LISBON, Portugal (RNS) The Portuguese politician nominated to be the next U.N. secretary-general is a deeply committed Catholic with an anti-abortion record and an involvement in charity work that dates back to his years as a university student.
Former Socialist Prime Minister António Guterres is known as a consensus seeker, but one who draws the line when it comes to his own conscience.
“People ask us all the time how we can reconcile being Catholic and Socialist,” said Claudio Anaia, who led the Young Catholic Socialists in the late 1990s when Guterres blocked his own party’s efforts to legalize abortion in this traditionally Catholic country.
“I always point to Guterres as an example. He is a good man, a man of deep faith and serious convictions.”
Guterres was born in Lisbon in 1949 and became an active member of the student branch of Catholic Action, a popular movement in the postwar Catholic world, while studying engineering in college.
For most of his youth Guterres stayed clear of politics but already displayed a sharp sense of social justice and did a lot of charity work in some of Lisbon’s more impoverished neighborhoods. After resigning as prime minister, in 2001, he went back to tutoring poor schoolchildren.
In the mid-’60s he traveled to the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé, in France. His close friend António Barahona, who went with him, described it as a very moving experience that left a deep impact on Guterres and opened his eyes to the importance of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue — a useful experience for the leader of the United Nations.
In 1972 he married for the first time — he was later widowed and remarried — at a church wedding officiated by his close friend and Franciscan friar Vítor Melicias. At the time, Guterres and his bride were part of a group that gathered around Melícias at his convent in Lisbon, discussing issues of faith, but also the political and social situation in the country. Another member of the group, current President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, recently described Guterres as “the best one of us all.”
Guterres joined the Socialist Party the year it was formed, underground, and soon after the collapse of the regime he dedicated himself fully to building a political career. When elected prime minister in 1995, he was considered a natural leader of the Catholic wing of the Socialist Party.
His convictions would be tested a few years after his election when members of his own party presented a draft law to legalize abortion on demand up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.
“At that time he was under very intense pressure to change his position, or at least keep silent on the issue,” recalled Barahona. “I remember being with him at private social functions and a lot of the conversations kept going back to that one point, but he was always adamant that this was a question of conscience and fidelity to his principles, from which he would not back down, no matter what the consequences.”
The first draft law failed in Parliament, thanks to a significant contingent of Catholic Socialists who, encouraged by Guterres’ stand, voted against it. A second draft law was passed the following year, but subject to a referendum. Guterres once again made his opposition clear, although as prime minister he chose not to be personally involved in the campaigns. Abortion opponents once again won the day — very unexpectedly — with a 51 percent victory at the polls.
But these victories cost Catholic Socialists dearly. “He paid a political price for his position on abortion, and he was aware that he was going to pay it,” said Barahona.
“At the time we were the only ones within the Socialist Party framework who supported him,” said Anaia, the Young Catholic Socialists leader, who is now 43.
“It is interesting to see how some people, who criticized him at the time, are cozying up to him now that he has been elected secretary-general,” he added.
The Socialists won a second term but in 2001, after disastrous results in local elections, Guterres stepped down and left the political scene, only to become high commissioner for refugees at the U.N. in 2005. Since then the Socialist Party has become almost uniformly progressive, finally pushing through legal abortion in 2007 and making Portugal one of the first country’s to legalize same-sex marriage less than a decade later. A further bill expanding the abortion law last December saw only one Socialist MP break ranks and vote against.
Many of Guterres’ views on global affairs — including rising inequality, terrorism, migration and climate change — mirror those of Pope Francis, whom he visited in December 2013.
“The Catholic Church has always been a very important voice in the defense of refugees and migrants. A voice of tolerance, of respect to diversity in an indifferent world, if not hostile, to everything that’s foreign,” Guterres said after a private audience with the pontiff.
Anaia is sure that Guterres will not leave his faith or his convictions at the door when he takes office at the beginning of 2017, provided the U.N. General Assembly confirms his five-year appointment, which it is expected to do later this month.
But Anaia predicts the new secretary-general will not take a confrontational attitude.
“His posture is one of dialogue, sitting down with people he disagrees with and trying to find common ground.”
What is not clear is how much that will help him in what can sometimes seem like an impossible job at an international organization that many conservative Christians regard as having a liberal agenda regarding abortion, contraception and gay rights.
(Filipe Avillez is a writer based in Lisbon)