Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 30, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
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
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.”
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.
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.
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).
the pope signals his awareness of the efforts of various
organizationsthe UN, the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, particular US
administrationsto 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 arguedto 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.
social security systemswhich overwhelmingly follow PAYGO
principleshave 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.
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
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