British Prime Minister David Cameron and philanthropist Melinda Gates… (WPA Pool / Getty Images )
It’s being billed as a major smack-down: prominent Catholic laywoman versus the pope. Melinda Gates, Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ wife and one half of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “disagrees with the Vatican on the use of contraceptives,” according to the Guardian newspaper. With the British government, the foundation this week sponsored a London Summit on Family Planning designed to provide 120 million women in the world's poorest countries with access to contraceptives by 2020. Gates pledged $560 million for the effort.
"Of course I wrestled with this,” Gates told the newspaper. “As a Catholic I believe in this religion, there are amazing things about this religion, amazing moral teachings that I do believe in, but I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die, I believe in not letting babies die, and to me that's more important than arguing about what method of contraception [is right]."
In one sense, this is a dog-bites-man story. As we were reminded during the controversy over the Obama administration’s contraception mandate for religious employers, the Catholic men (and women) in the pew overwhelmingly reject the church’s edict against “artificial” birth control. A Gallup Poll showed that 82% of Catholic respondents agreed that birth control was morally acceptable. (The poll didn’t distinguish between natural and artificial birth control, but it’s unlikely that many respondents had natural family planning in mind.) In another poll, 57% of Catholic voters — and 59% of Catholic women — supported the Obama mandate.
The more interesting aspect of the Gates-vs.-the-Vatican story is that the church and its most ardent members in politics haven’t put all that much energy into opposing contraception as public policy. Compared with the church’s preachments against abortion, its opposition to birth control is the dogma that didn’t bark. Even Rick Santorum, who famously said that as president he would talk about “the dangers of contraception in this country,” voted for contraceptive services as part of a law called Title X (though at one point he suggested that he did so only because it “was part of a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things”).
It is true that on the Catholic right there is a new enthusiasm for the church’s condemnation of birth control, which was reaffirmed in the divisive 1968 papal encyclical Humane Vitae. But, like the Latin Mass, it has a niche following. And the church, which once supported laws against contraception, has other priorities these days. I don’t think Melinda Gates has to worry about being excommunicated.
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