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Catholic Discourses on Population and Development

Catholic Discourses on Population and Development


Gillian Paterson and Joseph Selling, 14 April 2014

The Catholic Church is routinely attacked for its approach to population and birth control. Yet the Church has been a leader worldwide in health care and the education of women. Believing that Catholic teaching contains valuable insights that are often overlooked, an inter-disciplinary, mainly European group of Catholics met in Oxford, UK in April 2014, under Chatham House rules, to explore Catholic discourses on population and development and analyse the way Catholic approaches are communicated in public media.  Participants included Catholic academic theologians, health professionals, media advisors and development experts, with valuable perspectives offered by academic colleagues from Africa and the Philippines. Triggers included two landmark events in 2014: first, the 20th anniversary of the UN’s 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, and second, the forthcoming Synod of Bishops ‘On the Family’. 

The event was the second in a research programme focusing on population and responsible parenthood, which has been coordinated by the Heythrop Institute – Religion and Society based at Heythrop College, London University. It is linked to a special issue of the Heythrop Journal, focusing on Catholic approaches to population and development, scheduled for November 2014.

The group observed that in international fora such as the UN and the European Union, the ‘Catholic voice’ is represented only by the official UN delegation for the Holy See. Appropriately, such delegations are tasked with upholding Catholic values in international policy-making fora.  They have influenced policy on such issues as abortion and enforced programs of family planning, and drawn on the experience of Catholic health and relief agencies to promote development policies that promote human flourishing among the poorest people.

Other perspectives and voices have fallen outside their focus, a notable gap being the capacity of ‘official’ Catholic discourses to respond to on-the-ground realities of many women’s lives.  These include unacceptable levels of infant deaths, gaps in provisions for women’s sexual and reproductive health, and the denial to women of the capacity to make the kinds of choices that will enable them to become responsible parents.  AIDS has proved a particular challenge to Catholic teaching.  Care workers, especially in communities with high HIV-prevalence, experience obstacles to helping abused and exploited women to protect themselves either from infection or from bringing into the world children for whom they have no prospect of caring adequately.

This apparent blindness may be connected with language. Apocalyptic language (‘culture of life’, ‘culture of death’ for example) is rarely helpful, designed rather to close down a genuine conversation than to promote it. Further, Catholic delegations are uncomfortable with the language of gender, and may therefore lack tools to engage with the analytic sociological concepts which such language articulates.  Can it be that this has blinded them, sometimes, to genuine oppression, or to the countless women and children who are trapped in inhumane situations?  How sad if linguistic caution were to undermine the ability of Catholic teaching (in which human dignity is such an important value) to address the very social and cultural elements it seeks to challenge. 

As professional theologians, the primary objectives of the present research are, first, to create greater understanding of Catholic discourses on population and development, and of the public, media narratives into which they feed; and second, to place the outcomes of this research at the disposal of church and civic leaders. We urge similar groups of concerned Catholics in other regions of the world to consider similar forms of engagement, and would welcome the opportunity to be in touch with such initiatives.

Dr Gillian Paterson is a Research Associate of Heythrop College, University of London, where she runs a research project on Health, Healing and Human Flourishing.

Joseph A. Selling is emeritus professor of theological ethics at the Faculty of Theology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. Though American by birth, he has lived most of his life in Belgium. His professional interests are fundamental and sexual ethics.