Prospective UN chief Guterres has pro-life, pro-refugee record

As Portugal's prime minister, he took a stand against legalizing abortion

A socialist and yet a devout Catholic: that is how many news reports are depicting the man likely to become the United Nation’s next secretary-general.

All 15 members of the UN Security Council voted unanimously for former Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Guterres of Portugal during the sixth round of “informal voting,” Vatican Insider reported:

The next step is by now considered a mere formality: the General Assembly must approve the appointment. The sheer fact that the US and Russia both agreed on the nominee (whose name was announced by representatives of both countries: Samantha Power and Vitaly Churkin) is in itself highly significant in political terms, given that the international community seems incapable, at this moment in time, of reaching agreements or finding common ground.

The General Assembly is likely to vote on Oct. 13, and Guterres will succeed Ban Ki-Moon, whose term comes to an end in December.

Religion News Service describes Guterres as 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.” RNS said he 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 got into politics after working in some of Lisbon’s more impoverished neighborhoods. He had already been active in Catholic Action, a popular movement in the postwar Catholic world, while studying engineering in college.

But an experience with the ecumenical monastic community Taize in France in the mid-1960s left a deep impact on Guterres and opened his eyes to the importance of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

He became Portugal’s prime minister in 1995 and faced a personal tested a few years later 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 a friend from his Taize days, Antonio 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.

The Socialists won a second term but in 2001, after disastrous results in local elections, Guterres stepped down and left the political scene. He went back to tutoring poor schoolchildren. In 2005, he became high commissioner for refugees at the U.N.

Claudio Anaia, who led the Young Catholic Socialists in the late 1990s, believes 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.”

In his 10 years as the UN’s chief refugee officer, Vatican Insider pointed out, Guterres “cut bureaucratic personnel by a third, placing resources and people on the ground.”


Shawn Neal

John Burger

John Burger is a news editor at Aleteia. He formerly worked at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York in the Archdiocese of New York. He has also written for a wide variety of Catholic publications.