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The Population Question

Saturday, July 24, 2004
The Population Question
The Church recognizes the serious problem of population growth in the form it has taken in many parts of the world and its moral implications.

-Pope John Paul II

An Utmost Sense of Responsibility

WHEN CONSIDERING the problems of environment and development one must also pay due attention to the complex issue of population. The position of the Holy See regarding procreation is frequently misinterpreted. The Catholic Church does not propose procreation at any cost. It keeps on insisting that the transmission of, and the caring for human life must be exercised with an utmost sense of responsibility. It restates its constant position that human life is sacred; that the aim of public policy is to enhance the welfare of families; that it is the right of the spouses to decide on the size of the family and spacing of births, without pressures from governments or organizations. This decision must fully respect the moral order established by God, taking into account the couple's responsibilities toward each other, the children they already have and the society to which they belong. What the Church opposes is the imposition of demographic policies and the promotion of methods for limiting births which are contrary to the objective moral order and to the liberty, dignity and conscience of the human being. At the same time, the Holy See does not consider people as mere numbers, or only on economic terms. It emphatically states its concern that the poor not be singled out as if, by their very existence, they were the cause, rather than the victims, of the lack of development and of environmental degradation.

Serious as the problem of interrelation among environment, development and population is, it cannot be solved in an over-simplistic manner and many of the most alarming predictions have proven false and have been discredited by a number of recent studies. "People are born not only with mouths that need to be fed, but also with hands that can produce, and minds that can create and innovate." As for the environment, just to mention one instance, countries with as few as 5% of the world population are responsible for more than one quarter of the principal greenhouse gas, while countries with up to a quarter of the world population contribute as little as 5% of the same greenhouse gas.

A serious and concerted effort aimed at protecting the environment and at promoting development will not be possible without directly addressing the structural forms of poverty that exist throughout the world. Environment is devastated and development thwarted by the outbreak of wars, when internal conflicts destroy homes, fields and factories, when intolerable circumstances force millions of people to desperately seek refuge away from their lands, when minorities are oppressed, when the rights of the most vulnerable -- women, children, the aged and the infirm -- are neglected or abused.

The poor, to whom the earth is entrusted no less than to others, must be enabled to find a way out of their poverty. This will require a courageous reform of structures, as well as new ways of relating among peoples and States.

--Excerpts from a statement of H.E. Archbishop Renato R. Martino, Head of the Holy See Delegation to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 4, 1992. Click here for the complete text on this site.

Feminists for Life

Responsibility of Parents
It is true that too frequently an accelerated demographic increase adds its own difficulties to the problems of development: the size of the population increases more rapidly than available resources, and things are found to have reached apparently an impasse. From that moment the temptation is great to check the demographic increase by means of radical measures. It is certain that public authorities can intervene, within the limit of their competence, by favoring the availability of appropriate information and by adopting suitable measures, provided that these be in conformity with the moral law and that they respect the rightful freedom of married couples. Where the inalienable right to marriage and procreation is lacking, human dignity has ceased to exist. Finally, it is for the parents to decide, with full knowledge of the matter, on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the children they have already brought into the world, and the community to which they belong. In all this they must follow the demands of their own conscience enlightened by God’s law authentically interpreted, and sustained by confidence in Him.

--Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), March 26, 1967

Health Care, Social Development, and Education
Clearly, the question of population is closely linked to that of human promotion, but false solutions that threaten the dignity and inviolability of life abound and present a special challenge to the Church.... It is perhaps appropriate at this point to recall the Church's contribution to the defense and promotion of life through health care, social development, and education to benefit peoples, especially the poor.

--Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia

New Form of Oppression
One cannot deny the existence, especially in the southern hemisphere, of a demographic problem which creates difficulties for development.

One must immediately add that in the northern hemisphere the nature of this problem is reversed: here, the cause for concern is the drop in the birthrate, with repercussions on the aging of the population, unable even to renew itself biologically. In itself, this is a phenomenon capable of hindering development. Just as it is incorrect to say that such difficulties stem solely from demographic growth, neither is it proved that all demographic growth is incompatible with orderly development.

On the other hand, it is very alarming to see governments in many countries launching systematic campaigns against birth, contrary not only to the cultural and religious identity of the countries themselves but also contrary to the nature of true development. It often happens that these campaigns are the result of pressure and financing coming from abroad, and in some cases they are made a condition for the granting of financial and economic aid and assistance. In any event, there is an absolute lack of respect for the freedom of choice of the parties involved, men and women often subjected to intolerable pressures, including economic ones, in order to force them to submit to this new form of oppression. It is the poorest populations which suffer such mistreatment, and this sometimes leads to a tendency towards a form of racism, or the promotion of certain equally racist forms of eugenics.

This fact too, which deserves the most forceful condemnation, is a sign of an erroneous and perverse idea of true human development.

--Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, December 30, 1987

"Zimbabweans must have fewer children."

Strong pressure groups from overseas, through their local representatives, tell us that the first thing Zimbabweans must do is to have fewer children. We keep hearing a very simple message: Have plenty of children and remain poor, cut down on children and be prosperous. In other words: Let us eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. Women of child-bearing age are considered dangerous to society. Children are no longer welcomed, but considered superfluous. People are one-sidedly seen merely as eaters and consumers, as if they were vermin. But first and foremost people are an asset and a resource, potential producers and creators of new wealth. They say, for instance, that the annual population growth rate is around 3 % and the annual economic growth rate around 2 %; therefore, the population growth rate must be brought down to 2 %. In other words: the people must be adjusted to the economy. We ask: why not adjust the economy to the people? Why not bring up the economic growth to the population increase?

We do not say "The more people, the better". The world population has grown within the last 150 years more than ever before in human history. In the last hundred years the population of Zimbabwe has increased at least tenfold. We may be lagging behind in building enough schools, hospitals, social services, workplaces, houses, means of transport etc. for all of them. But if people are our main concern, we will not say "Have fewer people". Fewer people will not build more houses, hospitals, schools. People are not so much a threat and a danger to the earth's resources. They are a resource themselves. "Indeed, besides the earth, man's principle resource is man himself . His intelligence enables him to discover the earth's productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied" (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 1991, p. 62). So we will ask: How can we make the best use of our human potential? What effort is needed, nationally and internationally, to feed, educate, treat medically and house everyone? We are told that our land cannot support our population by people who consume much greater amounts of energy, water, and most other resources than we do. From a global perspective, the developed nations have as much reason to question their excessive consumption as the developing nations have to ask how they can feed their people. But they do not. Refusing to change their lifestyle, they hold us alone responsible for the imbalance between rich and poor nations.

The question is not one of production (Do we produce enough for all?) but of distribution (Who has access to what is being produced?). "Between 1950 and 1980 total world food production doubled and, at the present time, 'globally there is enough food for all'. The fact that people continue to starve despite this shows that 'inequitable access is the main problem'" (World Hunger, Vatican, p.30). We are told by our own leaders that we need a "population policy", apparently accepting the one-sided message coming from the developed countries unquestioningly.

We would like to ask: Have the people in our country ever been asked whether they want a "population policy"? How do people feel about it in the light of their culture and spiritual outlook? "Embarking upon costly social and economic policies, without taking into account the perception of reality by the most humble members of society, can eventually lead to extremely costly dead-ends for the whole world" (World Hunger, Vatican, 1996, p. 38). Do we need a "population policy" by which we understand a campaign to sharply reduce the number of births, considering that the fertility rate is already falling, the mortality rate is going up due to AIDS and there is a possibility that the population may stop growing anyway?

Rebuild the family and beat poverty we propose, instead of a population policy, a family policy, i.e. a campaign to restore family life, considering that the family is the heart of our culture, "the basic unit of society" and the "domestic church".

These are [some of] the basic elements of our family policy:

1) "Not international bureaucrats, nor agents of aid organizations, nor politicians or governments decide on family size, but parents," we said in 1994. We need responsible parenthood within the family, not population control imposed from outside. Responsible parenthood goes together with natural family planning (NFP). We ask government and non-governmental organizations to make NFP available to the general public. It is free of side-effects and woman-friendly.

2) "Human life must be respected from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death" (Pope John Paul II). Young people must be taught respect for human life in the family and in school. The "unspeakable crime" of abortion (The Gospel of Life, John Paul II) must never be considered as a means of family or population planning.

3) We need to create a new culture of mutual respect between men and women. We need to create a new culture of self-discipline which abhors sexual abuse and honors abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage. The purpose of the Creator's gift of sexuality is to be an expression of faithful and committed love and to procreate new life....

--Excerpts from the Zimbabwe (Africa) Catholic Bishops' Conference, April 1997

Natural Family Planning Involves Respect for Nature
...Using the natural methods requires and strengthens the harmony of the married couple, it helps and confirms the rediscovery of the marvelous gift of parenthood, it involves respect for nature and demands the responsibility of the individuals. According to many authoritative opinions, they also foster more completely that human ecology which is the harmony between the demands of nature and personal behavior.

At the global level this choice supports the process of freedom and emancipation of women and peoples from unjust family planning programs which bring in their sad wake the various forms of contraception, abortion, and sterilization.

--Pope John Paul II, January 22, 1997 issue of L'Osservatore Romano.

Social and Economic Development
Regrettably, advantaged groups often seem more intent on curbing Third World births than on restraining the even more voracious consumerism of the developed world. We believe this compounds injustice and increased disrespect for the life of the weakest among us.

The key factor, though not the only one, in dealing with population problems is sustainable social and economic development. Technological fixes do not really work. Only when an economy distributes resources so as to allow the poor an equitable stake in society and some hope for the future do couples see responsible parenthood as good for their families. In particular, prenatal care; education; good nutrition; and health care for women, children and families promise to improve family welfare and contribute to stabilizing population. Supporting such equitable social development, moreover, may well be the best contribution affluent societies, like the United States, can make to relieving ecological pressures in developed nations.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that rapid population growth presents special problems and challenges that must be addressed in order to avoid damage to the environment and to social development. In the words of Pope Paul VI, "It is true that frequently an accelerated demographic increase adds its own difficulties to the problems of development: the size of population increases more rapidly than the available resources." In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II has likewise noted "One cannot deny the existence, especially in the Southern Hemisphere of a demographic problem which creates difficulties for development." He has gone on to make connections between population size, development and the environment. There is "a greater realization of the limit of available resources," he commented, "and of the need to respect the integrity and cycles of nature and to take them into account when planning for development." Even though it is possible to feed a growing population, the ecological costs of doing so ought to be taken into account. To eliminate hunger from the planet, the world community needs to reform the institutional and political structures that restrict the access of people to food.

Thus, the Church addresses population issues in the context of its teaching on human life, of just development, of care for the environment, and of respect for the freedom of married couples to decide voluntarily on the number and spacing of births. In keeping with these values, and out of respect for cultural norms, it continues to oppose coercive methods of population control and programs that bias decisions through incentives or disincentives. Respect for nature ought to encourage policies that promote natural family planning and true responsible parenthood rather than coercive population control programs or incentives for birth control that violate cultural and religious norms and Catholic teaching.

Finally, we are charged with restoring the integrity of all creation. We must care for all God's creatures, especially the most vulnerable. How then, can we protect endangered species and at the same time be callous to the unborn, the elderly or disabled persons? Is not abortion also a sin against creation? If we turn our backs on our own unborn children, can we truly expect that nature will receive respectful treatment at our hands? The care of the earth will not be advanced by the destruction of human life at any stage of development. As Pope John Paul II has said, "protecting the environment is first of all the right to live and the protection of life."

--U.S. Catholic Bishops

Waterways of the Human Body
SO IT WAS THAT Pope Paul VI felt himself obliged to overrule a majority of his advisory committee, and issue his famous encyclical against the contraceptive pill. In the light of the potential population explosion in some parts of the world, that document encouraged the regulation of births to a level the earth could support -- but only through non-interventive methods (and he encouraged the scientific improvement of those methods). The Pope's decision reaffirmed the Church's whole latent, positive teaching on the body as a vital element of the human person. It reaffirmed the principles of ecology in the most intimate environment known to humankind. If the Pope had encouraged the use of the Pill, he would have been encouraging couples to pollute the waterways of the human body with chemicals, deliberately to prevent the body from functioning in a healthy way. A profane, industrial mentality would have been extended into the most sacred, private sphere.

--Stratford Caldecott, "Second Spring," edited from the Centre for Faith & Culture at Westminster College, Oxford. See the "Links" page for the complete article.

Global Climate Change and Population Growth

The global climate change debate cannot become just another opportunity for some groups—usually affluent advocates from the developed nations—to blame the problem on population growth in poor countries. Historically, the industrialized countries have emitted more greenhouse gases that warm the climate than have the developing countries. Affluent nations such as our own have to acknowledge the impact of voracious consumerism instead of simply calling for population and emissions controls from people in poorer nations.

A more responsible approach to population issues is the promotion of "authentic development," which represents a balanced view of human progress and includes respect for nature and social well-being. Development policies that seek to reduce poverty with an emphasis on improved education and social conditions for women are far more effective than usual population reduction programs and far more respectful of women's dignity.

We should promote a respect for nature that encourages policies fostering natural family planning and the education of women and men rather than coercive measures of population control or government incentives for birth control that violate local cultural and religious norms.

--Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good, a statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 15, 2001

Education and the Elimination of Poverty
The International Conference on Population and Development marked an important moment in the world's understanding of the interrelationship between population and development. For the first time the linkage between population and development was the focus of consideration. All forms of coercion in the implementation of population policies were rejected. The family was recognized as the fundamental unit of society based on marriage and entitled to comprehensive support and protection. Strong impetus was given to the improvement of the status of women throughout the world, particularly with regard to their health, and their full and equal participation in development....

The Holy See continues to insist that human beings are at the center of concerns for development. The dignity of the human person must be respected in all its aspects. As the Cairo Document states, this is to be done with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural background of each woman and man....

The Holy See calls for a priority treatment of issues regarding development and insists on two important components: education and the reduction of poverty. However, the disproportion between the funds allocated for reproductive health and those allocated for the elimination of widespread endemic diseases or for education is noted. The Holy See underlines that true development can never be reduced to a merely physical dimension. Sexual and reproductive health must be integrated within an overall concern for the education and well-being of the total person. The ability of a woman to make decisions is not dependent on the reduction of her fertility but on the level of her education....

The Holy See continues to deplore recourse to sterilization by the exertion of various types of pressure on patients or by seeking to disguise this type of intervention often undertaken due to quotas with regard to fertility. This is raw coercion and the denial of an individual's true rights. In such cases, the commitment to eliminate poverty could be confused with that of eliminating the poor....

The aging of the world's population merits immediate attention, particularly in light of recent revisions of the demographic estimates released by the UN Population Division. The change in the proportions between those who are economically active and those who are dependent has created strains on pension and health-care services. This trend will likely continue. Governments should provide more resources to address this issue.

Address of the Holy See Delegation at the Hague International Forum on Population and Development (February 11, 1999)

Education and Well-Being of the Total Person
The Holy See has continued to insist that the dignity of the person and basic human rights, especially the right to life, are promoted and protected, recognizing that human beings are at the center of concerns for development. It has also held strongly to the call for the full respect for various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of each woman and man....

There is need for a closer look at issues involving development, especially regarding the reduction of poverty and the provision of basic social services including education, clean water and sanitation, and the elimination of widespread endemic diseases....

The Holy See repeats its recognition that true development can never be reduced to a merely physical dimension and that an overall concern for education and well-being of the total person must be recognized. In some ways a disproportionate amount of attention has been given to a very limited understanding of reproductive health....

In light of recent demographic projections released by the United Nations Population Division, the aging of the world's population calls for immediate attention and action. Changes in the proportions between those who are economically active and those who are retired or dependent will continue to create more strains on pension and social security systems and health care services. Governments must foster the intrinsic value of persons of all ages and insure economic and social policies that support older persons without burdening the young and the working sector of the population.

The Holy See understands that the phenomenon of migration is a concern of all states. It is closely related to issues of development and population and the international community must extend assistance and protection to all migrants and their families....

The Holy See rejects any recognition of a right to abortion through policies aimed at creating new categories of personal rights or including health services that promote 'safe abortion'. Abortion is never safe for the unborn child and often involves physical and or psychological dangers for the mother...

The Holy See points out the fact that all rights will fade if the moral dimension of human rights and the obligations and responsibilities of states, as well as each individual, to protect every human being are not more clearly realized. In this regard, the importance of informed consent must be strongly emphasized to protect human rights and to ensure trust. Furthermore, no nation should be forced to change or violate its own laws that prohibit or regulate abortion practices, nor should any woman be forced to undergo abortion....

Address of the Holy See Delegation at the 32nd Session of the UN Commission on Population and Development (March 27, 1999)

Deep Down in Your Heart, You Know
Each one of us is here today because we have been loved by God who created us and our parents who accepted and cared enough to give us life. Life is the most beautiful gift of God. That is why it is so painful to see what is happening today in so many places around the world: life is being deliberately destroyed by war, by violence, by abortion. And we have been created by God for greater things - to love and be loved.

I have said often, and I am sure of it, that the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today is abortion. If a mother can kill her own child, what is there to stop you and me from killing each other? The only one who has the right to take life is the One who has created it. Nobody else has that right: not the mother, not the father, not the doctor, no agency, no conference, no government.

I am sure that deep down in your heart, you know that the unborn child is a human being loved by God, like you and me. How can anyone knowing that, deliberately destroy that life? It frightens me to think of all the people who kill their conscience so that they can perform an abortion. When we die, we will come face to face with God, the Author of life. Who will give an account to God for the millions and millions of babies who were not allowed to have the chance to live, to experience loving and being loved?

God has created a world big enough for all the lives He wishes to be born. It is only our hearts that are not big enough to want them and accept them. If all the money that is being spent on finding ways to kill people was used instead to feed them and house them and educate them - how beautiful that would be. We are too often afraid of the sacrifices we might have to make. But where there is love, there is always sacrifice. And when we love until it hurts, there is joy and peace.


Development of the Family
With demographic growth, which is particularly pronounced in the young nations, the number of those failing to find work and driven to misery or parasitism will grow in the coming years unless the conscience of man rouses itself and gives rise to a general movement of solidarity through an effective policy of investment and of organization of production and trade, as well as of education. We know the attention given to these problems within international organizations, and it is our lively wish that their members will not delay bringing their actions into line with their declarations.

It is disquieting in this regard to note a kind of fatalism which is gaining a hold even on people in positions of responsibility. This feeling sometimes leads to Malthusian solutions inculcated by active propaganda for contraception and abortion. In this critical situation, it must on the contrary be affirmed that the family, without which no society can stand, has a right to the assistance which will assure it of the conditions for a healthy development.


Human Life is a Splendid Gift
One thinks, for example of a certain panic deriving from the studies of ecologists and futurologists on population growth, which sometimes exaggerates the danger of demographic increase to the quality of life. But the Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God's goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life.... Thus the Church condemns as a grave offense against human dignity and justice all those activities of governments or other public authorities which attempt to limit in any way the freedom of couples in deciding about children. Consequently any violence applied by such authorities in favor of contraception or, still worse, of sterilization and procured abortion, must be altogether condemned and forcefully rejected. Likewise to be denounced as gravely unjust are cases where, in international relations, economic help given for the advancement of peoples is made conditional on programs of contraception, sterilization and abortion.

The Church is certainly aware of the many complex problems which couples in many countries face today in their task of transmitting life in a responsible way. She also recognizes the serious problem of population growth in the form it has taken in many parts of the world and its moral implications.

However, she holds that consideration in depth of all the aspects of these problems offers a new and stronger confirmation of the importance of the authentic teaching on birth regulation re-proposed in the Second Vatican Council and in the encyclical Humanae vitae."

--Pope John Paul II, apostolic exhortation on the family, "Familiaris Consortio," 1982

People as a Creative Asset
If we examine the countries which have been badly affected by famine ... in the last twenty of thirty years, it soon becomes evident that it is the absence of good government, peace, and stability which causes starvation - not "overpopulation." To this, one could add over-militarization, over-regulation, over-bureaucratization, over-politicization, social engineering experiments, and socialist economic policies... In short, it is not overpopulation that produces famine but antiquated political and economic systems... Food supply problems have less to do with "overpopulation" and much more to do with poor policies and the absence of effective property rights.

What, then, should be the Christian role in light of such facts? For one thing, it may be suggested that the churches should inform themselves of these details so that they do not make unsubstantiated observations... More significantly, Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, can underline in any discussion about population one of the many fundamental insights contained in Geneses: That each human being is not simply a consumer but a potential creator - a being that innovates, thinks, and freely acts. Instead of regarding people as dangerous to the environment, Christians can stress that we need to stop viewing people as a burden but rather as an asset. Here, Christians should be prepared to bring to public attention the gross violations of human dignity that have accompanied many attempts at population control. These include state-enforced one-child policies, not to mention episodes such as India's sterilization program of the 1970's.

-Samual Gregg. 2000. Beyond Romanticism: Questioning the Green Gospel. St. Leonards, NSW: The Centre for Independent Studies Limited. Website: www.cis.org.au

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