The Vatican Said What?

I have a great love for theology. To relax, I'll pick up a book like After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy by Catherine Pickstock. Yes, I know. Taking "nerd" to new heights. So I'm always fascinated by questions that come to me having to do with theology and fertility, especially as relates to the Catholic Church.

Recently, someone brought to my attention a statement the Vatican published a few months ago in L'Osservatore Romano by Pedro Jose Maria Simon Castelli, president of the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations that said, "We have sufficient evidence to state that a non-negligible cause of male infertility in the West is the environmental pollution caused by the Pill."

Path2Parenthood is developing programming and public service announcements with several other groups to heighten awareness of male reproductive health and male factor infertility in particular, so my ears instantly perked up.

The article went on to say that waste runoff from oral contraceptives in general and from women's urine in particular, has polluted drinking water and contributed to the rise in male infertility.

An Italian physician, Gianbenedetto Melis, M.D., an OB/GYN, countered by saying, "Once metabolized, the hormones contained in oral contraceptives no longer have any of the characteristic effects of feminine hormones."

Most of the questions I received were along the lines of "why would the Vatican say this", or "why would the Pope say this."

First, one needs to understand the complex hierarchy in Catholic statements. Starting at the top, with the Pope making an infallible statement on a matter of faith or morals. This is the pinnacle of teaching, the be all and end all of pronouncements, and must be held by the whole Church. Surprisingly to some, these are rare indeed.

Somewhere towards the bottom is the statement quoted above. It was published in the Vatican's daily newspaper. The editor of L'Osservatore Romano recently said that it is not an official newspaper, but represents an authoritative point of view. Cardinal Bertone, in 2006, described the newspaper as "an instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter and for information about church events".

Over the past few years, the paper has made some "controversial" statements, such as taking a relatively "soft" stance on President Obama's pro-choice positions, and calling Michael Jackson an important phenomenon. Yes, those are "controversial" positions to conservative Catholics, because they seemed not to be in alignment with the "authoritative point of view" of the Church.

Sound ambiguous? It's meant to. Vatican observers speculate that the ambiguity serves the Pope and others around him by allowing things to be said that they might not necessarily believe but don't mind having stated.

This is part of the intrigue of the Church that I find fascinating. Others may find it frustrating. So here's my take on it. Timing counts. Issues surrounding ART, infertility, stem cell research and the like are constantly in the news. Nuance counts. What's not said is as important as what is said, and who said it counts as well. Note that there was no accompanying statement by any ranking member of the clergy that supported the article's claim.

It feels to me that the Vatican was trying to accomplish three things: 1 - to keep itself in the news and therefore in the conversation about the issues named above; 2 - to reiterate its opposition to artificial birth control; and 3 - to demonstrate the consequences of our actions on others. I also found it interesting that the "Eve Syndrome" (my terminology, not theirs) seems to persist. "See what WOMEN are doing to MEN?" I can't say that this was the intention of the author, but nonetheless, it caught my attention.

For those of us who are Catholic, I don't know that there is much of anything here, except for the points noted above. There's no new ground being broken, no high level statements being issued, no cause for alarm. I think it is a reminder that religion and science will always be in dialogue with each other.

Sometimes the conversation will be respectful and based in truth; sometimes it won't be. What matters is that we keep the conversation alive and that ordinary people share the reality of their lived experiences.

A friend of mine is an Italian priest and thinks we Americans take things much too seriously. "You have to think of the Church like you think of your family. Dysfunctional. You don't give the same importance to everything that is said. Sometimes you think 'I can't believe Aunt Bella said that…oh, well…you know Aunt Bella! And you have another glass of wine."

So relax. Stay in the conversation. When something huge arises, we'll call it out.

For information on Catherine Pickstock's books click here:

To read Jennifer Rogers on the Vatican and endocrine disruptors click here:

To read more about the Vatican's position on endocrine disruptors rclick here:

For more information about Path2Parenthood click here:

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