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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health & Ethics


Poverty, Population and the Catholic Tradition

Daniel C. Maguire, S.T.D. (Doctor of Sacred Theology)

The following address was delivered on May 19, 1993 as part of the Panel on Religious and Ethical Perspectives on Population Issues convened by the NGO Steering Committee at Prepcom II of the International Conference on Population and Development at the United Nations.

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Because I speak as a theologian trained in Rome in the Catholic tradition, it might seem that my testimony is unnecessary since the Vatican is represented here in the dual roles of a nationstate and a non-governmental observer. Since, however, Catholicism is considerably richer than any segment of it, including the Vatican, and since it is essential for the preparatory committee to understand that in order to avoid sociological naivete, my testimony from the field of Catholic theology will not be seen as superfluous. Although many of the views that I will express - particularly in the areas of artificial contraception and abortion - are not the views of the Vatican, they are the dominant views of Catholic theology and this Preparatory Committee must be aware of that if it is to do justice to the Catholic peoples and to Catholic thought.

In many ways, the Vatican and I are at one. I do agree with Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples) when he says that "demographic increases" can outstrip "available resources." I agree, too, with the US Catholic bishops who observed that "the earth's resources are finite" and can be threatened by population growth. I agree with the Vatican's statement at the European Population Conference that "unwanted migration is prevented by development" and that population declines "when people are confident that their existing children can survive." I agree also with Pope Pius XII that there can be economic, social, and health reasons to limit births and even to have child-free marriages. I agree further with the position of the Vatican and others that the limitations of births is not a simple panacea for our world's crises or a substitute for radical redistributional justice.

Contraception and Abortion

However, speaking out of Catholic theology, I would say that the time for candor is past due. The issues are too serious for less. I strongly disagree with the Vatican's position that artificial contraception is unethical or that voluntary abortion may never be licit. In the technical terms of Catholic moral theology, the moral permissibility of artificial contraception and voluntary abortion is a "solidly probable opinion," i.e., one that all Catholics may follow in good conscience. Contraception is not only licit but may often be morally mandatory. Likewise, the choice of an abortion - a choice that, ironically, becomes more necessary when artificial contraception is banned - is a moral option for women in many circumstances. That is common teaching among Catholic and Protestant moral theologians.

In 1992, 91 million people were added to the earth's population, equal to the populations of Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom, and 84 million of these were in the suffering Third World. A million women a year die from reproductive-related causes, the equivalent of a Holocaust every six years. Human genius that has the potential to make the planet a paradise has savaged the environment as no other species could and has put us in terminal peril. These problems will not go away by throwing condoms at them, but they will also not go away without condoms. Furthermore, as Worldwatch Institute has noted, abortion has played an important role in nearly every nation that has moved from a high fertility rate to replacement level rates. Artificial contraception and abortion are not the final or main solution to our ills, but they are necessary options and their moral respectability must be forthrightly maintained and vigorously defended.

Catholic theology has not traditionally been obtuse on these subjects. The first real systematic theology on abortion was done in the 15th century by Archbishop Antonius of Florence and the Dominican theologian John of Naples. Both permitted early abortions to save the women's life, a broad exception in that day. The openness to abortion was further expanded in the 16th century, and in the early 17th century, Father Thomas Sanchez, a Jesuit theologian, could not find a single Catholic theologian who did not approve of some abortions. Throughout this time, and later, the consistent teaching held that the early fetus, prior to about 90 days, was not yet an ensouled person. (This would include all abortions achieved by RU 486.)

When I published an article on this history two years ago in The New York Times, the editors mentioned that they were completely unaware of these subtleties in the Catholic tradition. Understandably so, because the tradition has been misrepresented, but this must not cloud our discussions in this important assembly. This tradition has more to offer than a simplistic negative.

As an aide to Raymond Flynn, the envoy of the United Nations to the Vatican, said: "The Vatican, obviously, is not a country in the traditional sense. It's a moral force in the world." On top of this, the Vatican, as Catholic leader Frances Kissling says, has the difficulty of being a state without women and children among its citizens. Since the church is predominately made up of women and children, this is a considerable representational debit. Catholic theology on abortion and contraception was written almost exclusively by men. It is time now for the women to speak. They will tell us that coercive motherhood may be a greater villain than coercive birth restraint. And coerced motherhood is increasing, especially among the poor.

Catholic theology at its best has rested on a tripod, consisting of the laity, the hierarchy, and the theologians. These functioned, as Father Avery Dulles, S.J. said, as multiple magisteria, "complementary and mutually corrective." Some hierarchy want a monopod Church, but that would not be Catholic. They laity, said Pius XII, "are the Church." We have heard too little from the pod of the laity and theologians have been often intimidated. Let these two pods speak out and you will be surprised at what they can contribute to the cause that brings us here today.

The Place of Social Justice

Drawing from Hebrew prophetic springs, the Catholic witness to the radical restructuring of the social and economic order can be considerable. Theologically unwarranted dogmatism on abortion and artificial contraception is a distraction that dishonors a tradition that was not without distinction in its theories of social and distributive justice. My remarks may seem impolite, but they area cri de coeur.

Let us blend Catholic witness and its announced preferential option for the poor with the wisdom of a Ghandi who said that true development puts first those whom society puts last. Let us join the Hebrew prophets who taught that poverty and wealth are correlative, and that the responsibility for poverty is on the rich, not on the backs of the poor.

Let us remember, too, that many of us here are elitists in this discussion. We stand in harsh judgment on the "draconian" measures taken in India and China to control births. But could it not be that these nations are harbingers for our future? Are they not teaching us that you can arrive at a draconian critical mass where "draconian" measures are the last defense against disaster? It is not a little interesting that Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, approved of limiting by law the size of the family, and that he also said that it is not possible for a community to allow an infinite growth of the population. Now, law obviously involves sanctions to be effective. At what point of crisis do we declare some sanctions draconian? Suppose the Chinese system broke down and Western style individualistic freedom reigned. Are Western critics ready to face the demographic consequences of that development on spaceship Earth?

Anthony Lewis of The New York Times visited China some ten years ago. His entourage stopped in the middle of farm country. They thought there might be some dozen or two farmers working in the vicinity. Quickly they were surrounded not be dozens, but by hundreds of people, each working small plots. They noticed that even the strip of land between the narrow road and the footpath was cultivated. The Chinese are feeding themselves, but they are, in an ominous sign to the rest of us, skirting the limits. "Take care," they may be saying to us. "Stop your foolish quibbles over contraceptive means and choose justice and sanity before coercion is all you have left."

The soul of Hebraic religion is in Deuteronomy, chapter 30, which poetically puts these words into the mouth of God: I have set before you life and I have set before you death. Choose life for the sake of your children. At a conference in Mexico City last year I met Latin American women who said that in some poor areas, they put off baptism until the children are five or six years old. Baptism celebrates the conviction that the children now have enough strength to live. They also told us of parents who stop feeding the frail child in an effort to save other children who are stronger. These children are born into a world that spends more on the military than on health, education, and hunger relief.

These problems are soluble. The choice of life and the choice of death are set before us. For these children, we have chosen death. It is for us, in the 1994 international conference in Cairo, to choose life.

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About the Author:

Daniel C. Maguire teaches ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He is also President of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics. He is the author of many books, including Death by Choice (1974) and The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity (1993).

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