Why Is Papal Authority Threatened by Population Growth Control?

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 28 February 2016
Church and State

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. (Credit: Flickr / Dhani Borges / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Excerpt from our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s book, The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (1984). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

Appendix 2: How Papal Authority is Threatened by Population Growth Control

The proposed solutions to the problem of population growth threaten the continued existence of the Catholic Church as it has evolved over the past 2000 years.

It is a matter of public record that the leadership of the Church recognizes this threat and are acting accordingly. Their point of view has been discussed in one of their newspapers, The National Catholic Reporter; and in an article reprinted in one of their journals, Conscience, in May 1984. According to Thomas Burch, a Georgetown University sociologist and member of the 1966 Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control, the questions put forth to the Commission by the Vatican were quite frank: “(1) 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? and (2) Suppose the Vatican changed its mind on these issues [population and birth control]. How can we preserve our (the Church’s) influence over the marital behavior of individuals?” Of course Professor Burch was shocked by the nature of the Vatican’s concerns. The ultimate decision of the Holy See became all too clear with the publication of Humanae Vitae. The Church could not change its position without great loss of authority and power: Instead, this Encyclical initiated the great holy war against family planning now underway.

Unless and until this issue is resolved, there is no hope for population growth control by any humane means. Instead, growth control will be left to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The solutions—abortion, family planning, equal rights for women, sex education—threaten the papacy, the ultimate bastion of the church, because they so seriously undermine the pope’s authority. It is important to understand how such measures can be considered threatening. To do so we must examine the history of the Church and the sources of this authority.

Professor Jean-Guy Vaillancourt, a Catholic and a sociologist who has worked in the Vatican for years, devotes a lengthy book, Papal Power,[1] published by the University of California Press in 1980, to this subject. Most literate people are aware that Pope John Paul II has laid papal authority on the line by repeatedly condemning birth control and abortion, pronouncing many times that neither can ever be justified under any circumstances. Let us first differentiate power, authority and control.

Power is not only actual participation in a decision-making process. Vaillancourt wrote that it is “a capacity to overcome part or all of the resistance, to introduce change in the face of opposition.” Power is not necessarily coercive (based on the use of force). It can be persuasive or utilitarian.

“Authority,” he observed, “is defined as legitimate power. Authority is not competence or personal influence or leadership. It has to do with legitimate, institutionalized, officially sanctioned power. It is the right to make decisions.”

Control is another related concept. According to Vaillancourt, “It can refer to the internalization of norms and values, but it can also refer to power used by one social agent to make another abide by the rules. Social control can be imposed by external force, accepted for economic reasons, or internalized in one’s conscience by socialization and by manipulative techniques.”

The devastating crisis for the papacy derives from the fact that by legalizing contraception, abortion and other solutions and adopting them as government policy, the authority of the State is visibly pitted against that of the Church:

1. The State is publicly questioning the extent of the Church’s legitimate, officially sanctioned power, the very basis of authority.

2. The State is publicly rejecting the claim of papal infallibility.

3. The State is publicly repudiating the Church’s claim of the God-given right to be the supreme governor of all men (Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors[2]).

These, together with the ritual of Confession, are the major underpinnings of the basis of control of both laity and clergy. If the general public, through its government, rejects them outright certainly the authority of the Church will be devastated. A battle to the death between Catholic Church and State is thus underway.

Since the solutions to the population problem (family planning, abortion, etc.) are so popular, and so widely recognized as being absolutely necessary for human survival, there is little doubt who will ultimately prevail. The question remaining is how much suffering and premature death the world will witness in the meantime.

History of the development of papal power

A brief review of Vaillancourt’s examination of the history of the development of papal power will clarify these points. As described in Papal Power, the Catholic Church’s system of control of both laity and clergy is both intricate and highly complex. However, all the external and economic forces at the Vatican’s disposal ultimately depend on each individual’s conscience, with values internalized by socialization and by manipulative techniques. The Church has spent 2000 years creating this system of controls.

From its inception, the Catholic Church has moved gradually from grass-roots democracy and collegial authority to a vast concentration of power and authority in the hands of clergy and hierarchy, and especially in the hands of the pope and his curia (the central government of the Roman Catholic Church). In the beginning, the Church relied on two sources of power—charismatic and expert. Charismatic power is based on exemplary or ethical prophecy. Examples of this are calls for social justice and equality, maintenance of welfare organizations, establishment of hospitals for the poor and schools for the young, announcements of the “good news,” etc. Expert power is based on professional, technical or scientific or purely rational arguments.

Within a few hundred years of its establishment, an alliance developed between Church and State, and Church officials became richer and more powerful. This power might be remunerative (material or nonmaterial rewards), ecological (physical control of material environmental conditions) or coercive (physical and psychic violence). Armed with this strength, these churchmen were able to demand compliance and conformity from the ordinary people.

Traditional power, based on traditional symbols, rituals, magnificent holy edifices, traditional ideas and sentiments, slowly evolved.

A clear-cut administrative-legal structure was developed with the pope at the top and the laity at the bottom. The material wealth and political power of the hierarchy went hand in hand with the disappearance of internal democracy and the increasing use of authoritarian, repressive and manipulative methods of control. The Church became the ideological legitimator of the Roman Empire (as they are for governments of most Catholic countries today). With the fall of the Empire the hierarchy became the religious substitute for the officials of the Empire. The pope came to function as the religious equivalent of the emperor, using some of the techniques of control developed by the Empire. Roman law and Roman administrative procedures, for example, served as models for the development of the Catholic Church’s canon law (a source of legal power) and administrative organization. The Church reached its dominance under feudalism.

An internal tension existed in the Church between the functions of legitimization of the feudal order, carried on mostly by the Church hierarchy, and the defense of the oppressed, fulfilled by the lower clergy and lay protesters. This arrangement is easily recognizable in Latin America today, where the hierarchy side with the unresponsive Latin governments which remain entrenched, while the poor are supported by concerned priest and nuns.

During the late feudal period, burning of heretics by the Holy Inquisitions and the Crusaders’ holy wars marked the high point of the Church’s use of brute force to coerce its followers. With the rise of Protestantism, these methods were frustrated. Alliances with the upper classes of monarchical regimes were preferred to cooperation with the rising masses. However, psychic rather than physical coercion began to be used. Legalism, formalism, obedience, discipline, and the suppression of all remnants of internal democracy became the major preoccupation of Church authorities.

Unable to succeed in this task by themselves, they were increasingly inclined to rely on the help of absolute regimes, and in turn to become the ideological legitimization apparatus for the State. During this period, canon law continued to develop and to be implemented.

In 1801, with the declining influence of those stalwart defenders of the Faith, Spain and Portugal, the Church negotiated a concordat with France, the first of many with different nations, that gave special rights and privileges to the Church in return for ideological legitimization of the governments. These concordats were major sources of Papal strength and influence and continued to be useful in dealing with such leaders as Hitler and Mussolini. Formal and informal agreements with governments continue to be important sources of power.

For centuries the Papal States provided a source of power for the Vatican. They lost them to the patriots who fought to unify Italy. But just before that, in 1870, the first Vatican Council promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility, which dramatically increased the internal power of the Church. The Church has always been flexible, able to accommodate to the inevitable. The hierarchy recognized the spirit of democracy and liberation sweeping around them and wisely saw that they must organize and control democracy by using lay Catholic elites. In 1875, they began to establish Catholic Action groups (social power) which were to defend the rights of the Holy See, and purportedly the religious and social interests of Catholics.

The first political party of Catholic Action in Italy was the Popular Party which was soon disbanded in 1921, as the Pope decided to back the fascist Mussolini in his rise to power. Catholic Action continued to grow and to spread to other countries around the world including the U.S., where it is represented by the Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta, Opus Dei and other lay organizations. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Pius XI negotiated a total of eighteen concordats, a record for any pope. Although he later reversed his attitude toward Mussolini and Hitler, he saw them at first as great men because they were willing to sign a concordat that was advantageous to the Church and they were going to destroy the greatest threat to the Church, communism. Pius XI and his successor Pius XII were hoping for the eventual creation of a mosaic of authoritarian Catholic states in southern Europe. They were counting on traditional forces and on the coercive and legal power of the state to help them retain control of the laity.

After World War II, Pius XII decided to return to the Catholic Party Strategy. He encouraged the creation of the Christian Democratic Party tightly controlled by a centralized Catholic Action movement. These Christian Democratic Parties are found in many countries, including Italy, Germany and El Salvador. In the United States, Catholic Action has not been identified with a single party, because Catholic interests choose candidates for both parties. Since the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities (see Appendix 3) was initiated in 1975, Catholic Action in the United States has been extremely active, protecting Papal interests in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government. The Reagan administration has become unquestionably the most Catholic administration in our history. It is a measure of success of the Catholic Action movement in America.

These arrangements between the Vatican and sovereign states necessarily depend on the Church having something to offer governments. This valuable commodity has been the control of large groups of ordinary people and encouragement of their acceptance of the status quo. Through their priests, the Vatican line of class collaboration is stressed, and acceptance of the God-given order of the world as viewed by the Holy See is promulgated. According to ex-Priest Emmett McLoughlin, “It canonizes poverty and insists that men humbly accept their lot in this world as ordained by God and as a test of their worthiness for a better life to come.”

The ritual of confession as a source of power

By far the most important mechanism to achieve social control derived from each individual’s conscience and his fears is the ritual of Confession. In his book, Crime & Immorality in the Catholic Church (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1962), McLoughlin[3] discusses this ritual at length. Throughout the first 1000 years of the Church, confessions were public and much like the Protestant confessions of today. Personal private confession did not become a law of the Church until the year 1216, and was not declared a dogma until 1551. Personal confession slowly developed as an instrument of control and enforcement of discipline. Catholic priests, in their function of hearing confessions, serve as the police force of the hierarchy, watching over all behavior of the believers.

The first confession is one of the most awesome and most sacred events of Roman Catholic childhood, usually taking place at about the age of seven. Frequent confession, required once a month, contributes to the submission to the priesthood.

The elaborate system of sins created by the hierarchy over centuries calls for continuous priestly interpretation and explanation, often making necessary a detailed description of the act of the sin by the confessor. Sins are either venial, such as lying or stealing, which are considered minor sins by Catholic morality, and do not require confession and forgiveness by the priest, or they are mortal, such as fornication or even having a thought about sex. Mortal sins can keep you out of heaven and must be forgiven by a priest.

From early childhood, Catholics are indoctrinated with this system of sin, the concept and intense fear of hell and that priests can forgive their sins. This places enormous power in the hands of priests, who are empowered to keep someone from hell or help someone get to heaven.

The ritual of Confession has several objectives, including, control, fund raising, an opportunity for private indoctrination and to encourage attending Mass every Sunday for public indoctrination.

Control is the most important objective. According to Father McLoughlin, an inordinate emphasis is placed on sins of the flesh in the confessional. These sins usually consume much of the time spent in the confessional. Normal sexual behavior of normal human beings is seized upon by this Catholic system of sins, insuring that all confessors will have sinned and therefore must submit to the priests’ control. Normal human sexuality is thus exploited and no normal believing human being can escape this exploitation.

The Church guards its authority in all matters dealing with human sexuality. If the State presumes that authority traditionally vested in the Church is actually a government matter, then it can only do so at the expense of the authority (or power) of the Church. The power of the Confessional will be undermined and control of individuals and thus, the masses, will be diminished.

The development of canon law and the claim of papal infallibility have also been essential for keeping the individual Roman Catholic in line. Both are critical to the continued authority of the Church.

Followers are taught that canon law, “God’s law,” supersedes “man’s law” or the law of governments. Breaking a canon law requires absolution by a priest if the follower hopes to make it to heaven. More serious “crimes,” such as murdering the pope or abortion (ordinary murder is not such a serious crime), result in automatic “excommunication” which can only be absolved by the pope or his designated representative. Excommunication means that one is blocked from ever entering heaven.

For the devout Catholic who intensely fears hell, excommunication is far worse than death itself. For such an individual, excommunication is the ultimate in psychic coercion, the ultimate act of psychic terrorism. This places tremendous power in the hands of the one who forgives the sin. Probably no more brutal act has ever been conceived for use by one man against another. This threat of excommunication is a very effective weapon to control defenseless individual human beings.

To undermine canon law is to seriously undermine the pope’s ability to control his followers through the Confessional. In turn, the pope’s bargaining power with governments is vastly reduced, eroding the power he derives from governments.

Many governments are now flatly defying the pope and openly questioning and rejecting his authority by legalizing family planning, abortion, equal rights for women, etc., and even offering these services and promoting them through public policy. The papacy and the Catholic Church as we know them cannot expect to survive this assault on their authority. The Church would have less to offer governments and would in turn derive less power from governments.

Human society subordinated to the purposes of the Church

Where will it all end? It is difficult to predict, but the extinction of the Catholic Church, as we have known it, is possible. The Church leadership recognizes this. The Church does not directly control an army to back up its claims to have the “right to make decisions” that affect all of us. Its claims rest on the intricate and complex set of controls over individuals. If this system is tampered with in any substantive way, then it is subject to possible collapse, as is a building when several pillars are knocked out from under it.

For this reason the Catholic Church has had to stake everything on thwarting State involvement in population growth control, i.e., legalization, participation, policies, etc. The leadership is not concerned with the consequences of their actions, the human misery and premature death that will result. Their guiding principle for the last millennium has been the subordination of society to the purposes of the Church. The ends justify the means.

[1] Vaillancourt, J.P. 1980. Papal Power: A Study of Vatican Control Over Lay Catholic Elites. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[2] See Appendix 4 In: Mumford, S.D. 1984, American Democracy & The Vatican: Population Growth & National Security. Amherst, New York: Humanist Press.
[3] McLoughlin, E. 1962. Crime & Immorality in the Catholic Church. New York: Lyle Stuart.

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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