LIMA, Peru — "A Sector of the Church Takes a Medieval and Recalcitrant Position." Displayed in bold headlines, those were fighting words from President Alberto Fujimori.
"Medieval is when medicines do not reach the sick," responded Roman Catholic Bishop Luis Bambaren, rising to the challenge and making more headlines.
It's all part of a dispute between church and state over birth control here, and it has been big news in Peruvian newspapers and magazines. It has also shown how press coverage of flaring tension between major power centers in an impoverished Latin American country can focus public attention on important issues underlying its poverty.
Is population control needed to overcome poverty? How can the power of the Catholic Church in a predominantly Catholic country be used to foster economic and social development? What should be the government's priorities for development?
Perhaps it was neither side's main goal, but the polemics between Fujimori and the church have brought a thorough airing of those issues as, day after day, the story plays out on front pages.
The friction between Fujimori's administration and the Catholic leadership marks a low point in historically close relations between church and state in Peru.
About 95% of all Peruvians are baptized Catholics, although many have joined evangelical Protestant congregations in recent years. Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, is Roman Catholic. But because his presidential campaign earlier this year received key backing from evangelical Protestants, many Catholic leaders were said to have supported his opponent, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, an agnostic.
Since taking office in July, Fujimori has shown no favoritism toward Protestants, but he has bucked his own church's position by advocating artificial birth control.
The church-state dispute broke out late last month with the news that the Fujimori administration would begin a birth-control information campaign, distributing free contraceptives.
"The development of Peru is threatened and retarded by the growing increase in the population," the president was quoted as saying. Peru's population is expanding at an annual rate of 2.5%, one of the highest in Latin America, while economic production is shrinking.
Catholic leaders quickly went to the media with arguments against artificial methods of birth control. Bishop Bambaren, chairman of the Peruvian church's Family Commission, suggested that Fujimori's birth-control program might be a response to pressure from international lending institutions.
Fujimori denied that, and he countered by calling the church position against contraceptives "medieval." He says his program will not foster a "culture of death," as some critics charge, but rather will seek a dignified life for all Peruvians.
"There is nothing terrible in wanting there to be no more children eating garbage in the streets, abandoned and prostituted," he said.
Bishop Bambaren suggests that the government could do more for the poor by improving such social services as health care. "Medieval is treating the poor like animals with the abandonment that the sick suffer in the hospitals," he said.
Bishop Ricardo Durand, president of the church's Episcopal Conference, told reporters that Peru's economic conditions require a concentration of efforts on problems of malnutrition and unemployment. "That is the central concern of the church," he said. "The important thing is economic reactivation to solve the problems of misery and hunger."
The Episcopal Conference also issued a widely publicized statement saying official population policy cannot ignore ethical concepts in the name of development and "such development is not acceptable when human and moral values do not have primacy."
The newspaper Expreso questioned congressmen of the left and right who supported Fujimori's birth-control program, but some also criticized the president for confronting the church.
"What should be done is to work in a harmonious and intelligent way, avoiding offenses to other entities, especially the Catholic Church," said Sen. Enrique Bernales of the Socialist Left.
Without the dispute, however, it is unlikely that the issues raised by the birth-control program would have received as much press attention and stimulated as much discussion as they did. Even feminists--who generally receive little notice in Peru--used the controversy as an opportunity to draw attention to their views.
"It is an inalienable right to exercise voluntary maternity," said a newspaper advertisement placed by the Feminist Movement. "We reject the interference of the Catholic Church with regard to contraceptive methods."
Columnist Manuel Dornellas advised the church leadership to back off.
"It has expressed its opinion, and now each citizen and each parishioner will act according to the dictates of his conscience," Dornellas said. "In a democracy, no one has a crown. Not even the Catholic Church."