Why is the Vatican obliged to halt legalized abortion and contraception despite the strong wishes of Americans?

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 21 August 2012
Church and State

(Credit: GYG Studio / Shutterstock.com)

This excerpt has been adapted from Chapter 6 of our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s seminal book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (1996). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

How Population Growth Control Threatens the Papacy

Why is the Vatican obliged to halt legalized abortion and contraception despite the strong wishes of Americans? When our government legalized contraception and abortion, it pitted civil authority against papal authority. The Vatican demands supremacy over civil governments in matters of faith and morals, but our government has rejected this concept. Thus, while the Church is saying that family planning and abortion are evil and grave sins, our government is saying they may be good and should be used. Obviously, most American Catholics are accepting morality as defined by the government and rejecting morality as defined by the pope. As a result, Papal authority is undermined.

There are a number of Catholic countries in Latin America with abortion rates two to four times as high as the U.S. rate. But the bishops ignore abortions there. Why? Because they are illegal abortions, not legal ones. They do not threaten Papal authority! Only legal abortions do, because their legalization establishes their morality. Thus, the bishops take no significant actions to halt abortions in Latin America.

In Papal Power: A Study of Vatican Control Over Lay Catholic Elites,[35] published by The University of California Press in 1980, Jean-Guy Vaillancourt, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Montreal, closely examines the sources of papal power and how it evolved. He found that papal authority is vital to the maintenance of papal power. This power is derived in significant part from papal authority. If the Pope’s authority is diminished, papal power is diminished. However, some authority is derived from papal power and if papal power is diminished, then authority is undermined. The relationship is circular. Less authority means less power which means even less authority. With diminishing power, survival of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church in its present hierarchical form is gravely threatened. Thus, the very survival of the Vatican is threatened by programs of population growth control.

In his book, “Persistent Prejudice: Anti-Catholicism in America,” published by Our Sunday Visitor in 1984, Michael Schwartz summarized the position of Catholic conservatives on the abortion issue:

“The abortion issue is the great crisis of Catholicism in the United States, of far greater import than the election of a Catholic president or the winning of tax support for Catholic education. In the unlikely event that the Church’s resistance to abortion collapses and the Catholic community decides to seek an accommodation with the institutionalized killing of innocent human beings, that would signal the utter failure of Catholicism in America. It would mean that U.S. Catholicism will have been defeated and denatured by the anti-Catholic host culture.”[36]

In April 1992, in a rare public admission of this threat, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, delivering a major address to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, acknowledged,

“The fact is that attacks on the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion—unless they are rebutted—effectively erode Church authority on all matters, indeed on the authority of God himself.”[37]

This threat to Papal authority was recognized decades ago by the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control. The two tiered commission consisted of a group of 15 cardinals and bishops and a group of 64 lay experts representing a variety of disciplines. The commission met from 1964 until 1966. According to commission member Thomas Burch, Pope Paul VI himself assigned them the task of finding a way to change the Church’s position on birth control without destroying papal authority.[38]

After two years of studying the dilemma, the laymen voted 60 to four and the clerics nine to six to change the Church’s teaching on birth control even though it would mean a loss of papal authority because it was the right thing to do. The minority also submitted a report to the Pope.[39] Coauthor of the minority report was the young Archbishop of Cracow, Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II.

In 1967, two newspapers published without authorization the full texts of the Papal commission’s report. Thus the world knew that a substantial majority of the double commission had recommended liberalization on birth control.[39] The commission, of course, failed to find an acceptable way to accomplish this, and the result was the publication in 1968 of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which banned the use of abortion and artificial means of contraception, such as birth control pills. It is true that Pope Paul VI is credited with authorship of Humanae Vitae; not until 1995 was Karol Wojtyla revealed as a major contributor. A Polish theologian who worked with him declares that “about sixty percent [of materials for the Encyclical of our draft] is contained in the encyclical.”[39a]

It was not until 1985 that Thomas Burch, a professor at Georgetown University in the 1960s and more recently chairman of Western Ontario’s Sociology Department, revealed to the world the real assignment of the commission. When Pope Paul issued Humanae Vitae, he admitted to the world that the Church cannot change its position on birth control without undermining papal authority—an unacceptable sacrifice. However, it was not until 1979, when August Bernhard Hasler published his book, How the Pope Became Infallible, that the world was given the text of the minority report which persuaded Pope Paul VI to reject the majority position.[40] Hasler was a Catholic theologian and historian who served for five years in the Vatican secretariat for Christian unity. During this period, he was given access to the Vatican Archives where he discovered numerous documents, never studied before, that revealed the story of Vatican Council I. Dr. Hasler died suddenly at age 43, four days after writing a critical open letter to Pope John Paul II and six months after completing the second edition of this book.[41]

The declaration of papal infallibility was a product of Vatican Council I, which preceded Vatican Council II more than a century ago, and was considered vital to the continuation of papal power. According to Vaillancourt, “During the Middle Ages and under feudalism, when the Catholic Church was a dominant institution in society, papal power grew in importance, relying often on force to attain its ends, which were political as much as they were religious. The Crusades and, later on, the Inquisition, stand as the two most notorious of these violent papal ventures. But with the decline of the Portuguese and Spanish empires, with the advent of the Reformation and of the intellectual, democratic, and industrial revolutions, the Catholic hierarchy lost much of its influence and power. Unable to continue using physical coercion, the Papacy was led to strengthen its organizational structure and to perfect a wide range of normative means of control. The declaration of papal infallibility by the first Vatican Council (Vatican I), in 1870, was an important milestone in that direction. The stress on the absolute authority of the pope in questions of faith and morals helped turn the Church into a unified and powerful bureaucratic organization, and paved the way for the establishment of the Papacy-laity relationship as we know it today.”[42]

Pope Paul VI was faced with the prospect of personally destroying the concept of papal infallibility, a concept vital to the continuation of papal power. Hasler notes, “But for Paul VI there already were infallible declarations of the ordinary magisterium on the books concerning contraception. And so, unlike the majority of his commission of experts, the pope felt bound to these declarations by his predecessors.” Thus the pope was forced to agree with the minority report of the commission.

Origin of Today’s Anti-Family Planning Crusade

Hasler quotes from that minority report—a paragraph that defined today’s anti-family planning crusade:

“If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti Connubii was promulgated), in 1951 (Pius XII’s address to the midwives), and in 1958 (the address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died). It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved.”[43]

Hasler concludes, “Thus, it became only too clear that the core of the problem was not the pill but the authority, continuity, and infallibility of the Church’s magisterium.”

This is at the very core of the world population problem. The Papacy simply cannot survive the solutions—i.e., contraception, abortion, sex education, etc. The Vatican believes, probably correctly, that if the solutions to the population problem are applied, the dominance of Vatican power will soon wither. Grasping the implications of the principal of infallibility are crucial to understanding the underlying basis of the world population problem. Chapter 11 is devoted to this topic.

It is most important to understand that the Vatican leadership can visualize a world where it no longer exists. It was this chilling vision that drove the conservative members of the Vatican leadership and Pope Paul VI to reject the majority report and accept the minority report of the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control in 1968. This vision has driven Vatican behavior on family planning ever since. Thus, the security-survival of the Papacy is now pitted directly against the security-survival of the United States. The Vatican simply cannot accommodate the security interests of the United States.

This is not the first time our security interests have been in conflict. There are many examples of the American Catholic hierarchy supporting papal security interests at the expense of U.S. security interests. One example is the Spanish Civil War between the democratic constitutional government and the Vatican supported fascist Franco. Byrnes states, “The bishops also broke with Roosevelt over the issue of the Spanish Civil War….The bishops instinctively supported Franco in the war….Caught between mainstream views on foreign policy and the interests of their church, the bishops…opted for defense of the international church.”[44]

It is institutional survival that governs the behavior of the Catholic hierarchy in all matters. The claim that “morality” governs its behavior in the matters of family planning and abortion is fraudulent. The hierarchy has a long history of determining which position is in the best interest of the Papacy—including the survival of the Papacy—and then framing that position as the moral position. Father Arthur McCormack was for 23 years the Vatican consultant to the UN on development and population, leaving that post in 1979. In 1982, he went public with his conclusion that the Vatican position on family planning and population growth control is immoral. A summary of his reasoning is offered in Chapter 13.

American political will to deal with the overpopulation problem fell victim to the Vatican’s inexorable position. In the next chapter we will discuss how the Vatican achieved this vital objective, as it set about protecting its security interests.

[35] Vaillancourt JG. Papal Power: A Study of Vatican Control Over Lay Catholic Elites. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1980.
[36] Schwartz M. Persistent Prejudice: Anti-Catholicism in America. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1984. p. 132.
[37] King HV. Cardinal O’Connor Declares That Church Teaching On Abortion Underpins All Else. The Wanderer, April 23, 1992. p. 1.
[38] Jones A. Vatican, “International Agencies Hone Family, Population Positions.” National Catholic Reporter (reprinted in Conscience, May/June 1984. p. 7.
[39] Murphy FX, Erhart JF. Catholic perspectives on population issues. Pop Bulletin 1975;30(6):3-31.
[40] Hasler, AB. How the Pope Became Infallible. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1981.
[41] Ibid., (cover)
[42] Vallancourt, p. 2.
[43] Hasler, p. 270.
[44] Byrnes, p. 29.

Dr. Stephen Mumford is the founder and President of the North Carolina-based Center for Research on Population and Security. He has his doctorate in Public Health. His principal research interest has been the relationship between world population growth and national and global security. He has been called to provide expert testimony before the U.S. Congress on the implications of world population growth.

Dr. Mumford has decades of international experience in fertility research where he is widely published, and has addressed conferences worldwide on new contraceptive technologies and the stresses to the security of families, societies and nations that are created by continued uncontrolled population growth. Using church policy documents and writings of the Vatican elite, he has introduced research showing the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as the principal power behind efforts to block the availability of contraceptive services worldwide.

In addition to his books on biomedical and social aspects of family planning, as well as scientific articles in more than a score of journals, Dr. Mumford’s major works include American Democracy and the Vatican: Population Growth and National Security (Amherst, New York: Humanist Press, 1984), The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1986), and The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1996).

The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH
Paperback Publisher: Center for Research on Population and Security (October 1996)
Kindle Publisher: Church and State Press (February 6, 2015)
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  1. The question “Why is the Vatican obliged to halt legalized abortion and contraception despite the strong wishes of Americans?” begins this article. Just b/c someone wishes for something doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Most toddlers would like a lollipop before lunch but since that isn’t good for them, most parents won’t give it to them. Abortion hurts women. They are left to live a lifetime of regret, see http://www.SilentNoMore.org I am a Catholic and I believe the in the infallibility of the Pope’s teaching on moral issues. The fact that the Church has been so consisent on the teaching the Abortiona and contraception for over 2000 is one of the things that reaffirmed my faith. This article actually proves rather than disproves papal infallible and that the Holy Spirit not the whims of man are guiding Church.

    • I counted at least four instances where Papal insiders admit that the Catholic church's stances on abortion & contraception were based in no way on morals but on preserving Papal authority. How much clearer could this be made before you get it? Reigning in population growth cannot be equated to the hedonistic whims of toddlers. It is a matter of preserving the planet and its resources for future generations. When you ignore reality in light of facts provided by institutional insiders it's not honorable or moral. It's deplorable and inexcusable. Religious oppression and ignorance hurt women. Contraception and abortion empower women.


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