One Day in Geneva With Felice Gaer

One Day in Geneva With Felice Gaer
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Never heard of Felice Gaer? Neither had I, until I spent three days in a small United Nations conference room in Geneva with her.

Gaer is the U.S. representative to the U.N.'s Committee Against Torture. She very recently used this official capacity as a representative of the United States to stare the Papal Nuncio of the Holy See in the face and threaten him, saying that to be pro-life is to be pro-torture. In other words, back off abortion or we will hold you in violation of the Convention Against Torture.

Thankfully, in their concluding observations issued Friday, the committee backed away from Gaer's extremist line of questioning and actually affirmed much of the important reforms the Church has made, but the incident was still a troubling one.

That an Obama appointee would self-identify as "fiercely pro-choice" and then use her position to violate the religious liberty of the Catholic Church by threatening and pressuring the Catholic Church to abandon her moral teachings isn't really surprising. It sounds sadly familiar to Catholics these days. But it is shocking when you consider that prior to her current role, Gaer made a name for herself as a religious liberty activist and a staunch opponent of anti-Semitism.

She is the former chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. In that capacity she vocally defended the principle of religious liberty, saying in an address before Congress that "the right [to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion] includes the freedom of every person to hold, or not to hold, any religion or belief, and to manifest his or her religion or belief either individually or in community with others."

She affirmed that "no one should be subject to coercion" that might "impair" the freedom to hold those beliefs. Why then, does she now exclude, the pro-life view and the entire Catholic Church from this standard?

In a paper that many view as her seminal work, she wrote for The Review on Faith & International Affairs that, "The historical progression of anti-Semitism is often simplified by advocates into these three stages: 'You cannot live among us as Jews,' followed by, 'You cannot live among us,' followed by, 'You cannot live.'" The piece was entitled, "'If Not Now When?'": Jewish Advocacy for Freedom of Religion," and was written her in capacity as Director of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Her piece is aimed especially at efforts in the United Nations and other global bodies that target and attack Judaism, which makes it all the more peculiar that she is now a part of efforts directly targeting one of the Catholic Church's most deeply-held beliefs: that life begins at conception and that all human life has inherent dignity and is worthy of protection. To abandon that view, even in the small steps the Committee Against Torture, and other committees such as the Committee on the Rights of Child, have demanded, would be to cease to be Catholic.

Catholics and people of faith in general, especially those who hold the pro-life view, increasingly feel as though the law is shifting to suggest that we can no longer be a part of society unless we cease to be Catholic. The Health and Human Services mandate for example, currently undergoing Supreme Court review, demands that Catholics and people of other faiths in both the private and public sectors abandon their most deeply held beliefs in order to be a basic, bread-earning member of society.

The mandate has completely turned the American understanding of religious liberty on its head. Once a country that welcomed religious diversity into an open space of mutual respect, our society is now increasingly beholden to a new intolerance that pushes the multitude of values and beliefs that color our nation into dark and silent corners. That our country's own representative at a United Nations committee would seek to intimidate the diplomatic face of the world's largest religious institution is profoundly troubling.

If you aren't familiar with Felice Gaer, get to know her. Because as this insatiable new intolerance only grows more ravenous, the question that each and every one of us must ask ourselves is the very question she once posed to the world.

If we don't stand up to religious intolerance now, when will we?

Ashley E. McGuire is a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association.

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