Baroness Flather, crossbench peer and supporter of the British Humanist Association, delivered a speech yesterday in which she accused the Catholic Church of being “positively bad for women”.
Speaking in the House of Lords on the subject of international development, she said: “What has religion done for women? It has done nothing for them. Catholicism or Islam have positively been bad for women. If women are not allowed to have contraception, then in some areas, especially in Africa where there are so many Catholics, they may have seven, eight or nine children. Three or four of those will die of disease and hunger because the men do not bother. It is the women who have to feed them and find their food. That does not matter to anybody. It does not matter to the bishops.”
Baroness Flather went on to add: “A bishop in Uganda recently said to all his priests: ‘Tell the women that they are going straight to hell if they use contraception’. This is not the kind of world that we should be living in in 2015.”
Baroness Flather’s comments are as ignorant of history as they are catastrophically misinformed about population and development. So far from being ‘positively bad’ for women, having “done nothing for them”, Christianity has been and is now a great cause of the elevation of women in their dignity and welfare.
It was Christian ethics that led to the end of the Roman principle of patria potestas, though which a Roman husband has power of life and death over his family (including his wife), and gave women greater equality in marriage, over property, and in her rights as a mother over her children. It was Christian monasticism that gave women profound authority and power as Abbesses, and a space for female creativity to flourish as we see in the life of St Hildegard of Bingen. It is Christianity today that promotes a sexual ethic that liberates women from the sexual exploitation and objectification to which the permissive society subjects them.
Furthermore, it is the Church today that gives education and healthcare to the poorest of women in the Third World, often through the active ministry of Catholic women, such as the Sisters of Mercy. It is Popes who have actively advocated the dignity and rights of women in documents such as Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris dignitatem in the 1980s.
By contrast, all that Baroness Flather has to offer is baseless population control advocacy, and the lazy prescription of handing out condoms. This is based on a falsehood: the idea that world population has grown because of increased fertility. Quite the opposite is in fact the truth. The number of children borne by each woman has fallen over the last fifty years. The reason why there are more people in the world today than ever before is because fewer people are dying, due to improved healthcare and economic development. Moreover, falling fertility rates mean that the world is actually likely to decline in population in the next century. People are not the problem, and therefore contraception is not the solution to either poverty or climate change.
Rather than advocate what the Church humanely attempts to provide – maternal healthcare (which really saves the lives of women in childbirth), true development, and a humane form of regulating births in Natural Fertility Awareness – Baroness Flather decided to fixate on attacking the number of human beings, instead of providing the means of human flourishing. This is not the answer to the problems of the Third World. Only the authentic humanism of Catholic Christianity can ensure a just prosperity for all humanity.