The Roman Catholic church is the oldest and largest Christian denomination on the planet. Although its influence in the Western world is declining, it still exercises great power over the lives of millions of people every day. All too often, that power is used in the service of superstition, of perpetuating irrational and dogmatic beliefs about how human liberty should be restricted in order to please God. Whatever charitable and humanitarian work the Catholic church performs must be balanced against the vast harm it has done and continues to do because of its obsession with controlling the sex lives and reproductive systems of all human beings. This post will detail some of the more notable harms.
Denying equal rights to gays and lesbians. The Catholic church’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is well-known, and shows by itself how this church has placed itself on the wrong side of history by supporting irrational and superstitious prejudice against people who don’t conform to its narrow and restrictive model of human sexual relations.
But a slightly lesser-known fact is that the Catholic church’s adoption agencies flatly refuse to place children with gay parents – even if this means they will have no parents and will grow up in an orphanage. Evidently, the Catholic church considers this option preferable to a child growing up in a stable home with loving, caring parents who happen to be of the same gender. For example, in 2006, Catholic Charities announced its adoption services were shutting down in Massachusetts, rather than place children with gay families. This is but another example of how the church considers adherence to its own dogma more important than the lives and welfare of human beings.
Opposing vaccination for sexually transmitted diseases. Since the development of Gardasil, a highly effective vaccine against the common sexually transmitted disease HPV – which can cause lethal cervical cancer – numerous branches of the Catholic church have announced their opposition to giving this vaccine to children before they reach sexual maturity. The Catholic school board in Halton, Ontario has announced plans to ban school health units from giving the vaccine to students or even discussing it with them. The church in Scotland has also announced opposition to the vaccine, as did the California Catholic Conference (which said the vaccine “takes away the parental perogative for children to be chaste“).
Regardless of a person’s religious beliefs, there is no rational reason for them not to receive this vaccine. The only purpose a person could have for opposing it for their children would be to make them afraid of getting cervical cancer if they have unprotected sex – which has the logical inference that cervical cancer would be an appropriate punishment for such sex.
Opposing emergency contraceptive use, even for rape victims. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, emergency contraception (the “morning-after pill”) is highly effective at preventing fertilization. This is a tremendous boon to rape victims, who’ve already suffered enough without being forced to go through the further trauma of bearing their rapist’s child. Yet many church ethicists, as well as the Pontifical Academy for Life, argue that Catholic physicians and Catholic hospitals should not administer EC to rape victims under any circumstance. This is a cruel and evil position that would inflict severe emotional and physical trauma on women and deny them the right to control their own bodies in the name of obedience to unprovable religious dogma. Dr. Marty Klein has more information in the appropriately titled Catholic Hospitals Should Stop Playing God.
Opposing abortion even when it is necessary to prevent death or grave harm to the woman. The most prominent example of this deadly dogma is in El Salvador, an officially Catholic country that bans abortion under all circumstances and jails women who obtain them illegally. The church intensely lobbied the government into passing this law, bussing in Catholic schoolchildren to stage demonstrations and using churches as political organizing centers. Pope John Paul II also issued statements in support of the law.
The result is a theocratic nation where the state exerts dictatorial control over women’s bodies. Women who suffer miscarriages are forced to submit to invasive vaginal exams to ensure they did not obtain illegal abortions. Even in ectopic pregnancies, which have no possibility of producing a living child, abortion is forbidden until the mother’s Fallopian tube has ruptured and the fetus is dead – a critical, life-threatening medical emergency for the woman.
Opposing condom use, even for married couples where one member has HIV. This particularly horrible example of the church’s irrational opposition to condom use is most often seen in Africa, where the culture often does not permit women to turn down their husband’s demands for sex. Yet even if they remain monogamous, that does not protect them if the husband cheats and acquires a deadly disease such as HIV. Since the Catholic church teaches that condom use is forbidden under all circumstances, this rules out the last remaining option and results in devastating tragedies like this one:
The typical patient is a young woman between eighteen and thirty years of age. She is wheeled into the examining room in a hospital chair or dragged in, supported by her sister, aunt, or brother. She is frequently delirious; her face is gaunt; her limbs look like desiccated twigs. Surprisingly, the young woman is already a mother many times over, yet she will not live to see her children grow up. More shocking still, she is married; her husband infected her with the deadly virus.
…To preach fidelity and abstinence assumes that a woman can determine with whom she sleeps and when — a grave misunderstanding of the relations between the sexes in places where women are sometimes betrothed at birth or sold for cattle. How can the Vatican continue to prohibit the use of a life-saving intervention amid a pandemic of unprecedented proportions?
Attempting to stifle stem cell research. The most notable example of this came in June 2006, when an influential Catholic cardinal, Alfonso López Trujillo, said that stem-cell researchers should be excommunicated. Although this threat is meaningless to non-Catholics, the important point is that it is a threat – as well as a symptom of the church’s obvious desire to block this life-saving research by coercion and spiritual blackmail.
This story, like the others discussed here, shows why we should be glad that this irrational and medieval institution has lost the power it once had to force all people to obey its will. Now we need to diminish its influence still further, so that it can no longer stand in the way of wise and rational policies that improve people’s well-being and happiness.