Politics and Catholic power

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 24 September 2015
Church and State

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Excerpt from our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s book, The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (1986). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

That the Vatican views the solutions to the population problem as threats to its authority over its communicants, and thus its political power, is well supported. Thomas Burch, one of the 64 lay members of the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control (1966), recently revealed in the National Catholic Reporter that the tacit purpose of the Commission was to find a way for the Church to approve contraception without undermining Church authority.*40 So surely the Church is, or was, aware of its own dilemma. At the time, Burch was on the faculty of Georgetown University, and today is chairman of The University of Western Ontario’s Department of Sociology. In the recent article cited, Burch said:

Cardinal (John) Heenan (of Westminister, England) announced that it was the wish of ‘the high authority’ that we consider two propositions during the day.

First proposition: suppose the Vatican changed its mind on contraception. What can we do to present this in such a way that the church will not lose its moral influence over people?

Second proposition: Suppose the Vatican does not change its mind on these issues. How can we preserve our (the church’s) influence over the marital behavior of individuals?

I think my very strong reaction was, ‘What the heck’s going on here? You are saying that you might have been wrong for nigh on 30 to 40 years on some details about methods; you’ve caused millions of people untold agony and unwanted children; brought on stresses and strains and tremendous feelings of guilt. You’ve told people they were going to hell because they wouldn’t stop using condoms, and now you’re saying maybe you’re wrong? But you want to say it in such a way that you can continue to tell people what to do in bed?’

I think at that point, the absurdity became very clear. My feeling was that what the church was most concerned with was exerting its own authority. It was not terribly concerned with human beings at some level.

Thus, the Vatican’s position on population growth control and family planning is reduced to a question of authority, the control of individuals; it is reduced to a question of power—political power.

The Commission voted 64 to 4 that a change in the Church’s stand on artificial birth control was both possible and advisable. The report had to be submitted in mid-1966 to a smaller commission of twenty cardinals and bishops, and that’s where the crunch came. Obliged to record their own views of the report, six of the prelates abstained, eight voted in favor of recommending the report to the Pope, and six voted against it (including Pope John Paul II, then a Cardinal).*41

This small minority vote was sufficient to enable Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the prefect of the Holy Office, room to maneuver. Ottaviani was the most powerful person in the Roman Catholic Church next to the Pope and a bitter opponent of the liberalizing aspects of Vatican Council II. These few negative votes allowed the Cardinal to rally the old guard and throughout 1967 and early 1968 bring sufficient pressure on the Pope so that he ignored the advice of the Commission and published Humanae Vitae on July 25, 1968,*42 retaining the ban on so-called ‘artificial contraception’. The powers of the Curia obviously had decided that the Vatican could not change its position without losing much or all of its political power.*43

Humanae Vitae was an admission by the Vatican that the solutions to the population problem—modern methods of contraception, abortion, sterilization, expanding opportunities for women, sex education and the like—are in fact gravely threatening the survival of the Vatican, at least its political dimension, because they all undermine its authority.

For all practical purposes, therefore, Humanae Vitae was a declaration of a “holy war” against family planning and population growth control. Recognizing their jeopardy, the prelates placed the religious dimension of the Church at risk in order to prevail politically. The encyclical seriously divided the Church. On a disaster scale for the Roman Catholic Church it measures higher than the treatment of Galileo in the seventeenth century or the declaration of papal infallibility by Pius IX in 1870. This document, which was intended to strengthen papal authority, had precisely the opposite effect.*44

From its perspective, the Vatican’s actions are not as unreasonable as would appear on the surface. Illegal birth control and abortion, for example, are no threat to Vatican survival because, being illegal, they do not weaken Church authority. Their illegality means that civil authority is not pitted against Church authority—Church/State confrontation is avoided. Between 7 and 12 million abortions are performed illegally in Catholic Latin America each year.*45 The Church makes no attempt to stop them. Illegal abortion does not threaten their authority. The lives of thousands of women in those Roman Catholic countries who die from illegal abortion each year and the suffering of millions of others who survive apparently is a small price to pay to maintain Church authority.

Sadly, the institution of the Roman Catholic Church appears to have become a political one above all else. To survive and expand for so many centuries it was compelled to become a political power; and it has become a financial power as well. Sometimes the Church undertakes activities that are political or economic under the guise of religion. Menaced by public population policy in the U.S., which legally sanctions birth control, sex education, abortion and family size limitation, the Vatican is resorting to desperate and bold political measures here.

In his book, American Freedom and Catholic Power (The Beacon Press, 1949), Protestant minister, lawyer, and former State Department official, Paul Blanshard discussed what theoretically could happen to American democracy if the Catholic Church conducted itself as it had in most other countries in recent history, skillfully manipulating governments. He recognized that the Vatican and the U.S. at times do have conflicting interests, such as birth control. A person cannot always be loyal to the Pope and to the United States at once. When interests clash, choices must be made. Blanshard’s book was labeled heretical and rabidly anti-Catholic by the Church. Librarians were ordered to remove it from their shelves.

*40 Jones, A. Vatican, “International Agencies Hone Family, Population Positions,” National Catholic Reporter (reprinted in Conscience, May/June 1984, p. 7).
*41 “The Words of a Future Pope,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1978, p. 7.
*42 Yallop, DA. In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. New York: Bantam Books, 1984, p. 24.
*43 Jones. p. 9.
*44 Ibid, p. 28.
*45 Mumford, SD. and Kessel, E. “Is Wide Availability of Abortion Essential to National Population Growth Control Programs? Experiences of 116 Countries,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 149(6):639, 1984.

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).

During the formative years of the World Health Organization (WHO), broad consensus existed among United Nations member countries that overpopulation is a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future. One of the founding fathers of the WHO, the late Milton P. Siegel, speaks to Dr. Mumford in 1992. He explains how the Vatican successfully stymied the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

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