A papal commission is reviewing Humanae Vitae ahead of its 50th anniversary in 2018. Some worry the commission is part of a conspiracy to change the teaching of the Church on spousal love and procreation. It’s hard to say.
On the positive side, a review of Blessed Paul VI’s final encyclical could clear away many misconceptions about the magisterial teaching on the transmission of life, chief among them the notion that the Church should sanction population control to stop climate change and achieve sustainable development. A clarification on this subject is urgent because of the rapid resurgence of aggressive population control policies in Asia and Africa.
The Church has always emphasized the autonomy of spouses in all matters pertaining to procreation vis-a-vis the state. The magisterium has never sanctioned governments orienting or directing procreative decisions that are exclusively reserved to spouses.
Concern over the direction of the Magisterium in this area cannot be ruled out as speculative. Recent events at the Pontifical Academies for Science (PAS) and the Social Sciences (PASS) have created ambiguity in this area, and Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the academies, voiced these very views in a letter published by First Things.
“You will be aware that there are methods of regulating births and of population control that are approved by the Church,” Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo wrote in reply to my criticism when Jeffrey Sachs was honored by the Vatican academies two years ago. Sachs is a Columbia University economist who has spearheaded a neo-Malthusian revival in academia and at the United Nations, warning of humanity “trespassing planetary boundaries,” and writing that abortion is a low-cost solution to the problem of unwanted children.
More recently, in February the academies welcomed Paul Ehrlich alongside other renowned population control theorists for a conference on biological extinction. Ehrlich predicted the starvation of millions people because of over-population and resource scarcity in his famous 1969 book The Population Bomb. Though his predictions were wrong, he became a celebrity and helped trigger a wave of population control policies around the world, including forced abortion, forced sterilization, and coercive family planning.
The scandal of a pontifical body giving a moral imprimatur of sorts to Ehrlich has been addressed amply. The quality of the science on which the Vatican academies are relying has also been questioned. Very little has been said about the views on the Church’s teaching on the transmission of life that surfaced from the conference.
The bio-extinction conference, in their own words
To be clear, no one at the event said forcible population control is ever justified. Nevertheless, participants challenged Church teaching about contraception and supported the idea of population control, at least by means of state propaganda encouraging spouses to have fewer children.
Alongside the entirely laudable goal of promoting awareness of the threat of bio-extinction from a range of scientific perspectives, the academies embraced a kind of environmental determinism that looks at human reproduction as a mere bio-technical issue. A conference concept note cited the “carbon tax” and the “social rate of discount” as models of the kind of utilitarian calculus that it was hoped the conference would stimulate with regards to bio-diversity. Ehrlich is known for wanting to tax large families in this respect.
In a recent New York Times interview he said letting women have many children is like allowing them to dump “garbage” in their neighbor’s yard. A leaked draft of his paper for the Vatican conference on environmental websites, co-authored with Vatican academy member Partha Dasgupta, calls for environmental taxes and regulation to change not just behavior but social norms, because “responsible parenthood and consumption decisions at the individual level” result in a “collective failure” to protect the environment.
Their remarks during the conference, available on YouTube, were more guarded. Ehrlich candidly explained his reason for treading carefully. Even if Pope Francis agreed with conference participants, Ehrlich said, any final statement should be carefully drafted to “avoid it being used against the Pope” and to not “fire up his enemies.” All the same, Ehrlich asked that the final statement of the conference admit that “growth in consumption and population is not good for the future of humanity.”
Conference organizers and participants were similarly coy in deflecting attention from population control. They stressed economic inequality, blamed wealthy nations for overconsumption, and called for a redistribution of wealth. But they could not escape Ehrlich’s same conclusion.
After the event Peter Raven, a member of the pontifical academies chosen as spokesperson, claimed papal support for population control during a press conference.
“We need at some point to have a limited number of people, which is why Pope Francis and his three most recent predecessors have always argued that you should not have more children than you can bring up properly,” he said. But he denied wanting to change the teaching of the Church on contraception.
Further justification for population control came from Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo in a discussion with Jon Bongaarts, an influential population control theorist from the Population Council, a think tank founded by the Rockefellers in 1952 to convince developing countries to use abortion and contraception to reduce poor populations.
Bongaarts spoke of a great unmet need for contraception in developing countries, described population growth as a threat to development, and extolled the benefits of low fertility. He called the teaching of the Church against contraception an “obstacle” to development. Then he proceeded to list papal pronouncements about “responsible parenthood” in support of his work to promote contraception in poor countries. Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo did not dispute him. Quite the contrary.
Premising his remarks by saying that many people failed to understand the teaching of the Church, Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo said, “Many, many priests say to me that the great solution to the question of procreation is the education of women. When we have education, we don’t have children. We don’t have seven children. We have maybe one child, maybe two children, no more. This is also an obligation for the Church.”
He then read a portion of the English translation of article 2372 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“I want to say that also in the Catechism of the Church it says…the state has a responsibility for its citizens’ well-being. In this capacity, it is legitimate for it to intervene to orient the demography of the population. This is also an idea of the Catholic Church!” he said emphatically. “This” being the obligation not to have more than one or two children.
Then, bizarrely, Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo challenged spousal autonomy to make such decisions.
In his talk, Boongarts’ had commented that “no institution, nobody outside should tell or coerce couples to have either more or less children than they want,” politely offering an olive branch to a Church that has largely seen the work of his organization as hostile to the Gospel of Life.
Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo responded, “You say, only for the family. No! Also, the family needs to understand the situation of the country,” he said raising his voice.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on population policies
Sadly, Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo is not thinking in a vacuum. A badly bungled translation of the Catechism cited by Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo lends itself to these heterodox views.
Here is the promulgated Latin text of the article:
|Status responsabilis est prosperitatis civium. Hoc titulo, legitimum est eum intervenire ad incolarum incrementum ordinandum. Id obiectiva et observanti informatione facere potest, sed nequaquam via imperiosa et constringenti. Legitime non potest se substituere pro incepto coniugum, qui primi sunt responsabiles procreationis et educationis suorum filiorum. In hoc dominio, auctoritate caret ut mediis interveniat quae legi morali sunt contraria. (CCC 2372)|
The English version inaccurately translates ad incolarum incrementum ordinandum (to bring order to population growth) as “orient the demography of the population,” giving the impression that the Church sanctions population engineering. Inexplicably, the word “population growth” (incolarum incrementum) is translated as “demography,” which does not even exist in Latin. Combined with the word “orient” (rather than “bring order,” ordinandum) it suggests states directly telling citizens when and how to have children.
This meaning is irreconcilable with the rest of the article, which only allows the state to provide “objective and respectful information” and expressly forbids government directives and coercion. Moreover, it says the state may not legitimately substitute its own initiative to that of spouses when it comes to family size. That categorically excludes the idea of states orienting the demography in any specific direction. While the term “bring order” (ordinandum) in Latin is fairly capacious, it cannot be reduced to “orient” here without doing violence to the text and overall gist of the article.
The Catechism can only be referring to policies to create social order, not population engineering. It requires states to endeavor to create social conditions for families to have as many children as they in good conscience see fit, not to limit how many children spouses may have, or convince them to have fewer children.
Shortly after promulgating the Catechism, St. John Paul II made this point forcefully in his intervention at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in 1994. In a scathing letter, he condemned both coercive and persuasive government efforts to impact spousal decisions about family size.
All propaganda and misinformation directed at persuading couples that they must limit their family to one or two children should be steadfastly avoided, and couples that generously choose to have large families are to be supported.
In defense of the human person, the Church stands opposed to the imposition of limits on family size, and to the promotion of methods of limiting births which separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of marital intercourse, which are contrary to the moral law inscribed on the human heart, or which constitute an assault on the sacredness of life. (Letter of His Holiness John Paul II to the Secretary General of the international Conference on Population and Development, 18 March 1994)
St. John Paul’s seminal encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, also confirmed this reading of “bring order,” and again shows the Church’s insistence on spousal autonomy.
It is therefore morally unacceptable to encourage, let alone impose, the use of methods such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion in order to regulate births. The ways of solving the population problem are quite different. Governments and the various international agencies must above all strive to create economic, social, public health, and cultural conditions which will enable married couples to make their choices about procreation in full freedom and with genuine responsibility. (Evangelium Vitae 91)
Pope Francis’ own recent encyclical on care for the environment Laudato Si condemns overt and covert population control as a “refusal to deal with the issue” of environmental degradation (Laudato Si 50).
The Magisterium of the Church on population policies
The teaching of the Church on population policies crystallized in the 1960s, when hysteria about overpopulation and the environment pushed governments to adopt brutal population control policies. It was hoped the Catholic Church would lend its moral support to this environmental imperative, or at the very least permit the use of contraception. The Church never gave in, despite pressure from international politicos, celebrities, and popular opinion.
This was the context of the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, which expressly reserved decisions on the transmission of life to “parents themselves and no one else” (GS 50).
Only shortly thereafter, echoing Gaudium et Spes, Blessed Paul VI again emphasized the complete autonomy of spouses in Populorum Progressio.
Marriage and procreation are an inalienable right, and when they are threatened so is human dignity. Ultimately, it is up to parents to freely decide on the number of children they will have, fully cognizant of the matter, and bearing their own responsibility before God, before each other, before the children they already have, and the community to which they belong, and following the dictates of their conscience enlightened by God’s law, authentically interpreted, and sustained by trust in Him. (Populorum Progressio 37)
Populorum Progressio sanctioned government policies to help spouses act prudently in the transmission of human life, but never undermining the autonomy of spouses.
There is no denying that accelerated population growth brings many added difficulties to the challenges of development when the population grows more rapidly than presently available resources to the point that all ways appear shut. In such circumstances, there is a great temptation to apply drastic remedies to decrease the birth rate. Here, there is no doubt that public authorities, within their competence, may intervene to inform citizens on this matter and adopt appropriate measures, so long as this is done in conformity with the dictates of the moral law and the rightful absolute autonomy of spouses is preserved intact. (Populorum Progressio 37).
And he characterized even the mere provision of “information” as an exceptional measure, only for situations where “population grows more rapidly than presently available resources to the point that all ways appear shut.”
This condition for triggering state interventions must be understood in the context of the panic about the ability of countries and the international community to feed entire populations, thanks to the predictions of scientists like Ehrlich. Populorum Progressio sanctions state interventions only where life is imminently threatened by catastrophic factors. It does not authorize international bureaucrats to moralize about when having a child is appropriate based on unverifiable predictions of how the climate might change over the next century.
Blessed Paul VI corroborated this stringent understanding of state interventions in population matters in Humanae Vitae. He categorically excludes population control, forcible or not. Here we can better understand what the Catechism means by bringing “order” to population growth.
The way that public authorities may, and indeed must, contribute to the solution of the population question is another one altogether. It is by way of provident family laws and policies and wise education of peoples, to safeguard the moral law and the freedom of citizens. (Humanae Vitae 23)
As if to ward off any misinterpretation of Populorum Progressio along the lines that Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo proposes, Blessed Paul VI hearkens to St. John XXIII’s forceful rejection of the modern population control movement.
We are fully aware of the difficulties confronting the public authorities in this matter, especially in developing countries. In fact, it was the justifiable anxieties which weigh upon them We had in mind when We published Our encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. But now We join Our voice to that of Our predecessor John XXIII of venerable memory, and We make Our own his words: “No statement of the problem and no solution to it is acceptable which does violence to man’s essential dignity; those who propose such solutions base them on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and his life. The only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values.” (Humanae Vitae 23)
Blessed Paul VI envisaged a role for the international community in establishing a just social order.
If only all governments which were able would do what some are already doing so nobly, and bestir themselves to renew their efforts and their undertakings! There must be no relaxation in the programs of mutual aid between all the branches of the great human family. Here We believe an almost limitless field lies open for the activities of the great international institutions. (Humanae Vitae 23)
His emphasis on the “almost limitless field” for international cooperation contrasts sharply with the draconian notion of Church-sponsored efforts to orient demography. He actually denounced efforts to blame poverty and misery on overpopulation or resource scarcity.
It would be a gross injustice to assign responsibility to divine Providence for the result of misguided government policies, an insufficient sense of social justice, selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally the shameful failure to undertake efforts and sacrifices to raise the standard of living of a people and all their children. (Humanae Vitae 23)
Responsible procreation is not organic contraception
The ease with which Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo calls for population control may be in part due to a widely held misunderstanding that the Church’s teaching on the permissibility of using periodic abstinence to delay childbearing is just another form of birth control, for all intents and purposes analogous to the use of contraception.
This misconception reduces responsible parenthood to family planning. It suggests spouses sitting down and planning how and when to conceive children, as if these were lifestyle choices or financial decisions like buying a house or installing solar panels. This is inconsistent with the teaching of the Church on spousal love. It is precisely the attitude that Paul VI warned against in Humanae Vitae. St. John Paul also referred to the “spiritual” and “ethical dimension” of responsible parenthood in his great catechesis on human love in the plan of God.
Without this ethical dimension, it is harder to claim the state should not interfere with spousal autonomy. If spouses can morally forsake the procreative end of conjugal love for any or no reason at all, without violating something written in human nature, it makes it easier for the state to sanction it to achieve sustainable development or other political goals.
The Catechism makes it clear that spouses need a “legitimate intention” to avoid pregnancy in addition to using “morally acceptable means” to do so (CCC 2399). This is sadly often ignored.
The objective moral criteria for the use of fertility awareness and abstinence are spelled out in Humanae Vitae. Blessed Paul VI said that in their task of transmitting life:
[Spouses] are not free to proceed arbitrarily, as if they could determine with complete autonomy the honest path to follow; but they must conform their actions to the creative intention of God, expressed by the very nature of marriage and its acts, and as the Church’s doctrine has declared constantly. (Humanae Vitae 10)
And, that responsible parenthood is practiced by spouses who:
[P]rudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time. (Humanae Vitae 10)
Responsible procreation is not a form of organic contraception. This misconception perverts the role of spouses as co-operators with God when a new immortal human life begins. Spousal love is inherently fecund and ordered toward the perfect gift of self. Children are an essential good of marriage and God’s plan for human love.
The Church’s permission to use fertility awareness and abstinence to delay childbearing, including in the context of population policies, springs from love of human life and not out of regard for a middle-class ideal or the upkeep of a certain lifestyle or quality of life. Periodic abstinence in marriage is not sanctioned to limit life, but to protect it.
Faith, reason, and Providence
The ethos of family planning and population control have a common matrix in a profound conceit about the ability of humankind to control human life and our earthly condition. The Church has consistently denounced the technocratic materialism behind population control policies because of the revealed truth that God is both provident and benevolent.
For centuries, the Church has taught that human misery is not a result of a failure of divine providence, resource scarcity, or overpopulation, but human greed and sin. This is what Blessed Paul VI referred to when he called attempts to blame poverty on overpopulation and resource scarcity a “grave injustice.”
This teaching is rooted in the biblical account of God’s promise to Noah after the Flood, that He would never again destroy humanity. God recites the Covenant to Himself before He announces it to Noah and his sons.
[T]he Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.
While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease. (Genesis 8:21-22)
The Genesis narrative, as all good origin stories, has something to say about our own present day environmental anxiety. It seems written, word for word, with Ehrlich, Sachs, and Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo in mind. God doesn’t just promise not to destroy humanity, he promises that the earth will always provide for the needs of “all living creatures” and “all flesh with life,” including biodiversity, favorable climate, and even the cosmic conditions for life on Earth. God even commands Noah twice to “be fruitful and multiply,” reassuring Noah that his descendants will never again face the threat of extinction. His final pledge of the covenant, the rainbow, perpetually reminds humanity of this promise.
This optimism—singularly highlighted in the Hebrew tradition of the flood—contrasts sharply with the deterministic fear and anti-natalism of the modern environmental movement. Sadly, it is a part of revelation entirely overlooked in Pope Francis’ otherwise comprehensive encyclical, Laudato Si.
God’s promise that the earth would always provide for humanity’s needs is an indispensable foundation for hope in the success of any human activity, including economic activity and efforts to preserve biodiversity, and to study and address climate change in the measure that is reasonably and prudently possible. And it is entirely consistent with modern science.
Every calculation of the Earth’s limited caring capacity to date has proven woefully inadequate, and has failed to account for human ingenuity. Like Malthus before him, Ehrlich was wrong in 1969. And he is probably wrong now. Ehrlich himself admitted to the New York Times that he feigned “more certainty” about his predictions than the available science warranted then, and that he would do the same now.
UN demographers—universally relied upon by academics and governments everywhere—have concluded that policies to reduce fertility will have little to no effect on climate change in coming decades compared to changes in consumption and production, and are therefore not good policies to prevent climate change. As a result, the Paris climate agreement does not address population at all.
Economists increasingly admit the present demographic challenge is not overpopulation, but low fertility and aging. The global demographic horizon will peak sometime shortly after the end of this century, or even before, likely never to return on a growth trajectory. Persistent and irremediable low fertility threatens entire countries and economies. This unprecedented phenomenon is already causing a drag on the global economy, exerting pressure on fiscal and welfare systems, and is affecting the poorest the most.
Despite this readily accessible scientific evidence, there are those who fanatically cling to population control theories. It is entirely regrettable, and reflects poorly on the Holy See, that the pontifical academies chose to embrace these obsolete and discredited theories.
Faith and reason must never operate separately. This is a point St. John Paul made forcefully in Fides et Ratio. When reason is no longer guided by faith, without fail, it leads to inhuman ideologies. The premises of a question determine its outcome.
If God’s providence is not real and humanity’s mere existence is a threat to the environment, population control is inescapable. It does not matter that one emphasizes consumption and production patterns over absolute human numbers. If the Earth has a limited caring capacity then international bureaucrats must ensure we don’t trespass planetary boundaries. If God is not looking out for humanity at some point the state has to “orient the demography.”
Moreover, failing to adequately account for God’s providence undermines spousal autonomy. No philosophical question exists without a theological corollary. Environmental determinism that denies individual autonomy follows quite logically from a denial of providence. True freedom could never exist if the threat of God’s punishment hangs over human daily existence like a hammer waiting to fall.
It is highly significant that God makes the covenant with Noah, fully aware that humanity would once again become complicit in deception, fraud, and unspeakable evils. Jesus himself bases his teaching in the love of a God who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain on the just and on the unjust.” Indeed, the only guarantee of moral agency is God’s providence.
Those who believe in God’s plan for humanity made known in revelation would do well to begin with the deposit of faith when articulating ethical environmental imperatives. The Church should not pander to the population control movement or give international bureaucrats a mandate to “orient the demography.” It must stick to orienting souls.