I'm sure most of you are aware of the current fight in the US between a group of Catholic bishops and the Obama administration regarding a proposed requirement that contraception programs be part of medical coverage for employees -- even if the employer's institution has a religious issue with using birth control.
This group of bishops has presented the president with a letter demanding that the mandate be rescinded, in the name of protecting "religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all." The result is that Obama appears to be backpedaling, working on a compromise that would give religious institutions with objections to providing contraception coverage an out. The bishops are mollified but not yet willing to withdraw their objection; contraception coverage, they say, should be removed completely, and any talk of compromise is doomed to fail. Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, "It's the unstoppable force meets the immovable object."
This stance, of course, has the complete support of Pope Benedict XVI, who has himself been something of an immovable object on the subject. Three years ago, a group of fifty "dissident" bishops presented the pope with a letter entreating him to lift the Catholic church's ban on contraception. Interestingly, the letter made it clear that they were not promoting contraception because they were somehow in favor of promiscuity, a charge that has been levied against pro-contraception groups in the past. They simply stated that the ban on contraception, which was passed into church law forty years ago by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life") had, according to the letter, "had a catastrophic impact on the poor and powerless around the world."
Well, yeah. In fact: duh. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to notice the worldwide correlation between several different demographics -- lack of access to contraception, poor access for women to higher education, large families, poor access to modern medicine, and high infant mortality. (Note that I am not claiming that lack of contraception causes the others; as I harp on continuously in my environmental science class, correlation does not imply causation. But the fact that these demographics all cluster this way is certainly suggestive of some sort of connection.)
It seems clear that when women have choices to limit the number of children they have, they will do so. It becomes easier to provide for the children they do have, and it affords the mothers a better chance of doing something else with their lives besides bearing and raising children.
Despite this, the receipt of the 2008 letter served only to prompt the talking heads at the Vatican to dismiss the letter as the "insignificant attempts of the pro-contraception lobby" to influence church policy, and suggested that the letter was "paid for" by dissident groups attempting to undermine the authority of the pope. The recent kerfuffle regarding contraception in the US is indicative that things haven't changed much.
Note that I'm not especially interested in the question of whether the president overstepped his bounds in trying to induce religious groups to change their ways. That is a question for a constitutional lawyer, which I am clearly not. I'm more interested in the moral stance of the Catholic leadership in maintaining their resistance to contraception.
Population growth is reaching a critical state. You'd think that the hierarchy of the Catholic church, which is composed as a rule of extremely well-educated people, would not be unaware of this fact. Some ecologists think that the human population has already passed the point of sustainability, and that a "correction" is inevitable. (And you know what "correction" is a euphemism for.) How can it possibly be a moral stance to tell a poverty-stricken woman that if she or her husband uses birth control, they are committing a sin, and taking the chance of damning their immortal souls to hell?
So, I must ask: which is more sinful, a poor couple being provided the pill to prevent the them from having children they can't adequately care for, or the wealthy, privileged autocrats in the Catholic church sanctioning women remaining trapped in the cycle of bearing children because they truly have no other choices available to them?
Pope Benedict apparently has, like the other Catholic leaders before him, championed Humanae Vitae, stating that it was "all too often misunderstood and misrepresented." Okay, your holy popehood: why don't you explain it to us? Why do you think it's a mandate from god that you sit in your air-conditioned office in the Vatican, with your robes and golden ring and all that other nonsense, and command that some poverty-stricken unfortunate who believes every word you say has to continue to have more children, and more, and after that, more again? Tell us, clearly, why that is a moral and ethical thing to do.
Yeah. I thought so.
The Humanae Vitae told the Catholic world that it was god's wish that any sexually active couple (although presumably only doing so beneath the blessing of the church through marriage) "be open to the miracle of life." Whether life itself is a miracle depends, I suppose, on your definition of a miracle; but even given that as a premise, one thing seems pretty clear.
7 billion miracles are enough.