A common misconception about the Catholic Church is that she teaches (or once taught) that married women must try to have as many babies as possible. In recent decades this perception has led to a few comedy skits on the subject and quite a bit of scorn from the media and many intellectuals. In the 1970’s Stanford professor Paul Erlich wrote the bestselling book “The Population Bomb” which popularized the old ideas of Thomas Malthus for a modern audience. The main idea: the world will be overpopulated in a just a few years with the result being mass starvation, wars over diminishing food supplies and general chaos. Even though the vision and predicted numbers of Paul Erhlich’s vision of the future never came to pass, it was wildly influential in changing public perception and was perhaps the greatest fuel for the population control efforts through governmental programs that have become the norm at the United Nations, in our country, and in many countries around the world.
The Lineamenta document preparing for the Synod on the Family this coming October includes a section titled “The Transmission of Life and the Challenges of the Declining Birthrate.” Question #43 of the survey section of the document asks: “Are people aware of the grave consequences of demographic change?” The reason for this question is that a rapidly diminishing population, rather than worries of overpopulation, is the real crisis our world will face throughout the rest of the 21st century.
Regarding the care of families the document states that, “pastoral work in this area needs to start with listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional openness to life, which is needed if human love is to be lived fully. This serves as the basis for an appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods for responsible procreation, which allow a couple to live, in a harmonious and conscious manner, the loving communication between husband and wife in all its aspects along with their responsibility at procreating life.” (#57)
Today, many have accepted the claim that the planet is overpopulated and use it to justify immoral efforts to reduce the population. It is now thought virtuous in some circles to limit the number of children one has in order to “save the planet.” Increasing numbers of couples are choosing to live without children as the media promotes a new “childfree” lifestyle. A good example of this promotion was a Time Magazine article published in August of 2013, “Having It All Without Having Children.” According to these cultural experts and media prophets the new virtuous lifestyle requires having only one or two children and the most virtuous members of our society forgo children all together to reduce their carbon footprint and make the most of their relationship by not having the inconvenience of children. Is it immoral to have children? Is overpopulation real, and if so, is it a good reason to use contraceptive methods to have fewer children?
There is an answer that is both reasonable and scientific. The world is not overpopulated. In fact many countries in the world are at below replacement fertility rates. This is science that works on math and has nothing to do with religion. Too many people is simply not the real problem. The main causes of starvation and poverty are inequality in food distribution, bad economic policy, and war. There is enough food. We just allow greed and ideology to keep it out of the mouths of far too many people.
The Catholic position is compatible with good science. The argument of the “overpopulation” and “population control” movements is based upon ideology and now disproven scientific theory. The good folks at the Population Research Institute have created an informative website [www.overpopulationisamyth.com] that includes brief video summaries of the various arguments and counter-arguments along with links to reputable sources like the U.N. Population Fund to show that no one who is intellectually honest can continue to use the theory and arguments popularized by Paul Ehrlich to justify population control efforts on a global or personal scale.
If you would like to find links to more research that supports the above points please visit www.kcsjfamily.org/what-about-overpopulation.
For Catholic spouses learning this truth often comes with additional questions. Is right now a good time for us to have a child? How can we know God’s will for us? What does it mean to discern and how do we do it? How often do we need to discern? How can we know if our reason for not having a child right now is sufficiently serious?
For spouses seeking to live God’s beautiful plan for married love and sexuality these questions can be some of the most agonizing and difficult questions they will face in the fertile years of marriage. In the next issue of The Catholic Key we will cover this dimension of this pressing pastoral issue.
Dino Durando is director of the diocesan Office of Family Life.