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The overpopulation myth: Catholic teaching on how having children is good for the environment

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Catholic social teaching on the environment and its implications for family planning

Two years ago, Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ made headlines for its focus on care of the environment, and particularly, on its discussion of climate change. When the pope met with President Trump some weeks ago, just before the Paris climate accord, Francis presented the president with a bound and signed copy of the encyclical; the Washington Post described it as a “politically loaded gift,” as rumors were already swirling that the president might not participate in the accord; (although that interpretation is stretching it a bit as nice copies of encyclicals are customary gifts for visiting heads of state.)

In any case, in the wake of President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, and in light of headlines like “As Environmental Catastrophe Looms, Is it Ethical to Have Children?,” where two philosophers discuss the ethical implications of climate change, it is a good time to review what Catholic Social Teaching has to say about care for the environment, and how faithful Catholic families can respond with authentic stewardship of “our common home,” as Pope Francis has described it.

First, it must be noted that the aforementioned article discussing the ethics of climate change makes the classic Malthusian error that overpopulation will be our civilization’s ultimate demise. Because they believe that “the rate of population growth is making climate change significantly scarier,” the two philosophers believe that policy efforts to curtail large families may be in order. Setting aside the contested belief that the world is actually overpopulated (when, in fact, the global growth rate is approaching below-replacement levels, and many countries are already there), or that human overpopulation is even a real issue (which presupposes artificial limits to our environment, and to human ingenuity), what does Catholic Social Teaching have to say about the matter?

As it turns out, as the latest in the distinguished canon of the Church’s social doctrine, Laudato Si’ directly addresses the population growth question:

“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’… To blame population growth [as the sole obstacle facing development and sustainable use of the environment] instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

In a nutshell, Laudato Si’ builds on the long tradition of previous papal encyclicals like Populorum Progresso and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (to name a few) making the compelling case that Catholics are indeed called to be true stewards of the environment. However, placing the blame of environmental disaster on population growth is not only based on questionably-scientific grounding, but it is also unimaginative as far as real solutions go – a cop-out against seeking remedies to the “extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some,” which creates so much waste and the extremely unequal distribution of goods in our modern global economy.

It is also a position used to justify morally illicit contraceptive methods, and is rife with the potential to discriminate against poorer countries (where big families may be desirable for a number of reasons – be they religious or practical), and especially poor and disadvantaged women living in the developing world. Furthermore, it is this troubling line of thinking that underlies policies like China’s recently “relaxed” one-child policy, which has led to forced abortions, forced sterilizations, female sexual slavery, and countless other evils in that country, most of which have unequally targeted girls and women.

As Catholics, we are called to plan our families responsibly, with prayer and faithful discernment. But in our wedding vows, Catholic couples are also called to be generous in the service of life, with the understanding that building families (both biological and spiritual) is part of the important work of the vocation of marriage, and that building large families is by no means necessarily incompatible with faithful stewardship of the environment – in fact, it might be uniquely suited towards it.

Catholic social teaching clearly teaches us that people, created in the image and likeness of God, are our most important natural resource, and that the human person is, as Bernard V Brady states in Essential Catholic Social Thought, “both responsible for creation and at the same time the center of creation… That is to say, we have the responsibility to care for the earth because we need the earth to care for us.”

So, the real invitation is to both policymakers concerned with protecting the environment, and anyone discerning whether building a family is compatible with proper stewardship of the environment, to seriously consider what the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly states in response to this important issue:

“The answer to questions connected with population growth must be sought in simultaneous respect both of sexual morals and of social ethics, promoting greater justice and authentic solidarity so that dignity is given to life in all circumstances, starting with economic, social, and cultural conditions.”

And, importantly, one need not be Catholic to do this.

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