” to her tolerant nation.

Now, this may not seem like dialogue to you. The Dutch committee worked very hard to reach out to its opponents. And rather than dialoguing, those same opponents stomped all over the Congress and the local committee.

A very conservative member of the Dutch parliament underscored the phoniness of dialogue with such radicals. He said that whenever homosexual issues are debated in the parliament only homosexual groups are allowed to testify.

In the end I did change my talk. Instead of “defeating our opponents in the courts etc” I said we must “meet” them. It was still a strong speech and the crowd gave me a standing ovation, one of only three at the entire Congress. My talk was picked up and reprinted the day after by the largest Protestant daily newspaper in the country.

There is such a thing as dialogue but there is also such a thing as raising the flag and letting your friends know where the battle is. No one rallies around dialogue but plenty will gather around a raised flag.

In the end, the Congress was a success. The locals tell me that we moved the Dutch public discourse a couple of ticks in the right direction. I am told the young Dutch committee learned many valuable lessons about the ends of dialogue, and one conservative Dutch journalist said, “I think we gave the Devil a bloody nose.” Not very dialogic that, but God bless him for it.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.

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The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.