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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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Publications and Papers Main Menu
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