The Catholic Church, Birth Control and the Poor

Authorities in the US city of Philadelphia announced last Saturday that no full autopsy would be performed on Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, a key witness in a Catholic Church sex abuse trial who died on Jan. 31. It is an affair that Asia’s 120.9 million Catholics should take careful note of.

The late Catholic leader is one of scores of top church officials who have been ensnared in a decades-long sex scandal so vast that it is almost unimaginable, stretching across at least 27 countries including the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand in Asia as well as Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Norway and the United States.

Bevilacqua, the retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, died at age 88 the day after a judge ruled that he was competent to testify in an upcoming sex abuse trial involving priests as well as a Catholic school teacher. His sudden death has raised questions on the part of critics that Bevilacqua might have taken his own life and thus the vain call for the autopsy, although he appears to have been suffering from cancer and dementia.

In the United States, according to a 2004 report commissioned by the US Conference of Bishops, 10,667 reports were made of allegations of sexual abuse against minors by 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002. In far too many cases, the priests’ superiors in the church ignored reports of sexual abuse outright or ordered the priests transferred to other dioceses, where they continued to remain in close proximity with young boys.

After publicity roused victims across the world, a cascade of clerical sexual abuse cases against minors were reported and prosecuted. It is estimated that the church in the US alone had paid out more than US$1 billion by 2002 in jury awards, quiet settlements and legal fees. The cases ranged up globally as high as the Archbishop of Vienna, who was forced to resign his archbishopship -- but was allowed to remain a Cardinal.

This is the same Catholic church whose leaders believed they had the moral authority to block the United States government from requiring religious employers' health plans to cover contraceptives under the so-called Obamacare health plan, accusing the White House of betraying them on the issue.

Ultimately, with the church apparently handing the Republican opposition a potent campaign issue for the November election, the Obama administration was forced to back down in the face of the church’s antagonism, allowing religious employers opposed to birth control to opt out although insurance companies would be required to offer such care, without charging either the religious employer – read Catholic schools, service organizations and hospitals. But that wasn’t enough for the bishops, who declared Saturday that the president’s compromise didn’t go far enough.

Thus a thoroughly corrupt church foisted its archaic superstitions onto the US government, seeking to deny the right of millions of Catholic women to make decisions regarding their own bodies. This is despite the fact that according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit sexual health research organization, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have ignored their church and used banned contraceptive methods at some point in their lives. Only 2 percent of Catholic women, even those who regularly attend church, rely on natural family planning.

Nearly 70 percent of Catholic women use sterilization or the birth control pill or an IUD regularly, according to the research.

This is not an irrelevancy in Asia, the home of 120.9 million Catholics, according to the CIA Factbook. Some 75 million of them live in the Philippines, where, as in the United States, the Council of Bishops has waged perhaps an even more implacable war on family planning, using its power to drive politicians from office for opposing them.

The Catholic Church has blocked the passage of a reproductive rights bill for 15 years despite the fact that the ban on birth control not only sentences its families to penury from more children than they can afford to feed and sentences the country to being unable to marshal its resources because its population is growing so fast – 3.23 live births per woman, one of the fastest growth rates in Asia.

This is the same Council of Bishops that in 2002 was forced to apologize for the involvement of 200 Filipino priests in cases of adultery, homosexuality and child abuse, which is considered to be only a fraction of reality. In 2003 at least 34 priests were suspended in a sex abuse scandal involving sexual harassment of women, 20 from a single diocese.

As Asia Sentinel reported on July 11, last year, church leaders were forced to apologize for a 2006 scandal involving allegedly illegal donations of cars to bishops by former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in what appeared to be an effort to gain church support in the face threatened impeachment for a long series of corruption charges including vote fraud.

Despite the church’s support in her 2006 go-around with the authorities, Arroyo now faces a long list of charges of having plundered her country’s coffers during her 10 years in office. This is the same Catholic Bishops Conference that has threatened to excommunicate President Benigno S. Aquino III if he supports the reproductive health bills, a package aiming to provide universal access to women for birth control and maternal care.

There is no doubt that ability to control family size is directly correlated to poverty, and that the church is ignoring its duty to the poor.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, said: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

There is nowhere in that sermon, considered Jesus's most important, where he said women should be forced to continue to have babies they couldn't feed, couldn't take care of, were ruining their health and lives and didn't want. The world’s bishops and cardinals would do well to go back and read it for clues.