The Catholic Church in Rwanda was last week reported to have banned contraceptive services in health centres run by the Church. This stand is not new and is in keeping with the teaching of the Church on the issue of birth control. And in fairness, the Church must be given credit for consistency.
The Catholic Church has for a long time been a crucial partner in providing healthcare and education in Rwanda. And so its views have to be taken seriously.
But that does not mean that those views are always right. Sometimes they display a lack of sensitivity to serious social questions. I think the ban on birth control services is one such example.
For once a little flexibility and more common sense position might actually be a good thing. It would not even contradict Church teaching. It would not be the first time either.
Pope Francis has shown more openness on questions on which the Church has always had a rigid stand and urged greater tolerance.
In 2013, asked what he thought of gay people, he responded: “who am I to judge?” That response signalled flexibility towards accepting gays as normal people and not perverts.
In June this year, he went a little further and said the Church should apologise to gay people for the way it has treated them.
I do not wish to get into the debate on gays. I only want to use the Pope’s stand on inclusiveness in the Church to point out that a pragmatic and compassionate approach to some of the contentious social issues is both necessary and possible.
Why don’t the bishops in Rwanda take the cue from the Holy Father and show a little more flexibility?
Let us examine the question of contraception. There are two phases to consider: before conception and after.
The ‘after’ is a no-go area for the Catholic Church on moral and ethical grounds. Upon conception, life begins, and the thought of terminating that life is taboo in Catholic teaching. We will not debate this, although there are divergent views on the subject, including from Catholics. Some of them actually ignore the Church’s position on the subject.
The ‘before’ is less contentious and much easier to discuss as there are no big moral hurdles to first clear. Contraception is about preventing conception from taking place. No life is involved and therefore there cannot be a charge of murder because you cannot kill a thing that has not come into being. In that sense it cannot be placed on the same moral plane as abortion.
I can already hear the indignant retort: if people don’t want to have babies, they should abstain from sex. It’s all very reasonable, of course, except that people will still have sex, even those who have vowed to lead celibate lives. Prevention of conception might be useful even to those who break vows.
There are other practical reasons for wanting to prevent or delay conception. We are constantly told by both civil and religious leaders that the world’s resources are finite. Human beings are in competition for those limited resources. Therefore, prudent management of scarcity is mandatory. That requires careful planning, including when to have children and how many to have.
Our social services, including those operated by the Church, are already under heavy strain. Schools operate double shift classes because they don’t have enough classrooms for the children. Classrooms are overcrowded. Teachers are overworked. And yet we expect our children to get a world-class education in such circumstances.
Lack of proper nutrition is a big national concern. Do we want to compound it?
The sight of innocent little girls and boys on the streets, rummaging through rubbish bins for scraps of thrown away food tugs at the heart. Only the insensitive cannot be moved by the sight of glue-sniffing children seeking a permanent high to keep away the cold and pangs of hunger.
Do we want to see their numbers increase? Or those of little children labouring in the fields or homes because they have to help their needy families?
I am sure God doesn’t like the sight, either, and will judge us harshly if we let such conditions persist.
It is good for the bishops to take a collective stand on an issue (life) they consider important. Indeed life is inviolable. They should have done the same twenty-two years ago and prevented the slaughter of more than a million Tutsi. But they remained curiously silent even as some of their members participated in the killing and churches were turned into mass slaughterhouses.
The Pope, too, is doing a good thing – saying it is good to apologise to gay people – although he has not actually done so. How about an apology to Rwandans for the role of some of his priests and bishops, and the silence of the Church during the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda? Maybe it will come. It would be good if it came at the speed with which some people have been made saints.Follow https://twitter.com/jrwagatare