Cambridge, MA – Two weeks ago, Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, came out and declared that as a Catholic woman she would like to see the Catholic Church throw its support behind the use of birth control in the developing world. The declaration reignited the debate within development circles on the role of birth control in the fight against poverty, particularly with regards to the idea that a celibate European man – the Pope – has such a profound influence on the reproductive decisions of approximately one fifth of the world’s population.
The Catholic Church is perhaps the most complex institution in the world today. Its interests range from the spiritual well-being of over 1 billion people baptised in the faith, with an enviable geographical and socio-political reach, to the political decisions of countries like Ireland – like their abortion legislation – that have openly embraced its doctrine as a social compass.
The Catholic Church is the largest provider of adoption and foster care services in secular states like the UK and is recognised the world over for running some of the best hospitals, schools and universities. Priests and nuns of various orders are primary healthcare providers in both poor and wealthy nations, and development organisations like Caritas and the Catholic Relief Services are often the first and only remaining service providers in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
In central Africa, for instance, when the Lord’s Resistance Army spread its gruesome brand of violence across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the United Nations withdrew many of its services and was notoriously unable to protect 400 women from being assaulted in Luvungi, DRC. However, Catholic priests and nuns working for Caritas remained, and were the primary source of information for all other agencies. They were not only observing and reporting, but also responding and providing emergency services. They did this not because of generous perks or hardship allowances, but because they believe that this is their vocation – a calling from God to serve the least fortunate.
It follows then that in some of the most difficult environments in the world, the Catholic Church inspires loyalty to an enviable extent. Where most agencies’ instinct is to withdraw and protect their staff, the church’s instinct is to send as many volunteers as are willing to go. Given that, it’s hard to fault Gates’ instinct to ask the church to embrace the prevailing orthodoxy that birth control is the best means of combating poverty in the developing world.
Hard, but not impossible.
This criticism of the Catholic Church represents a failure to appreciate the foundations of a critical policy that permeates the entire functioning of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, Gates knows that the teaching of the Church is an integrated policy that not only applies to abortions, but also responding to attacks by the LRA in Ituri. The Catholic Church teaches that all life is sacred and worth protecting, whether people are on their deathbeds; impoverished and forgotten by their governments; or even no more than 4 cells across. The same policy that motivates men and women of all backgrounds to counsel young people in some of the best schools in the world, or to care for lepers in New Delhi, animates the vehement opposition to abortion; ignoring that creates a false and dangerous dichotomy. The Church teaches that all life, no matter how flawed, is to be welcomed, and it would be fundamentally inconsistent for the church to impose any kind of qualification on this teaching.
Of course, this creates an uncomfortable disconnect with modern economic orthodoxy, which argues that if there isn’t enough supply, in this case of base resources necessary for “development”, then demand must be curbed. It follows that the easiest way to combat poverty is to reduce the size of poorer nations’ populations and birth control represents the easiest way of achieving this.
But at this point, we recall that the Catholic Church does not simply operate on the temporal plane, but also on the spiritual plane. The goal of the Church as an institution is to develop a policy that captures the aspirational quality of spiritual belief as well as the practical realities of believers’ lives. Faith, by definition, exists to motivate believers to practice a morally superior standard of conduct. Thus if there is enough for man’s need but not for his greed, secular agencies teach us to curb our need, while the church teaches us to curb our greed.
Not up to the Church
The Catholic Church teaches that no one is expendable, but ultimately cannot be in everyone’s homes and hearts, enforcing this teaching. All over the world, Catholics, like people of all religious backgrounds, are rejecting abstinence and celibacy and choosing to use birth control and have abortions.
Given its spiritual dimension, it’s not the Church’s place to affirm these decisions. Like in any other open market, Gates’ appeal should have been directed to women in the developing world, competing for women’s attention by offering birth control as a viable alternative to abstinence or celibacy. It would have demonstrated consistency with an appeal to the personhood of poor women to address to them directly, instead of attempting to redirect the loyalty that the Church inspires.
The secular world must recognise that the Catholic Church is not a monolith that blindly asks how high when the Pope says jump. Poor women retain their agency in very difficult circumstances and are more likely to be swayed by persuasive acts than fiery rhetoric. Unlike the Holy Roman Empire, the modern Catholic Church relies more on persuasion of the free will of believers than compulsion, and the better way to conduct the debate would be to persuade believers within the church to embrace change from the bottom-up. Considering that the Church’s moral authority has been considerably undermined by the appalling number of sexual abuse scandals and the reprehensible cover-up attempts, modern believers are more open than ever to philosophical debates on the various issues that define their faith.
Ultimately, the best way to push for any kind of change would be to talk to Catholics as independent adults and to be prepared to offer an equally philosophically consistent position that recognises all the dimensions of the Church’s teaching.
Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School.