Back in 1960s, numerous commentators were convinced beyond doubt that the world faced an overpopulation crisis. With infant mortality-rates shrinking as sanitation and nutrition-levels improved, many wondered if the planet had sufficient resources to sustain the subsequent population growth.
This concern wasn’t just expressed by people like Paul Ehrlich, whose apocalyptic predictions in books like The Population Bomb of mass starvation, exhausted natural resources, and out-of-control commodity-prices in a world overrun by teeming masses turned out to be (as even the New York Times has conceded) spectacularly wrong. Quite sensible people, such as the post-war German economic miracle’s intellectual architect, Wilhelm Röpke, referred to “the swamping effect of the incredible increase of population.” “Every thinking person must,” he concluded, “admit that, sooner or later, it will become necessary to restrain such population increases.”
At the time, many Catholics accepted the overpopulation thesis. This was one reason why some Catholics questioned church teaching concerning the transmission of human life in the early-1960s. Following Humanae Vitae’s promulgation in 1968, many Catholics in the West insisted that Paul VI was ignoring a looming overpopulation catastrophe. Even today, some Catholics whose formative experiences were the 60s and 70s routinely mention overpopulation as one reason they dissent from Humanae Vitae, an encyclical praised and explicitly reaffirmed in Pope Francis’s recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In 2010, for instance, the now 88-year old Swiss theologian Hans Küng claimed that the Church’s teaching on contraception was hampering efforts to combat rampant overpopulation in Africa.
It’s somewhat ironic that Western Europeans get so worked up about apparent overpopulation, given their present difficulties in replicating themselves. Almost all European countries are below replacement-level (2.1 children per woman) birthrates. Economically-speaking, this raises questions about these nations’ ability to sustain, for example, their already creaking welfare states. After all, if the labor force is shrinking, that means there are declining numbers of workers contributing the taxes which pay for social security.
One institution that has paid attention to the problems proceeding from demographic decline is the Catholic Church. The Church has never taught that every married couple must try to have, say, 16 children. Amoris Laetitia reiterates previous papal teachings that a couple may have good reasons for limiting how many children they have. For the Church, the morality of such a choice concerns the means by which they do so.
That said, the Church has been warning for some time that the world faces a demographic decline crisis. Sections of Amoris Laetitia underscore this point. Francis comments, for instance, that “the decline in population, due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future” (AL 42).
Here the pope signals his awareness of the efforts of various organizations—the UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, particular US administrations—to push anti-natalist policies upon developing nations. In his 2015 interview-book God or Nothing, Cardinal Robert Sarah, a native of Guinea, named this for what it is: a neocolonialist Western mindset.
Francis, however, also associates demographic decline with economic impoverishment. Other popes have made the same point. In 2009, Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, stated in Caritas in Veritate that “The decline in births, falling at times beneath the so-called ‘replacement level,’ also puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified laborers, and narrows the ‘brain pool’ upon which nations can draw for their needs” (CV 44).
The economic costs associated with population-decline have been known for a long time. In the late-1930s, John Maynard Keynes argued—to the British Eugenics Society no less!—that population-growth helped create demand and thereby fuel prosperity. Conversely, Keynes said, “declining population will make it immensely more difficult than before to maintain prosperity.” More recently, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, former head of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione (otherwise known as “the Vatican Bank”), observed that graying, dwindling European populations imply not only reduced demand but also higher tax-burdens on the young and working. The resulting shrinkage in disposable-income discourages those of child-bearing years from having more children.
To this, we could add the considerable economic evidence suggesting that extensive welfare states negatively affect birthrates. This is called the “Old Age Security Motive for Fertility.” From a crudely economic standpoint, families functioned for many centuries as a type of Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) social security system. The essence of PAYGO schemes is that they transfer wealth from those working to those who have retired. Each generation pays for the preceding generation and has its own retirement covered by its children.
In the pre-welfare state world, parents generally had and raised more than 2.1 children. Some of those children looked after their parents in their old age. The more children people had and the better educated and wealthier they were, the easier it was to share the weight of caring for aging parents later. Having children thus functioned as each generation’s old-age insurance system.
Modern social security systems—which overwhelmingly follow PAYGO principles—have helped undermine these links of mutual dependency. Once such systems are established, children aren’t so economically necessary for our old age. Instead, governments extract revenues from everyone working so as to provide pensions for the retired.
This sounds reasonable, until we realize that state PAYGO welfare systems create what economists call a “free-rider” problem. This occurs when people fail to contribute their fair share to the production of a public good and/or consume excessive amounts of that public good at others’ expense. If large numbers of people engage in such behavior, the public good begins to lack the resources it needs over the long-term. Hence, when some choose to have none or few children in a society with large state-funded pension systems, their pension costs are borne by those with more children. Put bluntly, those with no or few children free-ride on those with more children.
Another economic insight worth noting is that declining birthrates are no longer just a developed world problem. In What to Expect When No One’s Expecting (2013), Jonathan Last illustrated that the decline in birthrates in developing countries is so advanced that Latin America’s fertility-rate is likely to be less than present-day America within a few decades.
This points to another dimension of demographic decline that Amoris Laetitia notes: the strain it places upon intergenerational relations. Francis states, for instance, that “In highly industrialized societies, where the number of elderly persons is growing even as the birth rate declines, they can be regarded as a burden” (AL 48). When people have more children, it’s easier for the latter to share the often-heavy responsibility of caring for their elderly parents. This type of intergenerational solidarity becomes harder when there’s only one or two children. That’s not to excuse those inclined to palm off their filial obligations to the state. Sometimes, it’s a time and resources issue. The only child of a marriage may have his own family and responsibilities. If these are especially demanding, he may start resenting having to also care for his aging parents.
Intergenerational solidarity is one of those glues that societies can’t do without. In several places, Amoris Laetitia stresses that faith often binds families across generations. Though this isn’t mentioned by Francis, there’s a significant correlation between regular religious practice and above-average birthrates. The same research indicates that “liberal” religiosity is usually associated with fewer children compared to those whose religiosity is more “conservative.”
Correlation isn’t causation. We should therefore hesitate before reading too much into this. The reasons why people choose, or don’t choose, to have children are many. But for a pontificate that’s been criticized (including by this author) for inattentiveness to economic evidence, Amoris Laetitia indicates that, at least with regard to population economics, the Catholic Church continues to be ahead of the game.
· Further reading – Amoris Laetitia: A CWR Symposium