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Time for a major re-think on birth control

The Church questionnaire is deeply flawed and, at one point, irresponsible

  • Fr William Grimm MM, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • December 9, 2013
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Prompted by Pope Francis, for the first time in history, Catholics throughout the world are being asked our opinion in preparation for a synod.

Like many others, I have been answering the questionnaire put out by the Vatican in preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to be held next October. In fact, even non-Catholics can have their say, since the questionnaire and ways to get one’s answers into the responses that bishops’ conferences will send to Rome are available to anyone with access to the internet.

Unfortunately, the questionnaire was not developed with respondents like us in mind. It is a typical Vatican pre-synod questionnaire intended for bishops. In fact, it even contains Latin.

Such questionnaires are not really intended to gather information. They are one of the things on the checklist of the synod preparatory committee and are done simply because they are supposed to be done. Therefore, the questions are not prepared by social scientists who actually know how to prepare surveys that elicit usable information.

However, like many others who are attempting to decipher the questions and answer them, I think this first feeble attempt at soliciting the reflections of the whole people of God deserves cooperation and encouragement. Perhaps next time, we will see something better.

For the most part, the questions are innocuous. But one stands out for its breathtaking irresponsibility: "How can an increase in births be promoted?"

Are they serious? There are already seven billion people on the planet and we continue to increase. Resources are being depleted. Other species of animals as well as plants are being driven to extinction by the pressure of human numbers.

Global warming results from the burning of fossil fuels to provide power for living, transportation and manufacture. The increased demand for power means increasing reliance upon dangerous nuclear power. Air, water and soil are being degraded. Food shortages occur in precisely those areas with the greatest population pressure. People are driven to live in urban slums in a search of a livelihood.

Children are born, but die before getting a chance to live in much more than a biological sense. Malnutrition and the diseases of poverty cripple others. Social, health and educational services are inadequate to ensure a truly human life. Crowding increases crime, unrest, oppression, war and a general uglification of the human environment.

For the Church to call for an increase in births is not just stupid, it is immoral. Catholic social teaching stresses the importance of the common good. What common good is advanced by merely increasing our numbers?

Contrary to what some people seem to think, the Catholic Church does not oppose family planning. Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae forbids particular "artificial" methods of regulating births and has given rise to a Catholic cottage industry of "natural family planning."

But, whatever dispute there may be over methods – and for the most part there is no dispute because Catholics have opted to ignore the teaching – the fact is that the Church can encourage intelligent and responsible limitation of family size even without retreating from Pope Paul’s teaching.

Instead of asking how we can increase births, the Catholic Church should be a world leader in calling for responsible family planning that will ensure that all people who are born have a chance to live beyond age five and have access to the food, healthcare and education that will enable them to live with the dignity of the children of God.

Among other things, that means changing our economic systems and priorities, because economic development and security for all increases the number of healthy births while reducing the overall number of births. Essential to such change is the education and empowerment of women.

Yes, there are parts of the world where the population is declining. I live in one of them. But, to be Catholic means to consider the whole world as home and to take each and all of the world’s people into account as brothers and sisters.

To speak of human births as simply a matter of multiplying people without responsibly dealing with what that multiplication means for those people and God’s world is to speak like an animal breeder.

The Church must be concerned with people as the children of God, not with numbers.

But on the other hand, if people at the Vatican really think we should be increasing the number of births, perhaps one way to do so might be for them to abandon the requirement of celibacy for the clergy.

Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com based in Tokyo.

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