Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Enough miracles

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This group of bishops has presented the president with a letter demanding that the mandate be rescinded, in the name of protecting "religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all."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.

I'm waiting.

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.


  1. I think this is very well-written and I basically agree with you. The women I worked with in rural Bolivia ALL told me they wanted to limit the size of their families. Most had 6-8 living children (most had lost at least one in infancy) and most stated their ideal family size as 2-4 kids. I believe these numbs and attitudes are fairly representative of the developing world.

    However I would like to modulate some of your generalizations a wee bit - there ARE women who, given the choice, DO want big families and not just because they've been brainwashed by the Quiverfull movement. Overpopulation issues aside, if you're going to argue from the standpoint of women's agency, I think it would be appropriate to acknowledge that.

    1. That's a point well taken, and I stand corrected.

  2. Uh, that's "numbers" not "numbs."
    I never get any good auto-corrects!

  3. --"Jesus, can I buy a gold filigreed papal hat?"
    "No. Buy bread and fish. Feed the hungry and uphold the sanctity of life."

    --"Jesus, can I create a 15 foot effigy of you on the cross and gold plate it?"
    "No. Buy bread and fish. Feed the hungry and uphold the sanctity of life."

    --"Jesus, can I spend millions of dollars on political action committees to reinforce the tenets of our religion?"
    "No. Buy bread and fish. Feed the hungry and lead by example."

    --"Jesus, why is your response always to feed the hungry?"
    "Until you are doing everything in your power to uplift the lives of others, that will always be my response."

    --"Jesus, should we be concerned about contraception?"
    "After you have done everything in your power to save the lives of those already born unto this Earth, come back and we'll talk about it."

  4. As a recovering Catholic, I'd like to add my two cents. To me, this goes along the same lines of not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. WTF? And what about the women who take contraceptives specifically for medical reasons, like irregular cycles? You're going to hell if you want to control your hormonal imbalances that cause you grief? I was under the impression that religious law was not enforced by our legal system, but as I write this, I realize it's crazy talk.

    On the bright side, if no one can use contraception, their are that many more people who will want to have abortions, and that's more fun to fight about anyway. Oops! Is my Catholic showing?