In the News 2014

Catholics making their own choices

Catholics for Choice believes people can make their own judgements about sex and reproduction, says Jonathan deBurca Butler

LAST summer, a billboard ad campaign for Catholics appeared in towns and cities in Kenya. Posters showed a smiling couple. The caption read: “We believe in God, we believe that sex is sacred, we believe in caring for each other, we believe in using condoms. Good Catholics use condoms.”

The campaign was run by Catholics for Choice, an NGO started in 1973 and based in Washington, in the United States.

“We do a lot of work in parts of Africa,” says its director, Dubliner Jon O’Brien. “I noticed last year that a television ad had been produced by [another] non-governmental organisation, which suggested that if you were going to have sex with a person who was not your regular partner, you should use a condom. It was trying to address the serious HIV problem that they have there. It was dealing with a reality that exists and was trying to encourage people to deal with it responsibly.”

“The Catholic hierarchy went ballistic,” says O’Brien. “They demanded that the ad be withdrawn and banned and, amazingly, everyone complied. The hierarchy were happy to go back to silence. Silence and HIV is a deadly combination.”

So, Catholics for Choice launched its poster and newspaper ad campaign. Unsurprisingly, bishops in Kenya spoke against the campaign and wanted the material removed. Catholics for Choice refused and even placed posters in full view of churches. Annoying the Catholic hierarchy is a byproduct of what Catholics for Choice do. Catholics for Choice believe that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and truly accessible’, that ‘health interventions [should] not be blocked by sectarian interests’ and that ‘all women and men [should be] trusted to make moral decisions about their lives’.

“Catholics for Choice lifts up the view of the majority of Catholics,” says O’Brien. “No matter where you find them, I think Catholics have a much broader view of sexual ethics than the bishops do. I think Catholics follow their conscience, when they’re making moral decisions, such as on the use of contraception. On many social issues, we very much differ from the Catholic hierarchy.”

“The problem is that the Catholic hierarchy sometimes represents itself to political power as speaking on behalf of Catholic voters,” says O’Brien. “And what we do, right across the world, is really give voice to what the majority of Catholics really think which is [often] different to the hierarchy. We remind policy- makers that they need to legislate for all the people and not just the hierarchy.”

In the early 1990s, O’Brien was at the forefront of the so-called Virgin condom issue. Working for the Irish Family Planning Association, he and his associates approached politicians and said that many young people wanted condoms.

“Back then, you had to have a prescription from a doctor to buy condoms,” says O’Brien. “We suggested that it would be very useful to have them available through vending machines. While most of them agreed with us, they feared a backlash from the Catholic hierarchy, who were then a very powerful force when it came to social issues in Ireland.”

Undeterred, IFPA, with the help of record shop owner, Richard Branson, sold condoms from the Virgin Megastore on Ormond Quay.

The campaign attracted international attention. Scores of people lined up outside the store to purchase condoms and the controversy sparked a Late Late Show debate, during which Gay Byrne fiddled with a condom.

A judge fined the group. Paul McGuinness and U2 rode in behind the campaign, and the Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, saw sense. Eventually, legislation was introduced allowing the sale of condoms in Ireland.

O’Brien was then snapped up by the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which sent him into post-Soviet Union eastern European countries, such as Lithuania and Latvia, to set up family planning organisations for the promotion of sexual health.

In the late 1990s, O’Brien moved to the USA and he has lived and worked there since. He is aware of developments in Ireland and talk turns to the gay marriage debate here.

“I think it’s quite sad what I’m seeing at the moment,” says O’Brien. “There’s a lot of heat in the discussion. And when there’s a lot of heat, there’s no room for light. I know many people who are LGBT Catholics and I think it’s been incredibly painful for them to feel excluded from the Church. Now you might say ‘ah, well, are they really excluded?’ but I think the language that sometimes surrounds my LGBT brothers and sisters, as intrinsically disordered, makes me think, ‘oh my goodness, it’s no wonder so many people feel so alienated from the Church today’.”

“The fact that you have certain rights doesn’t take away the rights that I have,” he says. “So the fact that LGBT people can have the same rights as we do, I find it difficult to understand why people would want to deny them that freedom.

“You might not agree with everything that someone else believes in, but the fact that they have it doesn’t affect where you are in your life or, indeed, your views about marriage or any other issue.”

Since the election of Pope Francis, there has been much talk of change within the Church. O’Brien says he is wary of pinning reform on one man, but is hopeful Pope Francis will review aspects of Catholic teaching.

“He’s due to start a synod on the family and I think it’s an excellent chance for Pope Francis to not just have a different rhetoric for Catholics, but to actually lead us in real change on some of these issues,” says O’Brien. “Just as he’s reforming the Curia and the Vatican Bank and he’s trying to clean things up in Rome, it would be very good if he looked at how teachings are falling well short of what is just and what is fair and what is compassionate.

This piece was originally published by the Irish Examiner.

Catholics for Choice