Brazilians Face Population Dilemma
TELEMACO BORBA, BRAZIL
THE local paper mill in this southern city of 65,000 began a family-planning program in 1977 for its employees, which helped bring the average number of children per couple down to 2.2, from more than five. Today the program has expanded beyond the mill, with the Klabin Company offering its resources and expertise to the population at large, in concert with the city government.Skip to next paragraph
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"At the beginning, the [Roman Catholic] Church was radically against this. But today, seeing the relevance and social usefulness of it, the priests and nuns are our allies," says Virgilio Castello Branco, the mill's administrative director.
Questioned in a telephone interview, the local Catholic bishop, Dom Murilo Sebastiao Ramos Krieger, at first says he has no knowledge of the Klabin program. After making inquiries with the local priest about it, he later explains: "It's impossible to fight these things in every corner of the country. The city serves everyone; the church serves its own. It gives a general orientation [on birth-control policy but] ... the method of Christ was to show the ideal, not to use coercion."
Some top church officials here have expressed concern about the growing use of birth control in the world's largest Roman Catholic country. But even they appear resigned to the new reality - long familiar in the industrialized nations - that most Catholics have come to separate their reproductive decisions from their faith. In the process, they have removed one major barrier to solving the problem of runaway population growth.
"The increasing acceptance of contraception and family planning by Catholics will contribute significantly to global efforts to reduce population-growth rates," says a senior United Nations population expert, who asked not to be named.
The determination to make individual decisions is one manifestation of a historic transformation of attitudes toward family planning that has taken place in the shadow of a church that has long opposed efforts to interfere with conception.
It is reflected in a widening division of views within the church itself as local clerics and parishioners, faced daily with the grim consequences of rapid urbanization and overpopulation in Latin America and Africa, part ways with the strict mandate of Rome.
"Is the Roman Catholic Church against family planning?" asks Paul Burgess, a former priest and Vatican official who is an expert on population issues. "If by the church you mean the hierarchy and the bishops in Rome, the answer is yes. If by the church you mean the clergy and the laity, the answer is no. At the level where it counts, the Catholic Church practices birth control.
"Of course local priests don't support family planning and the use of contraceptives publicly," he adds. "But most turn a blind eye."
"The issue of controlling births is very delicate," comments church spokesman Almir Ribeiro Guimaraes, family-affairs adviser to the Brazilian National Bishops Council in Brasilia. "The church supports natural methods of birth control. But it is against abortive methods and all other methods which affect nature. This is because of our profound respect for life."
Because a papal encyclical bans modern methods of birth control, family-planning agencies in Latin America have often sidestepped direct confrontation with the church. They have based their arguments for child-spacing, for example, on the need to protect the health of mother and child, without reference to limiting family size.
The most effective argument used with local clerics has been that if the church is serious about stopping abortion it must back family planning to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
In countries like Mexico and Colombia, aggressive government-backed programs have gone largely unopposed by local church leaders and have contributed to dramatic reductions in the average number of children per family, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.