Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics
Plenary Address of
Professor Daniel C. Maguire
at the United Nations International Conference on Population & Development
September 8, 1994
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President, Distinguished Representatives to the International Conference
on Population and Development.
First, a word of introduction. I am a Catholic theologian, trained at
a Roman university accredited by the Vatican. In me you will hear the
voice of those Catholics whose views have not been presented by the Vatican
at this Conference.
Madame President, just as history is more apt to record wars than the
achievements of peace, so news reports on this Conference have neglected
its stunning positive results. For the first time in history, the nations
of the world have sat down, with women as well represented as men, with
the rich and the poor at the same table, and with military power playing
no role at all in this hall, and addressed their moral obligations to
all of humankind and to this generous host of an earth.
The great effort that led up to this moment has not been sterile. A remarkably
broad consensus has been reached on at least six points: (1) Population
problems will not be solved until women are educated and empowered. (2)
Parents must have hope that their children will live. (3) Development
must be geared to the elimination of poverty and not left to vacuous and
self-serving "trickle down" economics. (4) The richer nations must civilize
their rapacious consumption patterns. (5) We must control our power to
destroy the earth which for the first time is greater than the earth's
power to heal itself. (6) Contraception and safe abortion should be available
to those who need them. With all the dissension on this last point, a
vote would reveal a strong majority on this also.
Underlying all of these six points is the capital insight of this Conference
that hope is the best contraceptive and there will be no hope if
those six points fail.
Although the draft does not even mention religion, the first five points
are deeply indebted to the justice theories that define holiness for Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam and are highly compatible with other major world
religions. At its roots, the Program of Action is thoroughly religious.
Sadly, due to the Vatican's idiosyncratic fixation on the sixth point---contraception
and abortion---the moral triumph of the document has been overshadowed,
and religions have once again been made to look like obstructive icebergs
in the shipping lanes of progress. As the International Institute for
Sustainable Development put it, the Vatican's "high-profile lobbying and
systematic opposition" forced a "disproportionate amount of attention
to these issues" and prevented development of other serious issues. By
taking rigid positions on debateable questions, on which good people may
respectfully disagree, the Vatican has departed from the Catholic tradition
of tolerance (called Probabilism) and insulted the other world religions
that disagree with them on contraception and on abortion. Those other
religions believe that they too know something about God and morality.
At an NGO discussion yesterday The Religious Consultation on Population,
Reproductive Health and Ethics presented views by Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish,
Protestant, and Catholic experts. All these experts disagreed with the
Vatican's unhelpful position on contraception as always being evil, and
most disagreed with them on abortion. No one supported the Vatican's position
on unsafe abortions--i.e., that the only moral way to avoid them is abstinence---since
that seems to imply that women who die from unsafe abortions deserve to
Quite simply and quite sadly, I believe that the Vatican has squandered
its moral authority on issues where it has no privileged expertise.
On a more hopeful note, Madame President, the Plan of Action calls for
nothing less than major cultural revolutions. It calls for men to share
power with women, for rich nations to build up the poor, and for developers
to place nature before some of their profit. Without help from the religions
of the world, those necessary moral revolutions will not take place. It
has been said that people will die for a dogma who will not stir for a
conclusion. No major social change--for good or for ill--ever occurs without
the influence of religion.
Our Consultation is working to discover the renewable moral energy of
the world's religions. We invite all world religions to dig into their
rich stores and work together for the salvation of a world in terminal
As a theologian trained in the Catholic Christian tradition, I congratulate
this assembly on the production of the splendid Program of
Action. It has been an honor to address you.
Daniel C. Maguire holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology.
He teaches ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
and serves as President of the Religious Consultation on Population,
Reproductive Health and Ethics.
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