The Case Against the Vatican: Guilty as Charged
In 1993, the year before the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo began, the Vatican campaigned with a vengeance against the consensus taking shape around the United Nations conference. From Pope John Paul II down through the Roman Catholic hierarchy came charges that the conference represented evil itself.
Indeed, the Vatican’s vision of civilization did seem to be at stake. The conference became a debate “between modernity and tradition, between dogma and reason,” the Italian daily La Repubblica observed. What the Vatican decried, others acclaimed. The overwhelming majority of world governments, religious leaders, and a broad array of public interest organizations with historically diverse views on population issues had come to a consensus on a new approach to stabilizing world population. This new approach recognized the importance of ethics, values, sustainability, poverty eradication, and especially the connection between the empowerment of women and lower fertility rates. Gone were demographic targets. Human dignity, women’s equality, and men’s responsibility were at the heart of programs and policies. In particular, women’s moral agency in reproductive decisions was recognized. Meanwhile, the Holy See dug in its heels, crying that liberal views of sexuality, reproduction, and families would bring nothing but ruin.
The Cairo conference was preceded by two other U.N. conferences on population, in 1974 and 1984, and the Holy See had refused to endorse the documents that came out of those meetings. In Cairo, however, the Holy See surprised everyone by joining the consensus on half of the document.
There should really be no wonder that the Holy See would endorse half the Program of Action. Indeed, there is much that the Vatican has to add that is positive to world policies on population and development. Its stands against the causes of poverty and for economic justice, for example, are strong and admirable. Its support for migrants, threatened indigenous populations, and the poor is solid and eloquent. The Vatican has much to say about human dignity and the moral imperative for noncoercive policies. Cairo’s Program of Action spoke brilliantly about all of these things.
But the Holy See could not support the prominence given by the Program of Action to reproductive health, reproductive rights, and the rights of women. Throughout the document runs the idea that couples and individuals should have access to safe and effective methods of contraception, including but not limited to natural family planning. While news accounts focused on debates about abortion, the Cairo document does not say much on that issue that is contentious. To be sure, it was significant that for the first time a U.N. document explicitly addressed the public health problem of unsafe abortion. This, however, falls far short of calls for countries to liberalize abortion laws, as many abortion opponents feared—and some claimed—the document did.
The Vatican, of course, remains officially opposed to all family planning methods except “natural family planning,” which involves periodic abstinence. Moreover, the Vatican continues to forbid the use of condoms for protection against sexually transmitted diseases, even for married couples in which one partner has HIV. Catholic theologians, clergy, and laity the world over have soundly rejected these teachings. Catholics use contraception and they believe they are acting morally in doing so. Having failed to convince Catholics to follow this teaching, the church leadership has moved into the public policy arena to block access to contraception. This political work, which affects Catholics and non-Catholics alike, also includes obstructing efforts to broaden sexuality education programs and to improve and expand prevention programs on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Following are a few examples of efforts by Catholic church officials in these areas:
- Brazilian Catholic officials in 1995 criticized the government’s new AIDS prevention campaign because the campaign advocates the use of condoms to protect against the spread of HIV and AIDS.
- Kenya’s top Catholic bishop, Cardinal Maurice Otunga, burned several boxes of condoms in August 1996, along with pamphlets promoting safe sex.
- In February 1997, Pope John Paul II told Philippine bishops in Rome to publicly oppose sterilization and contraception.
- Year after year the bishops of the United States lobby Congress, urging lawmakers to oppose international family planning assistance.
How do we respond to these harmful incursions by the bishops into the making of public policies on these issues? First, the bishops, collectively and individually, should be welcome participants in the policy field. However, they do not participate as privileged, sanctified players. Political scientists, journalists, lawmakers, and the public have the obligation to evaluate the church’s positions as they would the positions of any other group. One question that should be asked of any policy advocate relates to representation. In the case of contraception, church officials certainly do not represent the views of the majority of Catholics. Even in the case of abortion, the official position does not mesh with most Catholics’ views. Only a minority of Catholics agree with the church that abortion should not be legal under any circumstances.
Second, the church’s position on an issue must be examined in light of positions put forth by other religions. The Roman Catholic church without question has the most absolute position on contraception and abortion. Almost all religions have come to understand that the use of family planning and contraception is an important element in a couple’s exercise of responsibility. And many faith groups accept that abortion can be a moral choice and support the legal right to choose abortion. Creating policies based only on Catholic teaching precludes the rights of people of other religions to exercise their freedom.
Third, it must be asked if the positions put forward by church officials are backed by accurate and valid facts. On the issues of contraception and abortion, bishops have disseminated highly questionable information. For example, church officials in many places have declared that condoms offer no protection against AIDS. Some have even said that condoms cause AIDS by lulling people into believing they are protected. The difficulty for some to genuinely critique the positions of religious leaders with the stature of Roman Catholic bishops and other officials.
Population concerns touch upon a broad array of issues relating to human rights, economics, the environment, sexuality and reproduction, human relationships, and, indeed, the interconnectedness of each of these issues to the others. Religious thought has much to offer regarding these areas. The church’s concerns about manifestations of evil have a rightful place in this discourse. Unfortunately, the Catholic church has chosen to squander its moral authority by focusing the bulk of its attention on the phantom of evil in matters of reproduction, gender, and sexuality, where its views conflict with the world consensus and indeed with Catholics themselves.
This article appeared in the Spring 1999 edition of Free Inquiry.