July 29 issue editorial on the perils of ill-formed conscience.
When billionairess Melinda Gates announced her plans to bring contraception to more than 100 million impoverished women, she presented herself as a practicing Catholic inspired by a commitment to social justice inculcated during her high-school years at the Ursuline Academy in Dallas.
Indeed, her high school has since defended her decision to transgress Catholic teaching on contraception: “Melinda Gates leads from her conscience and acts on her beliefs as a concerned citizen of our world,” read a statement released by the Ursuline Academy.
We have been here before.
Such policies are often presented as the inevitable outcome of a choice between impossibly high-minded doctrines and a compassionate accommodation of imperfect realities. A similar calculus is typically offered by self-identified “Catholic” politicians who cast votes against legislation seeking to bar abortion, embryo-destructive stem-cell research and same-sex “marriage.”
Recently, a similar explanation was also floated during the controversy ignited by the Vatican’s effort to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. LCWR leaders and their allies rejected any suggestion that they must teach and defend the fullness of the truth, including Catholic teaching on marriage and abortion.
Rather, the LCWR’s non-existent record on life issues was justified as an unintended byproduct of the group’s commitment to social justice. These arguments ignore a fundamental truth that bears repeating: A humble adherence to moral absolutes secures social justice.
Not only does the moral law provide boundaries beyond which we cannot go, thus protecting human dignity, it also guards against misplaced passions that so often derail our human projects, leading to failure and even tragedy.
Given Gates’ impressive record of philanthropy and service, many Catholics are loath to judge her intentions, nor should they do so. But we also must not forget that the promotion of contraception constitutes a direct violation of Catholic teaching.
And while Gates believes that her campaign will result in a vast reduction in maternal and infant deaths, contraception has repeatedly failed to live up to its vaunted promise of alleviating suffering and poverty. A half century after the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of oral contraception in the United States, non-marital births, sexual exploitation of women, divorce and an impoverished underclass continue to gain ground.
Indeed, a refusal to reassess this failed legacy reveals that blind faith, not evidence-based medicine, has fueled the promotion of contraception, even as its supporters work to sideline Catholic health care and social outreach that reject such practices.
Further, Gates’ assertion that social justice requires her rejection of Humanae Vitae points to another familiar problem: a failure of catechesis.
Judging from the statement released by the Ursuline Academy, it seems likely that Gates, like so many Catholic schoolchildren, never learned the Church’s reasons for opposing contraception, let alone Pope Paul VI’s prescient view of contraception’s devastating moral and social impact. The Ursuline Academy’s reference to “conscience” fails to explain that the Church asks even its most illustrious members to form their conscience in accordance with the mind and heart of the Church and to embrace her inconvenient truths with childlike humility.
Indeed, a very strong case could be made that powerful men and women are especially called to deepen the virtue of humility and to ponder Christ’s warning to the “rich man.”
In Evangelium Vitae, Blessed Pope John Paul II recalled, “The Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and increase of the children of Israel, submitted them to every kind of oppression and ordered that every male child born of the Hebrew women was to be killed (Exodus 1:7-22).”
The Pope pondered the similarities between Pharaoh, who would lose his son in his war against the “children of the Israelites,” and our modern-day pharaohs of industry and philanthropy: “Today, not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way. They too are haunted by the current demographic growth. ... Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person’s inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive program of birth control.”
Thus, while their “intentions … can seem convincing at times, especially if presented in the name of solidarity, we are in fact faced by an objective ‘conspiracy against life.’ Further, this anti-life regime is presented as ‘a mark of progress and a victory of freedom,’ while pro-life witness is attacked as an ‘enemy of freedom and progress.’”
Gates says that she is not like the pharaohs of old — the philanthropists who funded population control because they saw increased numbers of poor people as a threat to political and economic stability. And the Gates Foundation has played an essential and distinctive role in the public-health field, rejecting, for example, any promotion of abortion.
It would, therefore, be a tragedy if that inspirational legacy was tainted by policies and practices that herald the culture of death.
The danger is real: The Gates Foundation will partner with the United Nations Population Fund and International Planned Parenthood, despite both organizations’ commitment to abortion rights — and despite the UNFPA’s documented complicity in China’s brutal one-child regime.
Melinda Gates vows that she will respect the freedom of women. But she will not be there when the UNFPA does its work, and she has not explained how a $4-billion contraception campaign might affect access to underfunded but essential medical services.
“I believe absolutely in family planning: I am putting my reputation, my credibility on the line for it,” Gates has said.
Let us pray that she will reassess this fateful decision before those she hopes to serve learn to fear, rather than welcome, this effort.