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Understanding Pope Francis' hard line against population control


Overpopulation graphic

Most people who have commented on Laudatio Si have highlighted the links he makes between social justice and ecology. I am among those who have praised this. Others have criticised it.

This difference of opinion might lead us to ask whether the Pope is right in linking social justice, or whether there is an irreducible tension between them.

Certainly, the demands of protecting the environment can be seen to be in conflict with those of treating people justly.

Population growth does put pressure on natural resources needed for providing food, shelter, warmth and hygiene for all. But curbing population growth by imposing a one child policy or sterilisation is in conflict with reproductive freedom, and also leads to discrimination against women when people choose to abort a female foetus.

Similarly restricting the use of fossil fools, especially coal, is an important part of reducing global warming. But to stop using and exporting them would put great pressure on the industrial development of the developing world, so keeping people in poverty, and may well intensify mining and burning of coal there to the detriment of the poor whose land is degraded and taken from them.

These kinds of issues create a natural tension between advocates for the environment and advocates for social justice. They will naturally place one above the other, and minimise the force of arguments that stand against their advocacy. So when Pope Francis joins the two causes together, he should expect some scepticism.

Nevertheless, the position of the Encyclical on the question is unequivocal. Social justice and ecology are consistent with one another; we must hold them together in our attitudes and actions. Pope Francis makes this argument from personal experience in large Argentinian cities. There the poor who were caught in a society marked by great extremes of wealth and poverty are forced to live in polluted and unhealthy conditions. He has also visited poor seaside villages whose people are vulnerable to the extreme weather events associated with global warming.

But his position also comes out of his reflection on the causes of poverty and of environmental degradation. In both cases the culprit is greed. When individuals, corporations and nations pursue narrowly their own self-interest, they fail to respect the interdependence of people and of nations with one another and with the non-human world. The result is great wealth for some and penury for others, and environmental catastrophe.

Greed distracts us from the common good and from the claim that it makes on us in all our transactions and interactions. It leads us to imagine that the market and technology are forces beyond responsibility, instead of being essentially relationships between human beings responsible for one another and the world.

Greed is competitive. Ultimately, other people, other nations and the other beings in our world are all there to be exploited, not respected. If greed, a pathology of human desire, lies behind the destruction both of the environment and of vulnerable people, its catastrophic consequences cannot be addressed simply by the market or by technology. Both are infected. A conversion is called for which will ensure that the market attends to the common good as well as individual goods, by care and that our use of technology is shaped by respect for the environment.

This conversion will be primarily personal. It relies on the inner freedom to look beyond our individual interests to the needs of others and to the environment. That is difficult when your attention is focused on somehow finding enough food to keep your children and yourself alive each day. High infant mortality and labour intensive agriculture make it difficult to attend to the needs of the environment.

That is why Pope Francis, like previous Popes, demands that in addressing the needs of the environment, wealthy nations must reform an economic system that perpetuates poverty in the underdeveloped world. That is a central part of conversion for the wealthy. When the poor can live decently, they will have the freedom to attend to the ways in which their life-style hurts the environment.

Critics of the Encyclical have rightly pointed to the tension between the pressures on the environment caused by population growth and the Catholic opposition to contraception. In the Encyclical the Pope upholds the distinction between natural and artificial methods of restricting births. Many Catholics do not accept the validity of this distinction. But in the context of the Encyclical, the Pope argues that the pressure from the West for imposing population control on impoverished people reflects a thoroughly unconverted attitude. It leaves untouched the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and imposes on the poor a technological solution to a human challenge.          

One may disagree with his characterisation of contraception and ask how preaching against it can be consistent with encouraging freedom, but the argument behind his position is consistent. To ask for a conversion of heart to the world and people that are damaged by greed is a big ask. It demands a large hope. It is more comfortable to put one’s hope in technology and in the market. The Encyclical asks, is that realistic?

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Overpopulation image by Shutterstock.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Laudato Si, environment, ecology, population



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Existing comments

Preaching against artificial contraception is not the antithesis of freedom. We are not morally at liberty to sin-Indeed there are moral methods for population issues as underlined in LS In fact, one may not "disagree with his characterisation of contraception" [consistent wih the papal magisterium of Humanae Vitae,Casti Connubii, etc.]. And regardless of "comfort" man cannot live by technology and market alone[Mt 4:4]

Father John George | 24 June 2015  

Andrew, I agree social justice and ecology are compatible. But you say: “to stop using and exporting them [coal] would put great pressure on the industrial development of the developing world…” It is not the ‘developing world’ that Australian coal exporters and Tony Abbott are concerned about when plans for the development of the Galilee Basin are promoted. It is greed for profit for the multinational companies and Australian economy that inspire this extraction which will harm the environment of India and China, since this is where the coal will be burnt, more than any benefit it will offer the poor. Disinvestment in coal extraction [being undertaken by Super funds examining their ‘ethical investments’] and Australian investment in non-renewable energy production will assist social justice in the long term. Australian habits of contraception are similar across religious faiths. Catholics are contraceiving in the same fashion as Protestant affiliated or non-religious families. And because of the enormous carbon footprint that Australian families stamp on Global Warming this practice of limiting family size in Australia is actually supportive of the larger family sizes in the developing world. Accepting more refugees into Australia would make a useful start in promoting social justice.

Mike Bowden | 24 June 2015  

As always, Andrew argues coherently and fairly and I agree with much that he says. Also I’m a fan of Laudatio si. I have no problem with the critique of capitalism and readily agree that greed drives Western exploitation. But greed communal and our economic system positively encourages it. Perhaps the church might replace sex and gender with greed as the “primary sin”. 

Where I differ with Andrew and the Pope is that one can fully integrate the protection of the environment with the needs of the poor to climb out of poverty. It’s obvious that numerical growth puts pressure on natural resources which often have dire environmental consequences. As people move out of poverty and have increased expectations, then the pressure on the environment becomes unsustainable.

My argument is that there will always be tension between human beings and the environment and that the primary ethical principle has to be the protection of the natural world before the good of humankind. We have to move beyond an anthropocentric to a biocentric ethic.

The most unfortunate things about the encyclical is the dismissive reference to “reproductive health”. Presumably it’s there to bolster the anti-contraception message and please the Philippines and African bishops’ conferences. It’s unfortunate because the evidence shows that it is precisely when women have access to education, personal agency, freedom and reproductive health that population numbers begin to decline. This maintains reproductive freedom and doesn’t involve “curbing population growth by imposing a one child policy or sterilization.”

The great thing about Laudatio si is that it has begun this type of conversation. 

Paul Collins

Paul Collins | 24 June 2015  

"curbing population growth by imposing a one child policy or sterilisation is in conflict with reproductive freedom.." Our planet Earth, and Nature, to not "care" about our policies, human rights, or reproductive freedoms! With 80 million more mouths to feed each year, and massive loss of the Earth's biodiversity, the question of what's right and wrong should be balanced with freedom to allow our environment and natural process to keep functioning and keep providing ecological services. The Pope cannot divorce human welfare, climate change and environmental destruction from overpopulation - it's about liking cause and effect.

Milly O | 24 June 2015  

This is a thought-provoking article. I am hoping there will be lots of comments from women. I understand the Pope's characterisation of contraception. This characterisation calls for respect, restraint and acknowledgement of the great importance of conceiving a new life. This is a lofty goal. For so many women, it's a man's world, both in impoverished and wealthy countries. Therefore much more needs to be achieved in terms of social equality. That does demand a large hope.

Pam | 24 June 2015  

Mr Collins sees a causal correlation between education and smaller families. #Not necessarily!: The fact that more highly-educated women are choosing to have children suggests the growing numbers of women with degrees occupying career positions of leadership and management are finding it easier these days to juggle work and family, says Pew researcher Gretchen Livingston. "Postgraduate education and motherhood are increasingly going hand-in-hand," she says.

Father John George | 24 June 2015  

For those interested, an exploration of this issue by a writer for the National Catholic Reporter http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/laudato-si-should-have-lifted-ban-contraception

Karen B | 25 June 2015  

I consider myself a practicing (not necessarily orthodox) Catholic. Francis Bergoglio is to me an embodiment of the Spirit of Christ. His objection to the selfishmess inherent in Western capitalism is absolutely well taken. But that does not mean that the logic of demographics must remain suspended. The much-maligned Rev. Malthus was neverthless right; if nothing is done, an exponential blow-out of numbers is mathematically inevitable. It is the church of the 21st century, not that of the 3rd, that must confront the genitive propensities of Creation, and ALL of its implications. To me, "increase and multiply" is an incomparable blessing so that life is lived as fully as nature (not dogmatics) allows. It was not a command to breed with gay abandon (no pun meant) - any more than to "have dominion" over the Earth means to screw it mercilessly.

Fred Green | 25 June 2015  

At a future date it is inevitable that a Laudato Si Mark 2 will have to address overpopulation as a significant cause, together with others, of our planet’s degradation. Earth’s resources as we know them are not infinite, and an exponentially growing population will reach its finite limit eventually. When that occurs, contraception by artificial or natural means will become a necessity . Meanwhile Laudato Si Mark 1 provides wise and practical advice in the here and now to address the disparities between a comfortable minority and the remainder of human kind, to guarantee a better quality of life for all, and to ensure our Earth remains as God wants it to be.

Brian | 25 June 2015  

The Church's position on contraception flies in the face of both Science and its own theology. The policy was formulated in an age when science had not understood the processes of conception, had no idea about genetics, didn't know that cells called spermatozoa and ova existed, and believed that a child in the womb started off as a perfectly formed human being, infinitesimally small, created by God. The function of a mother's womb was simply to provide an incubator wherein the tiny creature could grow until there was no more room when it would burst forth from the womb. The brand of theology that suited this "conception" was that the union of man woman (which people of the time somehow understood came from sexual union - perhaps the innate understanding as in the knowledge of right and wrong - the Natural Law) was the system through which God the Creator bestowed life which elevated the life producing act to a level of partnership with God in creation. Enter Matrimony, a sacrament, an external sign of the resurrected Christ alive amongst his people, dressed in a theology which said in effect, "This union must exist within sacramental truth and must be open to God's plan for creation. It should not be used outside that union." The Church, however, came to deny its own teaching in the staggeringly illogical acceptance of the fact that contraception within Matrimony was morally acceptable provided it was "natural". In the modern day the Church continues to ignore the facts now known regarding conception which does not occur with the fertilisation of an ovum but some 6-7 days later when implantation in the womb occurs. The moral teachings require serious review and modification in relation to degrees of immorality associated with varying forms of contraception otherwise we will be lost in another Galilean episode of hocus pocus. I believe Pope Francis to be the best thing since sliced bread but he is coloured by an experience lived in the most corrupt continent on the planet. Not all the world is like South America, thank God. ( Pope John Paul II is a perfect example of the influence of the society in which he was formed in his belief that child sexual abuse by clergy was a "Communist plot'!!) The time is long overdue to get contraception right - to get rid of misconception.

john frawley | 25 June 2015  

That's right. Let's continue to blame the poor and their large families for environmental destruction.Gets us off the hook!!! First world waste could feed, clothe and shelter every person in need. The first step in reducing family size is for families to have access to education, employment, health and hope.What is good for the environment is also good for people. We must move beyond any anthropocentric versus biocentric vision to one of wholeness. Did the Creator imagine people first and then the world or did he imagine the whole of life. The earth/universe/cosmos is a gift and when we learn to treasure it and live in harmony there will be so much happiness to be found and trashing it will be unthinkable. We do need to rethink our greed and plundering. Our present ways are keeping people poor and at the same time destroying the planet. Pope Francis has begun a wonderful dialogue. It is not either or or but people and the planet. And as always I thank Andrew for his comments.

Anne Schmid | 25 June 2015  

'The National Catholic Distorter'[sic] cited, fails to consent to magisterium of 2000 years, including Early Church Fathers on contraception and in modern times, especially Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII.
Atheist German physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber the founder and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. refutes claims he promotes population control. In fact, LS is oft called the 'Schellnhuber Encyclical' [Himself in the Pontifical Academy of sciences].
Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/german-climatologist-refutes-claims-he-promotes-population-control/#ixzz3e1yW6gLm

Father John George | 25 June 2015  

The Pope is right in every way but I would go further and say that the West has the responsibility of investing money into developing nations to ensure they do not adopt our poor environmental impacting habits. In some instances we may have to give the money away in order to gain long term benefits. But when granting money to purchase our own technology it is merely circulating back. I think it is immoral to impose demands on new technology for developing nations and expect them to be indebted to the West to assist them assisting in sustaining our standard of living. New technologies should be mass developed at a cost that makes it cheaper than purchasing power generated coal from a grid such as cheap solar panels, cheap solar cars, cheap solar water pumps etc we should not necessarily need to give it away but rather mass produce products that is affordable. For those that can not afford then grant the funds. All corporations should be required to conduct an aspect impact assessment in determining how they can minimise their impact on the environment, this should be imposed by EPA authorities around the world and these impact assessments should be independently audited as safety is

Paul Camilleri | 25 June 2015  

I need take issue with you on this statement "But in the context of the Encyclical, the Pope argues that the pressure from the West for imposing population control on impoverished people reflects a thoroughly unconverted attitude." This is so like a man to say such a thing. Who first mentioned pressure? Most women don't want to have child after child and it is mostly pressure from the male in the realtionship for "conjugal rights" that causes the children to be born. Most of the NGO believe in educating women so that can control their own fertility that leads to a reduction in births.

Marie Belcredi | 25 June 2015  

Has Pope Francis bitten off more than he can chew? Would it not have been better at this stage to put before the world certain principles which would underpin how we humans (with our different talents) approach our use of the limited resources of planet Earth? I desist from talking about the resources of the galaxy within which Earth spins its diurnal and annual path. To describe those who strive to learn how the Earth works and how mankind can use this learning to provide itself with food, clothing and shelter; with good health and hygiene, etc, to accuse such people as being motivated by GREED, is to draw a long bow. Of course there are some scientists and industrialists, academics and agriculturists, who might want to aggrandize themselves at the expense of others and the environment. But one will not convert them by accusing them of being GREEDY.
The reaction to the Encyclical in the mass media has been predictable. Both sides of the ecological debate will select what best suits their cause and sadly neglect (or disparage) what does not. For example re-contraception: this is a second tier issue compared to the rape of Mother Earth.

Uncle Pat | 25 June 2015  

Many good comments on a most important topic. But I'm surprised that nobody congratulated Father Andrew onhis wonderful Freudian Slip: fossil fools.

Gavan | 25 June 2015  

Social justice and ecological issues are not mutually exclusive. Greed is the most insidious of all human characteristics and the most insidious form of greed is masculine greed which denies women to be treated equally by denying them the same opportunites for education and freedom to determine their right to fertility. All people who are fortunate to live in Australia should support campaigns to provide girls and women in 'third world' countries to have access to education and artificial contraception. Australian people also need to revisit the issue of feminist philosophy and women's liberation because of the failure of groups such as the Women's Electoral Lobby neglected to address the issue of full time mothers/wives and the division of labour for child rearing and domestic work. The women's movement of the late 1960's and 1970's was mainly focused on the equal rights for women in the tertiary sector of the economy and neglected the rights of mothers and women workers in the manufacturing sector of the economy. We in Australia should also learn from the ecological policies in places such as Germany and China where there is greater commitment to the use of renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and hydro. We should also learn from the Cuban social policy of mandated requirements that domestic home duties are shared equally between fathers and mothers,

Mark Doyle | 25 June 2015  

If John Frawley is saying what I think he's saying - and he puts his point very succinctly - I agree and think it timely and very clear.

SMK | 25 June 2015  

People will always be greedy. It derives from our very deep seated insecurities, a desire for individuals and their loved ones to survive in an uncertain world. A perceived need to squirrel away those nuts for another day. Yes we can devolve that greed to a wider community including the poor and also developing nations. However survival in an uncertain world is always a pimordial driving emotion of human existence. This will not change any more than the church will shed itself of all worldly wealth. Sell all the accumulated wealth and trust in God's providence indeed! What an inspirational act of faith that would be. No, population control is ultimately the root cause of ecological destruction.

Pete | 26 June 2015  

John Frawley, re. "conception", here's the eminent geneticist and pediatrician and geneticist Jerome Lejeune: "After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. [It] is no longer a matter of taste or opinion...it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception." What advances in biology since Lejeune (d.1994) prove beyond all dispute that the conception of a new human individual should be equated with the moment of the implantation of the zygote, not the moment of fertilization?

HH | 27 June 2015  

Who was it said regarding contraception and the relationship between 'First' and 'Third' World countries: "We took their bread, and now under the guise of 'Reproductive Health',with similar rapacity, we seek to take their future in the form of children?"

John Kelly | 29 June 2015  

A very interesting article and an issue which is so important. I know that if handled well, we can move gradually into renewable clean energy worldwide. Australia imports all its solar and wind equipment, even though a lot of it is our own technology. Shame! We should be retraining coal miners and others in sustainable energy manufacturing etc now.
We are led to believe that our economy depends on these dirty energy sources only and that we would fall apart without them, and that is untrue.
The rich get richer the poor are getting poorer, our current position is a failure. And I agree, stop blaming large families for the troubles of the world, when it is our leaders, the very wealthy and big companies that are to blame. we could manage if we wanted to be fair, but we don't. Sadly I see Australia as rich, uncompassionate and greedy at the moment. I agree with Pope Francis and until we clean up our world, most people will continue to suffer.

Cate | 29 June 2015  

All this discussion makes it obvious to me that the overriding sinfulness is related greed, lust, gluttony - whether we are talking about the environment or what we do with our genitals. We could get into scientific debates about indicators of global warming and poverty levels, or about zygotes and wasted ova and sperms - but if we approach our treatment of the earth the way we approach relationships - it becomes an issue of faithfulness and loyalty. The current way of thinking about environment is the equivalent of screwing around. The Right doesn't want to hear this, because it's easier just to point the finger at people who use contraception and those with "disordered" sexual orientations.

AURELIUS | 29 June 2015  

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