Thank Heaven for Pope Francis—4-2014

Roman Catholic nuns and priests were a substantial proportion of the populace in past centuries. Their celibacy acted to slow population growth.
Starting in the 12th century priests and nuns had to take vows of chastity in order to be considered pure. For some, however, abstinence is a goal that is difficult to achieve.
Today there are far fewer nuns and priests. Many places have imported clergy from other countries, and some churches have shut their doors due to lack of a priest. This decrease in clergy has increased population growth, although probably only slightly. There is a more important factor.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his landmark encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (“Human Life”), which reemphasized the Church’s constant teaching that it is intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence. In many parts of the world this is largely ignored. Catholic women in the USA and most western European countries use artificial birth control about as often as Protestant women.
In poorer parts of the world, where most Catholics live, people are more obedient to Church doctrine; as a consequence their birth rate is much higher. Since Roman Catholicism is one of the most numerous world religions (numbering about 1.2 billion adherents), avoidance of the most effective family planning methods leads to many unwanted pregnancies and high growth rates.
The Philippines provides a good example. Women there bear an average of more than 3 children, while the average for all of Southeast Asia is just 2.4. The country boasts that it is the only Christian country in Asia, and over 80% Filipinos are Catholic. The Church has a strong hold on politics: abortion is essentially totally outlawed—but common, nonetheless. The Church opposes the Filipino Reproductive Health Law because it would increase the availability of contraception, even though it stands to prevent hundreds of pregnancy-related deaths. Fortunately the Filipino Supreme Court just approved the Law earlier this month despite strong pressure from the Church. Although currently fewer than 40% of Filipino women use a reliable, modern method of contraception, the Law will make birth control available to all.
The following appeared last month in the British “Catholic Herald”: ‘Responding to the question of whether the Church should revisit the issue of birth control, Pope Francis replied: “It all depends on how the text of Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended that confessors show great kindness and attention to specific situations.
“His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”’
(I do not agree with the comment about neo-Malthusianism, but will not debate that here.)
Francis did something that no other Pope has done before—survey his flock. The Global Survey of Roman Catholics asked 12,000 people in 12 countries throughout the world a variety of questions. It is not surprising that his ratings were extremely high—Catholics and non-Catholics alike appreciate him.
There is discontent among his flock, however. Quoting the first point under the heading “Findings” in the executive summary:
“An Alarming Trend for the Vatican
The majority of Catholics worldwide disagree with Catholic doctrine on divorce, abortion, and contraceptives. Additionally, the majority of Catholics in Europe, Latin America and the United States disagree with established doctrine on the marriage of priests as well as on women entering the priesthood. Taken together, these findings suggest an extraordinary disconnect between the church’s basic teachings on the fundamental issues of family and pastoral responsibilities and the viewpoints currently held by many of the world’s more than 1 Billion Catholics. Perhaps more alarming, are the generational divides found in the analysis of the data which show that younger Catholics are even more likely to hold views contrary to church teachings than Catholics as a whole.”
Pope Francis’ openness, modesty and integrity are a breath of fresh air. He is following in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi—the patron saint of ecology. Let us hope that Francis will recognize that the press of the growing human population not only harms humans but also damages Creation, and that Pope Francis will allow more of his flock to use effective contraception.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2014

By Richard

I am a retired obstetrician-gynecologist who has been fortunate to live and work in the wonderful community of Durango, Colorado for 40 years.

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