As we ate the simple food prepared for us — fish, rice, roasted tubers — they talked to me about the problems of the desperately poor islands where they live. On the most crowded of the islets more than 15,000 people live, crammed together on a square mile patch of coral sand — one of the most dense populations on Earth — living in shanties. Few have jobs.
Disease is rampant and the traditional mode of sanitation — using beaches as a toilet — has turned the reefs surrounding the island from a once-teeming ecosystem into a noxious hulk of dead coral that emits a reek that can make you gag on a hot day.
The problem, said Sister Margaret, who runs the convent, and David, a man who has taught there for more than 16 years, is no mystery: Overpopulation.
If you aren’t familiar with Catholics, you might expect that they’d blithely accept that situation as God’s will. But you’d be wrong. Without the slightest hint of guilt or embarrassment, they said birth control is desperately needed to reduce the human misery on the islands. They decried the corrupt government’s recent turn away from population control policies for political and religious reasons.
I’ve met such practical and compassionate Catholics working in the trenches all over the world, from Hong Kong to India to Israel.
Many non-Catholics seem to think the church’s people are a monolith, a billion-strong horde marching in lockstep with the Pope, who issues his orders wearing a dress and red elf-shoes from the ostentatious riches of Vatican City.
And if you listen to the kind of noisy Catholics who seem to get the most press in America, like, say, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, current darling of the Oh-my-God-not-Romney wing of the Republican Party, it would be easy to conclude that the church is a font of conservatism. Institutionally, that’s more and more true, but among the laity in the West (burgeoning, uneducated Catholic populations in Asia and Africa are a different case), there is enormous diversity of opinion — even on abortion.
According to a 2009 Gallup poll, about 40 percent of American Catholics found abortion to be “morally acceptable” in at least some cases. The same poll found that 61 percent of Catholics found the death penalty, proscribed by the church, morally acceptable; 71 percent found divorce morally acceptable (compared to 66 percent of non-Catholics), and 54 percent said the same of homosexual relations.
Which makes it especially bizarre that wildly conservative Catholic ideas have moved to the political fore. Remarkably, the Supreme Court in the same country that flipped out over John F. Kennedy’s religion now has a 6-3 Catholic majority — including its four most conservative members and one swing vote. And, incredibly, old-school Catholic notions about the evils of birth control have suddenly become a legitimate topic for public debate, with people like Santorum happily stoking the fires.
Santorum gives himself weasel room by suggesting he wouldn’t actually seek to ban birth control. But every time he opens his mouth on the subject he makes himself clear: People who use birth control are irresponsible libertines. Sluts, perhaps. (If he thinks men have anything to do with all this nasty sex stuff, he doesn’t let on.)
“Artificial birth control … goes down the line of being able to do whatever you want to do without having the responsibility that comes with that,” Santorum said in 2006. Of birth control, he said, “I don’t think it works, I think it’s harmful to women, I think it’s harmful to our society.”
Can a guy who opposes birth control be elected president?
Consider that, according to the 2002-2006 National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 83 percent of Catholic women “at risk of unintended pregnancy” (meaning, not your 80-year-old grandmother) use birth control, ranging from sterilization, to IUDs, to the pill, to condoms. The percentage is roughly the same for other faiths — 85 percent for mainline Protestants, 84 percent for Evangelicals, 85 percent for “other” (Judaism, Buddhism, etc.) and, weirdly, just 78 percent for those who say they have no religion.
Of course, it’s more than a little stupid to restrict ourselves to talking about women when it comes contraceptives. After all, if there were no men involved, birth control really wouldn’t be necessary now, would it?
Yet Rep. Darrel Issa, a California Republican, convened a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to discuss the Obama administration’s recent tangle with the Catholic hierarchy (but not, notably, the laity) over whether health insurance plans should be required to cover birth control. The witnesses were all men.
“The Republican leadership of this Congress thinks it’s appropriate to have a hearing on women’s health and purposely exclude women from the panel,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues.”
How in the world have we gotten to a place where this is even on the table for discussion?
Many Democrats and feminists who fought in the trenches of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s aren’t surprised. Everybody called them Cassandras when they argued that anti-abortion forces were bent, ultimately, on taking away birth control on their merry way to controlling women’s bodies and sexuality (and again, a little ahem, since men are the frequent, uh, beneficiaries of that sexuality). But it appears that they were right, after all.
You have to think complacency has a lot to do with this. Younger women (and, ahem, men) have grown up in a world where there was never any question about their freedom to use contraception and control their own bodies and sexuality. Abortion is a much more difficult issue (one I’m not addressing here), but younger Americans have never lived in a world where it was outlawed.
But if this goes on, they just might.