by Timothy Elphick BRITAIN and the Vatican clashed head-on over birth control at the Earth Summit in Brazil this week following a row between the two delegations.
British Overseas Aid Minister Lynda Chalker accused the Holy See of "shortsightedness" for refusing to debate the merits of birth control at the 150-nation summit in Rio de Janeiro.
"To ignore the doubling of population which has taken place over the last 40 years, and a further doubling which appears almost inevitable, demonstrates a degree of shortsightedness we arc not prepared to countenance. Population growth will have an inevitable impact on development and the environment," the British statement said.
Baroness Chalker's attack came just days before she was due to meet on Monday the Papal Nuncio in Rio de Janeiro, Archbishop Renato Martino, to discuss approaches to environmental destruction caused by the the world's population explosion.
The Vatican, Argentina and the Philippines have insisted that no reference to artificial contraception be included in agreements negotiated at the Summit.
But Archbishop Martino said that the Church would resist pressure from developed nations, such as Britain, aimed at imposing family planning schemes on the Third World. "Birth control is contrary to the objective moral order and to the liberty, dignity and conscience of the human being," said the archbishop.
Archbishop Martino told the conference that the Church did not "propose procreation at any cost".
The Church would continue to uphold its view that human life is sacred and that it is the right of couples to decide on the size of their families without interference from outside governments or pressure groups, he told delegates.
The Vatican's position reflects the view held by leading Catholic aid agencies that the root cause of the environmental catastrophe threatening the globe is not population growth in poor countries but poverty.
Only when living standards rise and crippling levels of foreign debt are eased will growth rates stabilise, the agencies believe.
Pope John Paul II, speaking about the Earth Summit on an eight-day trip to Angola. said the ecological balance of the planet involved "not only natural resources but human resources too".
"This means the demographic problem is an important one for which responsible parenthood is needed. But even from an ecological point of view I think the human being must be protected," said Pope John Paul II.
As the conference proceeded in Brazil, Bishop John Crowley, chairman of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD), warned that the drought engulfing Africa was reaching crisis point.
The bishop, just back from a visit to Zimbabwe to assess the extent of the famine in southern Africa, described "the burgeoning crisis of food insecurity" throughout the region.
He said that even at the "eleventh hour" mass starvation in southern Africa could still he averted with international help. But the land in the continent's most fertile region was already "a semi-desert with total crop failure and dying animals".
The bishop said that in Africa as elsewhere in the globe "there are signs of hope amidst the desolation". He stressed that the developed world "could not afford the luxury of compassion fatigue" and called on governments to increase overseas aid to the UN target figure of 0.7 per cent.