On Monday, Pope Francis may have made his most provocative statement yet. On a flight from Manila to Rome, he said that Catholics should not think they have to breed "like rabbits" in order to be good Catholics.
Even from a Pope who continues to surprise, this comment was startling. But while the casual listener may have gotten the sense Pope Francis was suddenly sanctioning modern contraception, he was only referring to "God given" church-approved methods, calling on couples to use the infamous rhythm method and abstain from sex on a woman's most fertile days.
Unfortunately, there are no signs that the Catholic Church is changing its policy of denouncing modern contraceptive methods -- whether the pill or the condom -- even though these methods are much more effective than "natural" ones. In a recent poll, 78 percent of Catholics across all countries surveyed said they support the use of modern contraception, and the percentage is even higher in European and Latin American countries.
When the Pope made these comments he was returning from the Philippines, where after many years of struggle, the national Congress passed a law in late 2012 permitting the public health system to offer free contraceptives. Public opinion has clearly shifted in this majority Catholic country, where there is widespread interest and need for reproductive health services. Yet the Church stridently opposed this new law until the very end, and even challenged it (unsuccessfully) in court last year.
Even though the Church's position on contraception is not widely held, its influence remains significant. In September 2015, the UN General Assembly will adopt a global set of Sustainable Development Goals to address climate change and eradicate poverty. The International Women's Health Coalition and other women's groups are advocating with governments at the UN to ensure that women's human rights are a key part of these new goals. Although it is often in the minority in its views on sexual and reproductive health, the Holy See, the diplomatic arm of the Catholic Church at the UN, has consistently tried to disrupt progress in this area. In the past few months, the Holy See made common cause with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran in an attempt to thwart agreements on reproductive rights, sexual and reproductive health, and gender equality.
Pope Francis's championing of anti-poverty measures is encouraging and much needed. Yet it is hard to see how without improving access to family planning and reproductive health services, women can realize their aspirations for a better life. As the global community sets the next development agenda, it's critical that sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the human rights of women and girls more broadly, are an integral part of the plan. That will be the only way to lift the most vulnerable, whom Pope Francis is dedicated to helping, out of poverty.