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Pope, On Visit To Philippines, Defends Catholic Ban On Contraception

Pope Francis holds a Virgin Mary statue as he arrives at the Mall of Asia arena in Manila, Philippines, on Friday. The pontiff has issued a strong statement supporting the church's teachings on artificial contraception.

Speaking to one of Asia's fastest-growing populations, Pope Francis issued what is being described as his strongest defense yet of the Catholic Church's opposition to artificial contraception, urging that Philippine families be "sanctuaries of respect for life."

Francis, on the second day of his visit to the region's only predominately Christian (and overwhelmingly Catholic) country, also denounced the Philippines' endemic corruption and said that its government needs to clean up its act and address the "scandalous" poverty and social inequity that pervades the islands nation.

As we reported last year when the 100-millionth Philippine baby was born, those social problems have forced many average Filipinos to seek employment overseas from where they send money back home to relatives.

The Pope's remarks critical of the country's leadership come as President Benigno Aquino III has made statements accusing the church of remaining silent amid what he has said were the "abuses" of his predecessor's government, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

"In contrast to their previous silence, some members of the clergy now seem to think that the way to be true to the faith means finding something to criticize, even to the extent that one prelate admonished me to do something about my hair, as if it were a mortal sin," Aquino said.

In the Philippines, which is more than 85 percent Catholic, critics were quick to denounce Aquino's remarks as "inappropriate," according to The New York Times.

But the pope's message on birth control is likely to receive a less enthusiastic response than he might hope.

Although the Philippines has halved its birth rate since the 1970s (from six children per woman to three), its rate of population growth remains high compared to most of Asia. Even so, The Wall Street Journal notes that attitudes about contraception are changing. Surveys, it says, indicate that 85 percent of Filipinos, including Catholics, support a law long opposed by the Church that allows the government to fund family planning services.

Despite those concerns, a massive gathering of 6 million Filipinos is expected to attend the pope's Sunday Mass in Manila's Rizal Park.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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