Political Power of Roman Catholic Bishops

    By John M. Swomley | May-June 1992
    The Human Quest

    The Vatican has had a tremendous influence on White House policy with respect to foreign affairs and such issues as abortion and birth control, according to Time magazine, Feb. 24, 1992. In “The Holy Alliance,” Time described the way in which a group of Roman Catholic members of the Reagan administration collaborated with the Polish pope to overthrow the existing government of Poland.

    However, in a subsidiary story in the same issue, “The U.S. and the Vatican on Birth Control,” Time described the Vatican’s success in changing U.S. policy on birth control, quoting Reagan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, William Wilson: “American policy was changed as a result of the Vatican’s not agreeing with our policy…. American aid programs around the world did not meet the criteria the Vatican had for family planning. AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] sent various people from [the Department of] State to Rome, and I’d accompany them to meet the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family and in long discussion they finally got the message.” “They” means personnel from AID. This is the first major disclosure in a widely-read magazine of what the Vatican has been doing for years. The Vatican has intervened in American politics to determine U.S. policy with respect to sex, reproduction and other matters. In addition to “behind-the-scenes” work with the CIA and top administration officials, the Vatican has lobbied Congress through Mother Theresa and the Vatican-appointed bishops in this country.

    A chronology of the bishops’ opposition to birth control would have to begin in 1921 when New York Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes arranged for the arrest of Margaret Sanger to prevent her from delivering a speech on birth control. Such a chronology would take many pages, but some recent highlights follow.

    In 1970, Father James McHugh, director of the Family Life Division of the U.S. Catholic Conference (now Bishop of Camden, N.J.), testified against federal funding of family planning and research in contraception. He told the House Subcommittee on Public Health and Welfare, “We are opposed to the utilization of public monies for the funding of private agencies whose whole intent is to promote birth control…. It places the prestige of government in support of one ideological position.”

    In 1976, the RC bishops pressured President Carter to put a Roman Catholic in the Cabinet post of AID administrator. Carter did as asked. Joseph Califano, who got the Cabinet post, ordered the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw its approval of an effective contraceptive, Depo-Provera.

    It is still not available in the U.S. though used in more than 90 other countries. The new AID administrator ended the 1966-79 tenure of R. T. Ravenholt, M.D. as director of the State Department’s global population program. Thereafter, although the bishops have never stopped opposing birth control, their strategy was to get public funds for RC programs. In 1980, Sen. Frank Church (D. Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pro posed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, stating, “Catholics … are requesting … that any aid program that we may embark upon in any foreign land include information and services which relate to and support natural family planning [NFP] methods.”

    In 1984, the Reagan administration, at the request of the Vatican, announced at the World Conference on Population in Mexico City that it was reversing its many-years’ commitment to international family planning and agreed, in the words of Time, to ban the “use of any U.S. aid funds by either countries or international health organizations for the promotion of birth control or abortion.” The U.S. then withdrew funding from the UN Fund for Population Activities and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

    In its most important foreign policy manipulation of all, the Vatican is successfully blocking consideration of the reality that population growth is the most serious threat to the security of all nations.

    AID, in succumbing to pressure from a NFP group, Family of the Americas Foundation, a RC institution, and from then-Vice President George Bush, administratively dropped a rule that required its recipients to provide access to all family planning methods.

    In 1985, the U.S. Catholic Conference, leading Catholic clergy, and Mother Theresa lobbied Congress with intense pressure to prevent it from legislating a requirement that AID restore its “informal consent rule” whereby all providers of family planning give access to all family planning methods.

    Throughout the U.S. Catholic Conference, the organization of the RC bishops used its pro-life groups to lobby not only for NFP but to prevent government funding of family planning which referred to or gave information to anyone about abortion.

    In 1986, the U.S. Catholic Conference lobbied Congress to stop U.S. funding of contraceptive research. The bishops also insisted that new Title X regulations redesign family planning by making NFP, with its prolonged period of abstinence, as the preferred method of family planning.

    In the 1980s, according to Conscience, a publication of Catholics for a Free Choice, “Despite increasing requests by third world countries for a full range of birth control services, AID has become the single largest donor to NFP training and research in the world, at the same time as it has significantly reduced its support for other family planning initiatives.”

    In 1981, the U.S. funding was $80,000 for NFP, but by 1985 it had grown to $7.8-million. AID also made a $20-million grant to a Catholic institution, Georgetown University, to review all international NFP projects. It gave a $6.8-million grant to Family of the Americas Foundation which promotes NFP in other countries, condemns contraception, and does not supply information on other methods.

    In 1981, the bishops succeeded in getting the Adolescent Family Life Act adopted, which requires grant recipients to involve religious organizations in their programs and prohibits the distribution of funds to groups that provide any abortion-related services, including counseling, referral or subcontracting with any agency that provides such services. In other words, the bishops succeeded in getting millions of dollars of tax money for Roman Catholic institutions by this device. The above by no means exhausts the record of the U.S. Catholic Conference pressure or administration efforts to do the bidding of the bishops. In each state with a significant Roman Catholic population or a number of bishops, there is a state Catholic Conference on the same pattern as the National. These state lobbying groups put pressure on Congressional representatives and senators from their state.

    The New York Catholic Conference has an annual lobby day when all the bishops, and more than 2,000 Roman Catholics, descend on the legislature to ask for adoption of agreed-upon legislation. In a visit to one state I learned that children in RC parochial schools are taught how to lobby against abortion and birth control.

    Almost all Protestant churches are silent about Catholic pressures on Congress and state legislatures. They have no comparable or effective lobby and speak with no unified voice. I have been told at the highest levels that there are ecumenical understandings that keep Protestant periodicals from publishing articles critical of other churches, the chief beneficiary of which is the RC hierarchy which works its will in Washington without public scrutiny except as some progressive RC writers refer to the actions of the hierarchy in the Catholic press. Rarely does a secular newspaper or magazine provide information such as Time printed in its Feb. 24 issue. The chief losers from this ecumenical secrecy are not only the general public but also progressive Roman Catholics who often do not know what the bishops do in their name.

    Rev. Dr. John M. Swomley died in 2010 at age 95. A United Methodist minister, pacifist Christian, and nonviolent activist, Swomley had influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “pilgrimage to nonviolence”. He was Exec. Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, president of the Methodist Peace Fellowship, helped to desegregate the armed forces after WWII and worked to end conscription. He taught Christian ethics for years at St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, MO and served a period as head of the Society of Christian Ethics. During his career he wrote approximately twenty books or major pamphlets, and he continued to publish books into his late eighties.

    Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off 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.

    Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

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