CommonSpace columnist Ross Ahlfeld examines attitudes within the Catholic Church around contraception
I WAS recently asked to appear on television to discuss if the Catholic Church should change its stance on contraception in light of Melinda Gates’ recent comments.
As you are probably aware, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is currently engaged in a campaign to reduce overpopulation and poverty through providing increased access to contraception in the world’s poorest communities.
For Catholic Workers, such debates can be difficult since none of us speak on behalf of all Catholic Workers and I’m not sure there even is a distinctly Catholic Worker perspective on this topic. As such I politely declined, mainly because it would have been almost impossible to articulate our position in a few soundbites.
Anyone familiar with Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ will know Pope Paul feared that an increase in the use of contraceptives would create an anti-women culture where men would “consider women to be objects of pleasure.
Even those with a less than charitable view on the church’s teaching around the issue of contraception will, at the very least, accept the fact that many churches (and most christians for that matter) aren’t really into the business of promoting promiscuity or abortion as the answer to overpopulation or the spread of sexually transmitted disease.
Rather, they believe in a natural law which has its origins in the divine. They believe that, regardless of income, nobody should be denied the gift of parenthood by another person. More so, they believe that the primary purpose of sex is procreation, while the most natural home for a sexual relationship is to be found within a loving marriage.
Regardless of what we now think, this was the standard opinion of basically everyone within what we class as ‘western civilization’ for at least the last thousand years, until quite recently. And regardless of what Melinda Gate thinks of the church or Pope Francis, that belief will never change.
However, it would be a mistake to think that such teachings are rooted in patriarchal misogyny or some kind of heartless decree designed to keep people in poverty.
For example, anyone familiar with Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’ will know Pope Paul feared that an increase in the use of contraceptives would create an anti-women culture where men would “consider women to be objects of pleasure and mere instruments of selfish enjoyment, no longer to be respected and beloved companions”.
Therefore, it comes as no great surprise to learn that most catholics and other mainline christians probably aren’t too keen on Melinda Gates’ most recent attempt to reduce the global population starting with poor people in the third world.
Don’t get me wrong, there is much to admire about the Gates Foundation, which is clearly carrying out wonderful work in funding education, sanitation, agriculture and development programmes all over the world. Meanwhile, the history of the family-planning programmes in the third world hasn’t been especially positive or encouraging with regards to human autonomy.
Yet, it is very much the socialist in me rather than the christian who has a problem with an unelected American gazillion–trillion billionaire promoting some kind of neo-colonial ‘charity with strings’ by cosying up to governments and pharmaceutical corporations. We need only look at China’s forced abortion and sterilization programmes to see the extremes to which some governments will go to reduce the population.
While the Gates Foundation states that it is not directly involved in funding abortions or forced sterilization (it had previously donated millions to Planned Parenthood), I do wonder if my secular leftwing comrades share any of my fears around a culture of charitable imperialism which may have the potential to lead us back down the road to the forced sterilization of women.
It comes as no great surprise to learn that most catholics and other mainline christians probably aren’t too keen on Melinda Gates’ most recent attempt to reduce the global population starting with poor people in the third world.
Do we really want to see a return to a practice which was widespread in South Africa and Namibia, violating women’s human right to autonomy? More recently, there was also a campaign to sterilize 100,000 women in the Rajasthan area of India.
Equally, are leftists and feminists really comfortable with French president Emmanuel Macron’s insulting suggestion that many of the world’s problems are caused by women in Africa having large families? Surely, we need to put the focus and pressure on men, not just women, in these circumstances.
Having said all that, I don’t think our churches are entirely above criticism on this issue, either. We are all ‘the Church’, by the way, not just the Vatican but all of us together – clergy, laity, saints, sinners (mostly sinners), young, old, rich, poor, married, single, gay, straight, black and white. (In truth, there’s more diversity to be found in churches than there is in movements such as the campaign against overpopulation or any other liberal-progressive movement.)
However, if conservative christians are serious about keeping artificial contraception out if Africa then they might want start with the estimated 96 per cent of married catholics freely using artificial contraception in places like the US and Europe, as well as all the western catholic couples supposedly ‘living in sin’.
Otherwise, we christians are also guilty of the exact same double standards and neo-colonial hypocrisy. For example, we should remember that when the church gives its teachings to the faithful it gives equally to all members the body of Christ, in the first world and in the third world. As St Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We need only look at China’s forced abortion and sterilization programmes to see the extremes to which some governments will go to reduce the population.
More so, I’m not sure if we can fairly compare Macron’s paternalistic view of the third world’s poorest women with the deep solidarity which exists between European christians and their own brethren in places like Africa.
Similarly, I would caution the faithful and the non-religious alike in our own society and beyond from getting too drawn into a global culture war. It seems to me that the debate around Melinda Gates and population control is just one aspect the American liberal left and the American conservative right exporting their silly culture war into Europe, into Africa and also into our universities, our churches and our governments, too.
Instead, solutions to problems such as overpopulation, artificial contraception and poverty (or anything else for that matter) are always better solved autonomously by the people from within the actual country or community dealing with that particular issue.
For instance, what do the majority of the African people and African nations think with regards to population control and multi-billionaires funding birth control in Africa? Has anyone asked?
Is it really our place to decide how many children someone in Africa has or doesn’t have? For me, population reduction as a solution to poverty always seems to be a western solution. Likewise, I’d be interested to know where this issue sits for people in Africa with regards to other problems such as sustainable food and clean water, jobs, education and an end to violent conflict, etc.
Solutions to problems such as overpopulation, artificial contraception and poverty are always better solved autonomously by the people from within the actual country or community dealing with that particular issue.
Perhaps you are surprised that as a catholic christian I’m suggesting here that families and communities have the autonomy to decide for themselves how to respond to issues such as the availability of contraception and population control.
To some, this opinion will echo Melinda Gates sentiments around voluntary and non-coercive access to contraception. However, it’s also worth remembering that church membership is not mandatory, people are free to leave or free to voluntarily submit themselves to church teachings no matter where in the world they are. Neither is the church the state, and I happen to think that Pope Francis also knows we’re no longer the holders of civic secular power.
Instead, this Pontiff seems to acknowledge the fact that the responsibility of christians is not to take over society and impose our convictions on people who don’t share our faith, but rather, we christians are called to serve and freely submit ourselves to the teachings of the church.
Perhaps this is why so many people often misunderstand what the Holy Father is saying and to whom he is speaking. Maybe this is why so many people are expecting this Pope to change the church’s teaching on contraception for married couples.
Sadly, I’m not qualified or well enough informed to say when, or even if, a Pope can change such teachings; this would be a question for the theologians. What I can say for certainty is that this Pope is merciful and full of compassion for the victims of extreme poverty, rape, prostitution and sexually transmitted disease.
Ultimately, I am suspicious of any solutions which are ideologically driven either by state or the market, like the pharmaceutical giants most involved in chemical contraception.
He also has an awareness of concrete situations and real pastoral care for people wherever they find themselves, both inside and outside the church. Therefore, if there was ever to be a fresh look taken at ‘Humanae Vitae’ as to accommodate those trapped in the misery of prostitution, for example, then the challenge for the theologians would be around keeping faithfulness, marriage, procreation and, ultimately, a loving God at the heart of the church’s teachings on sexuality.
One example of an alternative catholic response to the issue of contraception would be the South Africa Bishop of Rustenburg, Kevin Dowling, best known for his work with economic refugees in South Africa; women migrants who cannot access healthcare or social benefits forced to use ‘survival sex’ to eat. Bishop Dowling believes that condoms should be used in this circumstance to protect such women and prevent the spread of HIV.
The obvious reply to Bishop Dowling is that these women should not have to work as prostitutes in the first place and should be helped out of poverty, and that the men abusing them have no interest in using contraception anyway. Yet, it is the good bishop who is living with this current reality in his own diocese.
Ultimately, I am suspicious of any solutions which are ideologically driven either by state or the market, like the pharmaceutical giants most involved in chemical contraception, and even the NGOs with an agenda using the often cold, transactionary language of “human rights” (and yes, agendas based solely on theocracy, too).
You might rightfully ask; how, then, do we stop the global population from getting out of control and bring about a positive change where women aren’t dragged into a world of extreme poverty and prostitution, or denied the right to be protected from the risk of sexually transmitted disease when they are?
I believe we require what Dorothy Day calls “a revolution of the heart”, in each one of us, as to change our entire global culture.
I don’t have all the answer to that question but I do believe that before we start any conversation, we must open our hearts and accept that this is a messy business. For me, there is too often a lack of authentic empowerment, personalism and love (on both sides!) in our pursuit of real holistic solutions to such problems.
I believe we require what Dorothy Day calls “a revolution of the heart”, in each one of us, as to change our entire global culture. Dorothy expands on this idea by calling on us all to “build a new world within the shell of the old”; a world where it’s easier to be good and easier to lead good lives. Indeed, Day’s own life itself is an example of an answer which is compassionate, radical and countercultural.
This is shown by the fact that she herself had an abortion which she later came to regret, before becoming a devout (quite conservative) catholic and then choosing to live among the poor and most marginalised in society. Day always maintained her own traditional catholic morality but she never sought to impose that morality on those she chose to serve. And so for me it’s about removing the desire to have power over others before we begin to look at this issue.
As Jean Vanier teaches us: “Each one of us, I believe, is on a journey towards this openness where we risk to love. Growth toward openness means dialogue, trusting in others, listening to them, particularly to those who say things we don’t like to hear, speaking together about our mutual needs and how we might grow to new things.
“The birth of a good society comes when people start to trust each other, to share with each other, and to feel concerned for each other.”
Picture courtesy of Annabelle Shemer
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