Getting a Catholic story wrong

anticath Blaine Harden of The Washington Post faults the Catholic church for keeping Filipinos poor. The gist of Harden's story is that by opposing artificial contraception, the church has intimidated people in heavily Catholic Philippines into having more unwanted children. The article begins with the story of a woman who wanted only two children but gave birth to four because of her ignorance about artificial contraception:

She and her family belong to the fastest-growing segment of the Philippine population: very poor people with large families. There are many reasons why this country is poor, including feudal patterns of land ownership and corrupt government. But there is a compelling link between family size and poverty. It increases in lock step with the number of children, as nutrition, health, education and job prospects all decline, government statistics and many studies show.

Later, Harden shows that the population growth rate in the Philippines is 2.1 percent. He compares this figure to that of Thailand, a country that has relied on artificial contraception to reduce its growth rate dramatically.

The story is less than bulletproof. Matthew Balan of the Media Research Center ticked off some of its holes: Harden failed to mention why the typical Filipino woman in 1970 had six children and 3.54 today; the fact that a population growth rate of 2.1 percent is at the minimum replacement rate; and the likelihood that Thailand and even the Philippines will face European-style problems of having too few workers to support many retirees.

I have two main objections to the story. My first objection is that Harden failed to specify the nature of threats that government workers who distribute artificial contraceptives face:

The organization that is helping Espinoza agreed to introduce this reporter to her on condition that it not be named. The group's health workers said they fear retaliation and harassment from officials in the national and city government, as well as from the Catholic Church.

In 2005, Catholic bishops in the southern Philippines announced that they would refuse Communion to government health workers who distributed birth control devices.

In the first paragraph, Harden neglects to describe the retaliation and harassment that government workers fear. Are those fears justified? If so, what types of threats have government workers faced? Are they physical threats or threats against their livelihood?

As things stand, the story implies that (Catholic) health workers should fear one thing only: being denied Holy Communion. Now it's true that Catholic leaders are taking disciplinary measures against said workers; they cannot partake of the blood and body of Christ. Yet this hardly constitutes retaliation and harassment properly understood.

My second objection is the story's breezy dismissal of Catholic doctrine and arguments. The church favors natural methods of family planning, Harden writes, who quotes a United Nations official whose view of the method is four words long:

As for the efficacy of "natural" methods to control population growth, Mukherjee said "it does not work."

Mukherjee's statement is nothing more than assertion and an appeal to authority; it provides no evidence that natural family planning does fail or provide any statistics about its success rate. Harden's use of sneer quotes around the word "natural" will not convince fair-minded readers, either.

Maybe the Catholic Church in the Philippines has frightened and impoverished citizens. Yet Harden's story shows little hard evidence for this idea. That's a problem.

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