Mea Culpa? Dogma in the Catholic Church

By Edmund Davey | November 2012
Population Matters

“The only way to solve the problem of contraception is to solve the problem of infallibility.”
– Hans Küng, Catholic theologian.

On the 19th of September 1870, the army of newly united Italy besieged Rome, which was now no longer protected by a French garrison. Next day the Italians took the city with cannon and on the 21st the Vatican was occupied. During the process Pope Pius IX sacrificed 19 of his Papal zouaves, who had themselves accounted for 49 Italian soldiers, though to send men to die was not at that time unusual for a Pope who issued death warrants to hang or behead those who threatened his supremacy. The first Vatican Council in session at the time was suspended until 1960, but only after they had approved the dogma of papal infallibility.

It’s worth emphasising the word ‘dogma’; the principle of papal infallibility was not new, and had been used previously to declare various other religious notions as being dogma. In 1854 Pius IX had himself declared as dogma the Immaculate Conception of Mary. But dogma is especially powerful stuff, for, as The Catechism of The Catholic Church states: “The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas…,” so not much room for manoeuvre there. What was new was that, with the army of the newly minted Italy heading towards Rome, Infallibility was itself elevated to the status of dogma, an act thought by observers such as Stephen Mumford to be a way of compensating for the loss of the Papal states.

The tangled psychology of Mother Church’s antipathy to contraception, spanning centuries, probably defies analysis. Certainly though, by 1964, the then pope, Paul VI, was sufficiently worried by the changing circumstances of the age to set up a Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control: perhaps it was time for a rethink. Reflecting on this in 1999, our founder, David Willey, observed:

After two years of intense study, the Commission concluded that, while it was not possible to make any change without undermining papal authority, the Church should make the change anyway because it was the right thing to do. Both parts of the Commission voted in favour of change: the lay members by 60 votes to 4 and the clerics by 9 to 6.

And that should have been it; the Vatican hierarchy would grasp the nettle and show that they understood the concerns of the laity, elevating compassion above consistency; but, in a minority report one opinion, destined to become dominant, rallied their troubled conscience. Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul II, now heading for sainthood) pointed out in ringing tones that a volte face would imply that they had for years been wrong – and, moreover, that the Protestant churches had been right – in their pronouncements on birth control:

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 …It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half 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.

Stephen Mumford summarises:

The Cardinal’s message [was]: “If we change the Vatican’s position on birth control, we will destroy the dogma of papal infallibility.”

Persuaded by that argument, in 1968 Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae – ever controversial but eternally indissoluble.

David Willey’s observation quoted above appeared in his essay ‘The Vatican body Count’ in which he attempted a calculation of the deaths attributable to the Vatican’s rejection of artificial contraception, exercised unyieldingly to control the direction of important organisations and governments worldwide. Its icy grip had already been evident on the fledgling World Health Organisation since the time of its creation in 1948. The message then: ditch contraception or we will destroy you, though David only starts his count from the time that the ultimate flag of Humanae Vitae was hoisted 20 years later. He includes both women dying in childbirth and deaths of unwanted children, and the overall numbers he suggests are huge and sobering, though he concludes that he can only propose approximations.

To more easily grasp the specifics of the Vatican’s culpability I have narrowed my search to the church’s obvious influence in the strongly Roman Catholic Philippines.

Here, the rigidly anti-contraceptive stance is especially powerful; the Guttmacher Institute comments:

Manila (with a population of 1.7 million) effectively banned public and private provision of contraceptives in 2000, following the election of a “prolife” mayor. Under pressure from church officials, the current mayor has continued the ban on public provision of contraceptives. According to recent reports, similar bans are in effect in Northern Samar and Antipolo City.
Facts on Barriers to Contraceptive Use In the Philippines; The Guttmacher Institute, May 2010

Whilst a more recent LA Times article reports:

In the Philippines, a country of 96 million people, access to birth control is mostly limited to those with the means to buy it. A “reproductive health bill” in the national legislature … calls for public education about contraceptives and government subsidies to make them available to everyone. The church and likeminded opponents have stalled the legislation for 14 years. … A ban on contraception at public clinics there [Manila] has put birth control out of the reach of most of the city’s poor.
‘Philippines birth control: Filipinos want it, priests don’t’; LA Times, 220712; Kenneth R. Weiss & Rick Loomis

Desperate women, unable to cope with regular pregnancies and increasing poverty seek abortion – also illegal – with the inevitable result that they resort to ‘back streets’; others simply die.

It is difficult to find a straightforward survey of causes of death of Philippine women, linked to unsafe abortions and unwanted pregnancies. In a report, also cited later in this article, The Centre for Reproductive Rights found:

[Their] fundamental duty is undermined by criminal abortion laws that force health professionals to compromise the best interests of their patients by denying them medical services in deference to State demands…. [such that] Due to the criminal status of abortion, every effort has been made to protect the identities of the interviewees [including non-professionals] and sources of information.

However several points are revealed by obtainable data:

— The rate of Maternal Mortality (MMR) has been declining, though different sources provide a surprisingly wide range of data. The WHO reports a drop from 120 per 100,000 in 2000 to 99 in 2012.

— The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) reports that the population of the Philippines has risen by 25% in those same years. (2000: 76.5 million; 2012: 96.2 million). This alone would imply that overall maternal deaths would remain steady, or rise a little.

— (quote) “[In 2008] Around 1,000 women died as a result of unsafe abortion. [in addition] Of the women who died during childbirth or due to miscarriages, approximately 1,600 had not wanted to become pregnant.”
Forsaken Lives, The Harmful Impact of the Philippine criminal abortion ban; Centre for Reproductive rights, 2010.

— (quote) “In 2008, there were approximately 4,700 maternal deaths, more than half of which were among women who had had unintended pregnancies. One thousand of these deaths were due to unsafe abortion.”
Guttmacher Inst Facts on Barriers to Contraceptive Use In the Philippines May 2010

— Maternal deaths per se indeed seem not to have lessened over a number of years, for, in Maternal Mortality in 2005 Estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, and The World Bank, 4600 maternal deaths were reported for The Philippines – slightly fewer than the later estimates.

I think it therefore safe to assume that at least 2,500 women have been dying annually for a considerable time as a direct consequence of the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception. If I then consider the 14 years during which “… The church and like-minded opponents have stalled the legislation …”, simple maths tells me that there were, in that short time alone, in excess of 35,000 instances of children bereft of mothers, parents bereft of daughters, husbands bereft of wives.

A woman in Berega, Tanzania, who sought care after a botched abortion. In Tanzania, where abortion is illegal, the maternal death rate is high in part because of failed abortions. (Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times)

We can then reflect for ourselves on the scale of misery in the preceding years, and let our imaginations dwell on other countries such as Brazil and Mexico, and in the African continent generally, where more enlightened movements, despite greater success, still meet powerful opposition from the Catholic Church.

Even in Europe we are not entirely immune from the cold gape of the rattlesnake. Many Irish women are obliged to travel not only from Eire but also from NI to the UK to obtain terminations. Marie Stopes International coolly advertises:

“As abortion is restricted in Ireland, if you decide to have an abortion you must travel to the UK and pay for the service…”

You may argue that with proper contraception, terminations should be largely unnecessary; but there will always be instances where this must be available. At the time of writing Savita Halappanavar has died, apparently because she was refused an abortion at University Hospital, Galway, despite being desperately ill. According to the Daily Telegraph of November 15th : ‘Mr. Halappanavar said his wife [who had previously been longing for the pregnancy] repeatedly asked for a medical termination, but was told it was impossible as long as there was a foetal heartbeat…. “The consultant said it was the law, that this is a Catholic country.”’

David Willey’s guesstimate, dating from Humanae Vitae, runs into millions worldwide; I shudder to think that his numbers may be in the right area. Dogma reigns because “…The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ…”. Is the Vatican absolutely sure that this is what Christ would have wanted?

Edmund Davey is a past chair of Population Matters, an international organization that addresses population size and its effect on environmental sustainability.

Vatican control of World Health Organization population policy: An interview with Milton P. Siegel

“Whose Choice?” A Pro-Abortion Film

Chile: where all abortion is illegal

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