Catholicism and Population

1 November 2003 | Part 2

“Population problems are of extreme importance….they have a vital bearing on world peace”.
Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) writing to the Twenty-sixth Italian Catholic Social Week in 1953

I first became interested in population when a really good priest, Fr Arthur McCormack, wrote a book in 1960, or there about, criticising the 1948 book by William Vogt, who thought that the coming “population explosion” in the developing world should be dealt with by persuading the developing country to accept birth control. Vogt’s plea that birth control should accompany death control went unheeded, and in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East we see the effects of this population explosion: dire poverty and angry frustration. In 1960, Fr McCormack did not see the need for birth control, but changed his mind when he realised that rapid population increase would cause extreme poverty. Unfortunately, in the 1960’s, he was not able to persuade his friend, Pope Paul VI, who had had second thoughts about the dangers of over-population.

The Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth in 1964-1966,included those who voiced similar anxieties. In “The Encyclical That Never Was” we read:

“Most demographers on the Commission were alarmed by predictions that world population would double by the year 2000, an outcome that would have an effect on world hunger and, therefore on world peace.”

(The prediction was not far short of the mark, on hunger, peace, or population. World pop. Mid-1960’s 3.4bn. 2000 6.0bn.)

Then came 1968, the year of disaster for the Church and the very poor, with Humanae Vitae, the opening to Marxism, and the launch of liberation theology. From now on extreme poverty was to be blamed on capitalism, the world economic system and “the west”, and population increase was to be ignored.

Here is the reaction of 2600 US scientists to Humanae Vitae: In an open letter they wrote: “the appeals for world peace and pity for the poor made by a man whose action helps to promote war and render poverty inevitable do not impress us any more.”

Here is what historians thought when reviewing the twentieth century: Eric Hobsbawm in the Age of Extremes The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 p 346 writes, “It is important to begin any account of the Third World with some consideration of its demography, since the population explosion is the central fact of its existence.” J.A.S. Grenville in The Collins History of the World in the Twentieth Century p927 writes, “Population control, by means other than mass famine and disease, was the most urgent need of the Third World.”

This “most urgent need of the Third World” does not interest the Catholic Hierarchy, or CAFOD, or Justice and Peace Groups (bar one, perhaps), or CIIR, or any of the other Catholic organizations dealing with the Church’s response to extreme poverty. There is little to be done, but future generations of Catholics will wonder how we could complain unceasingly about the economic opinions and activities of others, when our demographic opinions and activities have been, and still are, a major cause of extreme poverty.