The Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools drafted by a wide range of international experts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were incomprehensibly rejected by one of its 56 member states: the Holy See.
This stalemate created by a state of a few square kilometres was unofficially discussed behind the scenes of the Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief which was held in Vienna from July 8-10.
From the time the Spanish Chairmanship-in-Office of the OSCE first initiated the idea of developing guiding principles on teaching about religion, there was consensus that there would be symbolic resonances if the project could be launched in Toledo, a Spanish city laden with relevant history.
For that reason, the Advisory Council of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief of the OSCE/ODIHRii met with a number of leading experts in Toledo in March 2007 to commence work on the project. Why Toledo and not another “more prestigious” place like Paris or London?
Because in that Spanish city stands the 13th-Century Roman Catholic church of San Roman which was once a Visigothic Christian church and then a mosque. This symbolic choice in favor of Toledo suggests that our present is the result of a complex layering of civilisations and that it is vital to grasp the confluence rather than the clash of civilisations.
Fourteen members of the Advisory Council of Experts, four participating members of the ODIHR Panel of Experts, two UN experts, one expert of the Council of Europe and 15 external experts contributed to this breaking through project.
Interviewed by me for this article, the Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the OSCE, Mgr Michael W. Banach, declared “This is a complex issue that cannot be explained in a few minutes but we have some objections concerning the methodology and the contents.”
Mgr Banach first regretted that as a participating State the Holy See had not been consulted during the drafting process of the Toledo Guidelines. He then stressed that the main areas of concerns of the Holy See were: the danger that teaching about religions may replace the teaching of religions in some countries; the risk that religions are portrayed negatively, the non-differentiated treatment of historical religions with regard to small religious and belief groups by the OSCE/ODIHR in general, and parental rights in the religious education of their children.
Sounds of silence
I conducted discussions with a number of experts involved in the Toledo project and asked them to react to the objections of the Holy See.
It appears from these contacts that there was no obligation to consult the 56 participating States during the drafting process but that the Holy See was not discriminated against.
On the contrary, 50 percent of the experts were Catholic academics who know the sensitive issues of the Catholic Church and they never objected to the contents of the Toledo Guiding Principles at any stage of the drafting process.
The dissent expressed through diplomatic channels by the Holy See was addressed during two separate meetings between Advisory Panel members and representatives of the Holy See.
Several months ago, Ambassador Janez Lenarcic (Slovenia,) director of ODIHR, sent a letter to the Holy See to try to clarify the situation but never received an answer. The objections and the silence of the decision-makers of the Holy See are incomprehensible to the numerous experts who devoted so much time and energy to a project meant to fight prejudices, to promote tolerance and respect between religious and belief communities.
“There was never any anti-Catholic sentiment in the drafting committee of the Toledo principles. We have always been and we still are open to a meaningful dialogue with the decision-makers of the Holy See but there is no response,” said one expert.
And another one said “We have always been neutral in our work. The Toledo principles do not advocate the replacement of religious classes by classes about religions and beliefs.
More disreputable reasons and some fears may however be part of a hidden agenda of the Church: a form of resistance to the secularisation process, the gradual loss of control on religious education in public schools, the perceived risk of instrumentalisation of the Toledo principles by the Spanish Socialist government in its conflicting relations with the Catholic Church; the risk for the Catholic Church to be presented not only positively but also negatively (such as priests’ sexual abuses of children), and so on.
It seems there is no unanimity against the Toledo principles at the Holy See and that some of its high-level representatives are favorable to them.
Therefore, the right questions to be asked and solved behind the reasons of the Holy See’s veto might be “Who in the Holy See vetoes the Toledo guidelines?” and is the Pope aware of what is at stake in this stalemate?
Maybe the time has come for muffled diplomacy (diplomatie feutrée) to make room for public debate.
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