Does the Church Advocate Population Control?

Anthony Zimmerman
The Priest
May 1992
Copyright 1992
Reproduced with Permission

A hearty thank you for "World Population: Problem or Resource" (The Priest, August, 1991). Thank you, too, for adhering faithfully to the teachings of the Magisterium.

Father Mark O'Keefe, however, stretches credibility on some matters. For example, he quotes without criticism an estimate made by UNICEF that "as many as 400,000 girls under the age of 14 prostitute themselves in order - simply to survive - in one single large Brazilian city." That number seems high.

Sao Paulo, with 12.6 million people according to the 1980 census, and a birth rate of 31 per 1000, would have had no more than 390,600 babies per year. Slightly less than half were girl babies. So you need ALL 12- and 13year-old girls of Sao Paulo, plus some 11-year-olds, to make up that figure!

Widespread opinion

This statement also needs a bit of investigation: "The Catholic Church, while agreeing in principle to the need to limit population growth. . . ." But does the Church agree?

I had to cover all pertinent papal documents for my doctoral dissertation titled "Papal Teachings on the Subject of Overpopulation" in 1956, and have kept abreast since then.

Gaudium et Spes (no. 87) mentions that there is a widespread opinion that population expansion should be checked by all means but does not state that the Church agrees. She also advises responsible parenthood, including responsibility toward society (e.g., Humanae Vitae no. 10); and she sees that special difficulties can arise out of rapid increases of population (Gaudium et Spes no. 87); but she does not teach that there is no other way to solve related problems except communal birth control. We have difficulties with traffic problems too, but we solve them by building roads, not by putting a quota on the manufacture of cars.

Church documents, past, present, and presumably in the future, do not teach parents to reduce births in order to limit national or world population growth. The Church does not speak with a forked tongue; she does not first praise parents who "courageously undertake the proper bringing up of a large number of children" (Gaudium et Spes no. 50), only to blame them elsewhere: e.g. by programs "which seek to overcome the cultural biases which contribute to large family sizes" (O'Keefe, p. 41).

Were the Church to teach that parents should have fewer children, not for the good of their own family, but to decelerate population growth, she would play brinkmanship with her basic socio-moral teachings in reference to family rights versus rights of a collectivity. The Church consistently teaches that families are the basic unit of society, and that governments are supposed to serve them, not vice versa.

"The state and politics have, in fact, precisely the office of securing for the families of every social class those conditions which are necessary for them to evolve as economic, juridical, and moral units."1 Big league economists do not paint themselves into an order by stating that limiting population growth is the sole and inescapable road to economic development:

Contemporary academic economists, unlike those of the 19th century, find that although population growth and density can have bad effects on development, these will only be severe with wrong economic policies. Technical advances and substitution in free markets avoid major difficulties, for example, shortage of materials (Nathan Keyfitz)2.

(Because Keyfitz gives such a neat and extensive survey of the literature in his article, I will draw on him for more).

He notes that the spectrum of official views on the effect of population is wide, and that the Special Session of the United Nations on Revitalizing Economic Growth in the Developing Countries contains 38 paragraphs, of which only two mention population at all. He quotes Bloom and Freeman:
The empirical evidence shows little relation between the growth of population and income per head or related economic variables. Not population, but artificial constraints on the market, are doing the damage.

At the 1974 World Population Congress in Bucharest, most demographers of the more developed countries were at loggerheads with those of the less developed countries. The more developed agreed that population control is important for development, but the less developed stormed back that this is not true. The compromise resolution finally read: "the basis for an effective solution of population problems is, above all, socioeconomic transformation" (quoted in the Keyfitz article, p. 9).

Freeing the economy

Oddly enough, one might say that both parties switched sides by the time of the Mexico World Population Congress in 1984, like football teams at half time. The less developed at Mexico City had become population limiters, whereas the more developed, with the U.S. at the head, stressed the releasing of market dynamics to give development a chance.

It was there that the U.S. announced its policy to not finance abortion as a means of birth control.

Since 1981, the United States has retreated from the strong leadership role on world population it exercised in the two previous decades. (Keyfitz, p. 9).

Freeing the market economy is the key to development, intoned the U.S. delegation at Mexico City, while disbelieving less developed countries shifted in their seats, some registering their displeasure by hissing.

The leadership of Simon Kuznets, professor of economics at Harvard University, strongly influenced the Belgrade World Population Congress in 1965. As moderator of Meeting A. 10, "Demographic aspects of economic growth," he pointed out that history does not support a dogma that rapid population growth invariably inhibits economic development:

... There was, and is, no invariant and significant direct effect of population increase on the rate of rise of per capita product, if the latter is the accepted measure of economic growth. At least this is the conclusion for the range of' rates of population increase observed in the modern past. In some countries, high rates of population increase were accompanied by high rates of growth in per capita product; in others, low rates of population growth were associated with low rates of growth of per capita product; and in still others, low rates of population increase were combined with high growth of' per capita product. This diversity of relations is found in countries within both the developed and less developed groups, although the developed group, as a whole, showed a higher rate of population increase than the rest of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . ."3

Elsewhere, Kuznets stresses the importance of good social institutions for achieving economic growth. Population growth brings new labor force into cities in the early stages of industrialization, and thereby also increases the scale of the market. So the new population brings both masses of workers and the mass market for their products. He expresses no fear of population increase (see Keyfitz, p. 9).

The dramatic switch in Chinese population policy is nothing short of spectacular. A confident Chinese delegate at the 1974 World Population Conference in Bucharest scorned the decadent western nations for their need to prop the economy by limiting population growth. Marxist socialism has no need whatsoever for that, he assured us. He spoke so rapidly that the interpreter could hardly keep up.

Blurred notes

My blurred notes state that, oil the final day of the Conference, after the Japanese delegate had expressed regrets that more recognition was not given to the seriousness of the population problem, the Chinese delegate spoke with machine gun rapidity as follows:

Imperialism, colonialism, exploitation by some countries have caused the overpopulation problem; the third world countries have clearly refuted the Malthusian theory at the Conference; the superpowers (America and the Soviet Union) continue to spread the absurd theory of population explosion for ulterior purposes; but now they stand alone and exposed, and all their tricks have flopped. The population targets suggested in the draft are due to the machinations of the superpowers, and imply that foreign countries can interfere in population policies, which is against the principle of sovereignty.4

"Population," he confided, "is not a problem under socialism; it is a problem only in rotten capitalist countries." His triumphalism was short lived. China adopted draconian anti-birth measures only a few years later.

"We continue to lay special stress on population control ... late marriage and one child per couple," said Prime Minister Zhao Zivang in 1983 (Keyfitz p.7).

I'm convinced that China will change once again in the future, as Japan has already done.

Why all the discordant opinions and policies about population policies? Keyfitz says it well: The think tanks are housed in separate quarters and do not communicate with each other to solve their differences. Governments, however, must choose their advisors, and find that any choice they make will have supporters:

In the modern academy, knowledge comes packaged in disciplines. Within any discipline the machinery for establishing what is right (referred professional journals, etc.) works moderately well most of the time; most differences are resolved. But for resolving differences between disciplines the machinery is inadequate. Many questions do not overlap.... But population does spread over economics, biology, sociology, and other disciplines. Separated by different perspectives, each using a language not readily comprehensible to outsiders, each with a body of knowledge too extensive for most of those not brought up to it to master, and offering little premium to the academic who attempts to do so, disciplines do not take irreconcilable conclusions seriously, let alone resolve them.

This throws a problem too difficult for science as now organized to administrators who must make decisions about population and environment.... Whatever they do, they have backing from scientists, choosing economists or biologists according to the advice they wish to receive.5

Economists see it one way, biologists another way, sociologists in still another way, and the triune do not meet. And funding is sometimes the solution to an impasse. I asked an official of the Welfare Ministry in South Korea when they were formulating a birth control policy in the early 1960s, how the Ministry can agree to that, knowing that it will lead to abortion. He responded that money was scarce and hard to come by for officials, but that everyone is aware that any request made to the U.S. for population funds gets a swift and positive response. He shrugged as if to say: "Who bites the hand that feeds it?"

Why do we see no major articles against the pill in medical journals? The journals cannot survive without advertising. Were they to publish against their advertisers, they would kill the goose that lays their golden eggs.

We Catholics do well to look beyond the media's conventional pablum when advocating policy on population control. The Lord advised us to appropriate the prudence of serpents as well as the simplicity of doves.

"When a nation is overpopulated," read one sentence in a book I was editing in 1980, "couples have a duty to bear fewer children; when a nation is underpopulated, couples have a duty to increase births."

Gobbledegook, I said to myself. The contributor of that sentence, who is now an archbishop, withdrew it immediately when asked to reflect on what it all implies. The book was distributed to the members of the 1980 Synod of Bishops. Had that sentence been in it, that would be the one and only statement even remotely connected with magisterial documents which would make birth control for the purpose of deceleration of demographic growth a proper form of human behavior.

The statement of Father O'Keefe that "The limitation of 'population growth and the implementation of' moral means to attain it remain essential to addressing the present and urgent problem of poverty" (loc. cit.) is his opinion, not Church doctrine.

Superheresy dominates

Admittedly, "doing good for humanity" is a facile excuse for birth control, i.e., the practice of contraception, which half of the world's families have adopted by this time. More than 400 million of the estimated 850 to 880 million couples of reproductive age are said to be practicing contraception.6

People like to hear excuses for what they do unlawfully. "Our intentions are good, so why scruple about the means? This super-heresy dominates world thinking today.

Father O'Keefe speaks with a weak voice when he correctly opposes contraception, but incorrectly obliges parents to avoid births by licit means to affect national or world demographic trends.

I don't think couples can be persuaded to make the sacrifice of periodic abstinence to help decelerate national demographic growth. But tell them that pills are necessary for national welfare, and millions agree. Fourteen million couples currently use the pill in the U.S., compared to 1.2 million who use natural family planning. The phoniness of the "birth control for national welfare" heresy is unmasked when couples have to make real sacrifices for what their intelligence cannot accept.

Makes one wonder

The March/April issue of Studies in Family Planning, notes that "Catholics who attend church more regularly are less likely to use contraceptive methods, have lower levels pill and diaphragm use, and are more likely to use condoms and rhythm and be sterilized if male" (p.111). Which makes me wonder whether Mass attendance and parish collections will look up again if pastors speak out more resolutely about the evil of three bad bugs of family life: abortion, contraception, and sterilization (and often consequent divorce); and if pastors engage more meaningfully in the apostolate of natural family planning.

When I came to postwar Japan in 1948, propaganda for population control was going full blast. "Look at those people over there," gossipers would say. "Don't they know that the government wants us to practice birth control? They still have babies like they please, without consideration for others." Today they would be heroes. A statement in Mainichi, July 26, 1991:

With the nation's birth rate dropping year by year, alarmed government officials suggested everything from raising child care allowances to getting new restrictions on birth control and reducing the number of women who go to college in an effort to combat the situation [of the birth dearth].

I don't foresee that the Japanese government will outlaw contraception and abortion in the foreseeable future, but we see now that the people who clamored so loudly for birth control in 1948, are all quiet today. Whether Japan will lose its place in history for lack of population - at least 40 nations have disappeared during historical times - remains to be seen. Eager young foreign workers would like to enter Japan; and families which earlier migrated to Latin America are now returning here.

Magisterium consistent

But foreign workers are not being admitted willingly, even though the home population is producing only 1.53 children per couple, not enough to replace the parents.

I am personally optimistic about Japan's national future, though. I believe it to be entirely possible that, under prodding of the government and the media, especially NHK, Japan may yet achieve a higher birth rate which can carry her through the history of coming centuries.

Opinions about population limitation policies change with seasons and governments, but teachings of the Catholic Magisterium are as consistent as the Rock on which she stands. If we cannot master all the opinions of demographers, economists, biologists, sociologists, and others, about merits or demerits of population growth, we can still make our own the wisdom of the Church, and pass this on to our people; that wisdom of the Church which enlightens us to see that parents, not governments, have the right to make the decision about children:

Because in virtue of man's inalienable right to marriage and the procreation of children, the decision regarding the number of children depends on the judgment of parents and is in no way to be left to the decrees of public authority.7

In none of the magisterial documents is there a statement which contests this. The responsible parenthood proposed in magisterial documents is connected with duties to God, to the spouse, and to the children. Obligations to space or to avoid births may arise for reasons of family welfare because of severe genetic defects or because of an inability to cope or to educate. But I have seen no document of the Magisterium obliging parents to reduce births for the misconceived purpose of cooperating toward the achievement of demographic targets set up by those in power whose ambitions are not matched by equal knowledge.

Wisdom of Pius X11

If ever in the very distant future the world's families would recognize convincingly that for their own welfare they must cooperate in birth quotas to prevent absolute overpopulation, to preserve the ecosystem, to close the ozone hole, or to mitigate the greenhouse effect, and if there is really no other way to keep the world comfortably habitable than to put a quota on births, then, at that time, the Church may urge families to cooperate. That time is not now, and my presumption is that it will never be.

As of now, and in the foreseeable future, we serenely make our own the wisdom of Pope Pius XII great theologian of our century, who spoke approvingly of large and healthy families to the Association of Large Families Jan. 20, 1958. The Fathers of Vatican II referred to this address in a footnote of Gaudium et Spes no. 50.

You are and represent large families, those most blessed by God and specially loved and prized by the Church as its most precious treasures. For those families offer particularly clear testimony to three things that serve to assure the world of the truth of the Church's doctrine and the soundness of its practice, and that redound, through good example, to the great benefit of all other families and of civil society itself.

"Wherever you find large families in great numbers, they point to: the physical and moral health of a Christian people; a living faith in God and trust in His Providence; the fruitful and joyful holiness of Catholic marriage.... "Surely, one of the most harmful aberrations that has appeared in modern society with its pagan tendencies is the opinion of those who are eager to classify fruitfulness in marriage as a 'social malady,' and who maintain that any nation that finds itself thus afflicted must exert every effort and use every means to cure the disease. This is the basis for the propaganda that goes under the name of 'planned parenthood'. . . .

"Far from being a 'social malady,' large families are a guarantee of' the moral and physical health of a nation. Virtues flourish spontaneously in homes where a baby's cries always echo from the crib, and vice is put to flight, as if it has been chased away by the childhood that is renewed there like the fresh and invigorating breath of spring.

"So let the weak and selfish take their example from you; let the nation continue to be loving and grateful toward you for all the sacrifices you have taken upon yourselves to raise and educate its citizens; just as the Church is pleased with you for enabling her to offer along with you, ever healthier and larger groups of souls to the sanctifying activity of the divine Spirit. [End of Address of Pius XII.]

We priests must get that thinking out of our system which is hostile to large families, which makes birth control a virtue imposed by population problems. Natural family planning to space children properly, to enable parents to follow cherished goals helpful to society, yes; but natural family planning for decreasing national and world population is something which neither the Church nor couples with common sense can believe in.


1 Pius XII, "Address to Christian demography and birth control societies of Italy," Oct. 21, 1945. [Back]

2 Nathan Keyfitz, "Population and Development Within the Ecosphere: One View of the Literature" in Population Index, Spring 1991, pp.5-22. [Back]

3 World population Conference, 1965, Vol. 1, p.307; a United Nations publication. [Back]

4 My report to Catholic Shimbun, Tokyo, Sept. 2, 1974. [Back]

5 0p. cit. 6. [Back]

6 Studies in Family Planning, Nov./Dec. 1988, p.341. [Back]

7 Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 87. [Back]