Monday, October 13, 2003


Last week the Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, complained strongly about what he described as anti-Catholic bias in BBC programming and reporting. The BBC denied this. So did most commentators, though a number acknowledged that a wider distrust of organised religion and religious authority among those holding comspolitan values can certainly be discerned. Then again, is it not up to the churches to engage such widespread viewpoints openly rather than simply to condemn them?

One of the programmes that stimulated Nichols' ire was 'Sex And The Holy City', an episode of the well-respected Panorama documentrary series (broadcast on Sunday 12 October) which looks at the way the Vatican has been promoting anti-contraception and anti-reproductive health care messages throughout the third world. Reporter Steve Bradshaw, while not disguising his amazement at factually inaccurate claims in a global Catholic health manual that claims the latex in condoms permits the HIV virus to transmit (something explicitly denied by scientists and the WHO), allowed both sides of this life-or-death argument to be put. He praised the dedication and care of Catholic nurses and health workers in Kenya, Nicaragua and the Philippines (where the mayor of Manila has declared a 'pro-life city'). But at the same time he did not disguise the consequences of the ban on contraception, which has been to aid the spread of deadly infection in many of the most vulnerable communities on earth.

The argument that contraception is anti-life because it breaks the organic link between sex and fertility holds no theological water in the twenty-first century. It is based upon a naturalistic fallacy in ethical reasoning which conflates an 'is' with an 'ought' and attributes this to the will of God. No-one can deny that the moral issues surrounding the creation and nurturing of life are complex and demanding. But to reduce them to a one-stop policy (in both senses of the term) is dangerously reductive in a world where intentions and consequences cannot be ordered by magesterial demand, and where poverty, lack of education and the constraints of culture and community are potent factors in influencing the choices individuals have to make in less-than-ideal situations. Indeed the evidence of public education campaigns points in a very different direction.

Gospel communities can and should promote positive alternatives to the commodification of sexuality and the powerlessness which forces women, in particular, into dangerous and damaging situations. But it certainly cannot do this by pushing these problems onto the backs of their victims. To do so is, in the words of one Latin American theologian, 'anti-evangelical'.

Catholics for a Free Choice is a worldwide organisation promoting alternative perspectives on the issues of contraception, reproduction, fertility, abortion and respect for life. Its site includes a good selection of articles and publications. Many of those involved are lay people and health workers / eductors. Founder Frances Kissling is interviewed here. It is important to realise that faithful Catholics can hold views on these matters which suggest a devlopment of the tradition in a quite different direction to the weight of the current magisterium, though I am sorry that the theological basis upon which CFaFC operates seems to be fairly reductive. Back in 1980 TheOtherSide showed how it doesn't have to be that way.

Hopefully a wider range of theological ethicists linking the making of choice with the promotion of life will become involved in this crucial debate as it (inevitably) develops. For this is not a matter of abstract reasoning; it is a question of human survival and flourishing.

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