End of a Partnership: Catholic human rights groups part ways with Amnesty International.

Catherine McKinney joined Amnesty International in 2005 during her freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, seeking a way to put her peace studies major into practice. She discovered a passionate group of like-minded peers, committed to stopping torture and the use of the death penalty. During her sophomore year, the group grew and so did her commitment. “When you’re involved with a group like that, where you feel like you’re doing a lot on campus and having an effect outside of campus too, it really makes your passion for it stronger,” she said.

McKinney never intended to become an actor in a worldwide controversy, but events proved otherwise. During summer break at her home in Longview, Tex., she was considering ideas for the group’s 2007-8 activities when a BBC news report caught her attention. The Vatican had withdrawn support from Amnesty International, it said, because of changes in Amnesty’s policy on abortion. At the time she thought the decision might not have implications for the Notre Dame chapter. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in, however, she realized that it would.


Since Amnesty International’s decision in summer 2007 to abandon its neutral stance and adopt policies supporting the worldwide decriminalization of abortion, much ink has been spilled on editorial pages and vitriol exchanged in the blogosphere. Yet little attention has been paid to the women and men whose efforts to promote global human rights have been severely disrupted by the policy change. Are they leaving Amnesty? Are they abandoning human rights advocacy altogether? If they continue the work to end torture and use of the death penalty, do they maintain ties with Amnesty International and its vast network?

What Is a ‘Proper’ Relationship?

Informal conversations with members of the Roundtable Association of Diocesan Social Action Directors, a project of the National Pastoral Life Center, indicate that most Catholic institutions are disaffiliating from Amnesty, some quietly, others with varying degrees of fanfare. The affiliation question, though, proves far less interesting than what comes next. Once a chapter disaffiliates, what constitutes a proper relationship with Amnesty? Initial conversations with some social action directors suggest that while a consensus may exist on the need for them to withdraw formally from Amnesty, the church has not yet reached clarity on what its proper future relationship to Amnesty might be.

As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane wrote to Amnesty on Aug. 23, 2007, to express dismay at the decision to “promote worldwide access to abortion.” He noted, “...in promoting abortion, Amnesty divides its own members (many of whom are Catholics and others who defend the rights of unborn children).”

Amnesty took issue with the phrase “promoting abortion,” vigorously denying this interpretation and offering accounts of women raped during wartime as an example of the concerns driving their policy change. Amnesty’s subsequent policy prescriptions, however, reached far beyond rape victims. The organization has taken a position, for example, against the ban in the United States on partial-birth abortion, a prohibition that enjoys wide support among Americans.

By its own description, Amnesty International aims to “support the decriminalization of abortion, to ensure that women have access to health care when complications arise from abortion, and to defend women’s access to abortion, within reasonable gestational limits, when their health or life are in danger” (italics added). Many in the pro-life community view those last words as code for promoting access to abortion for virtually any rationale, since the term “health” has been widely interpreted to encompass mental health, and doctors have defined “mental health” quite liberally.

As the letters changed hands and editorials and blogs heated up the discussion, Catherine McKinney set off on the long drive from Texas to Indiana to resume her studies. Like many Catholic human rights activists, she and her peers faced a difficult choice. Amnesty International had introduced them to concrete methods for stopping torture and the use of the death penalty, yet the organization had decided to champion access to a procedure the church considers “intrinsically evil.”

“I was driving back to school, and I got a call from Gary Nijak who was president [of the Amnesty chapter] at the time, saying that a discussion was going on and something was going to have to change,” recalls McKinney. “He made the decision to disaffiliate with Amnesty, since school was not in session yet.” A group decision would have to be made by fall 2007 if the group was to remain an officially sanctioned student organization, approved by the Notre Dame Student Activities Office. McKinney and Nijak convened the student members to determine the next steps. Their decision was clear: the mission would continue, even if the affiliation with Amnesty could not. They refounded the group as Human Rights Notre Dame.

Steps After Disaffiliation

Disaffiliating with Amnesty was simple. Laying out the details of a new relationship to Amnesty was not. Could the new Human Rights Notre Dame group use Amnesty resources in its work on cases of torture overseas? The Student Activities Office first ruled no, but reversed itself weeks later, maintaining that simply learning about the work of Amnesty and acting in concert on campaigns in accord with church teaching was not the same as affiliating as a chapter, with the full endorsement of all the organization’s work that this would imply.

Human Rights Notre Dame has severed contact with Amnesty International’s regional office, but continues to use Amnesty’s Web site as a source for its own urgent action messages on torture and death penalty cases. The student group also draws from OxFam sources, and for its Fair Trade campaign it uses Catholic Relief Services materials.

While happy with the continued student membership levels and the energy of Human Rights Notre Dame, McKinney, as the newly elected president, is concerned that fewer students who were involved with Amnesty in high school or their home parishes will now join Human Rights Notre Dame. The institutional loyalty that fostered a seamless transition in membership from high school to college is gone. She also wonders aloud why College Democrats and College Republicans are not held to the same standard, since “both of their [party] platforms have something which contradicts Catholic social teaching—access to abortion and the use of the death penalty, respectively.”

The number of students arriving at Notre Dame with high school and parish experience with Amnesty will undoubtedly drop, as new policies develop at the high school level in response to Amnesty’s policy change. At St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., for example, it fell to Salvatore Chavez, director of campus ministry, to make decisions about the future of the school’s Amnesty International club. “I tried to figure out a way we could be connected with them, even though the church is not pro-abortion,” Chavez recalled. “I hoped maybe there was a way for the relationship to continue. When I read what they said, I didn’t see how we could. Then the diocese called and said that the church in San Jose was severing relationships with Amnesty and to look for some other way of keeping this club going.”

Chavez looked for another human rights organization with which to affiliate the club. At first Human Rights Watch appeared attractive, but when he studied their Web site he found the same policy on abortion as Amnesty International. The best approach seemed to be not to affiliate with any particular national or international group, but to create a wholly new organization. They called theirs “Voices of Hope.” Chavez is now working on a new strategy with the Voices of Hope faculty advisor to draw from a variety of sources: some country-focused, like Save Darfur, and some issue-based, like organizations working to free child soldiers.

With regard to Amnesty International, Chavez has determined that the best policy is to sever all contact, even bypassing their Web site as a source of cases to work on. “It’s difficult—what are we teaching the kids by associating with Amnesty? Maybe as an educational institution we should teach them to find other sources and make a clean break with Amnesty,” he explains. At his school, Chavez believes, students might hear the wrong message if Voices of Hope uses Amnesty materials.

How One Diocese Responded

The struggle over maintaining a proper relationship with Amnesty in this new era is not limited to schools. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, Msgr. Robert McClory, the chancellor, has removed Amnesty International’s links from the Web site of the Office for Catholic Social Teaching and revoked permission for a chapter to meet at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. “It’s disappointing,” he says. But Monsignor McClory has left open the door to collaboration on issues of common concern. “On particular cases, we can work together,” he adds. “But the kind of in-depth collaborative work of the past would be stifled by the decision they’ve taken.”

Monsignor McClory’s approach would place Amnesty International among a host of organizations whose missions set them at odds with the church on some issues and allied with the church on others. The church’s peace and justice ministries regularly produce coalitions of strange bedfellows, such as collaboration with Planned Parenthood to stop welfare “family caps” in the mid-1990s. Such coalitions do not imply full endorsement of all the positions of a coalition partner. Amnesty’s privileged relationship with the church may be finished, but coalitions on common issues may yet be possible, Monsignor McClory suggests.

If there is any encouraging sign, it is that a focus on mission guided by sound judgment seems to be showing a way forward for Catholic groups. A strong message has been sent to Amnesty about its new abortion policy through the loss of Catholic institutional chapters; yet groups continue, unaffiliated, under new names. Many (though not all) still make use of resources from Amnesty to some degree, frequently renamed for distribution.

One wonders if a new Catholic organization against torture and the use of the death penalty will emerge in the vacuum, or whether an existing abortion-neutral human rights organization like the Interreligious Campaign Against Torture will become more prominent. Meanwhile, the mission to stop torture and the use of the death penalty continues in countless Catholic institutions, regardless of the policy changes of Amnesty International or any similar secular organization.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 5 months ago
I always worry about Catholics isolating themselves from the world based on their moral perspectives. I think if I were to isolate myself from all friends,relatives,organizations, and companies that did not measure up to my Catholic beliefs that I might wind up being a monk on a deserted island. I personally think we should engage the world on its own terms and live the life that Jesus expects in that world. How else will it ever change?
10 years 5 months ago
As a former Amnesty member and group leader, let me comment on the affiliation crisis reported in End of a Partnership (June 23/30). Amnesty International is a voluntary association with various secular objectives. Our Vatican and our bishops should not expect its action programs to conform completely to natural law moral and social doctrine. Student members of campus chapters should be aware of this, especially in these hot-button times. Amnesty was born as a citizen and non-partisan response to government human rights offenders. Its programs and policies are shaped with much membership input. The “Stop Violence Against Women” campaign was launched after discussion and debate at all levels throughout the world, with contributions from women who have suffered sexual assault or abortion-related criminal proceedings. Catholic teaching also condemns acts of violence against women, and so I think that there may be more common ground here than the headlines indicate. The author reports that several campus groups have formed autonomous human rights defense organizations. These could emulate Amnesty’s methods and achieve some measure of effectiveness in doing so. No human rights activists I know want to monopolize the stage; quite the contrary. But I have discovered many rewards from working side by side with others, to form part of a broader movement for the defense of men and women of other beliefs and political leanings.


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