“Population growth imperils society” blares the headline on ucanews.com, a web site that bills itself as “Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source.”
Before we have a chance to ask how this “most trusted” source purports to defend this headline, we are confronted with the equally puzzling subheading: “Church’s natural family planning can brake growth.”
It may be that the marketing department came up with the “independent” line in an attempt to lend secular credibility to the site, so for now perhaps we can leave aside questions about how something can be both independent from the Church but also somehow “Catholic.” To be fair, those of us who follow international news concerning life and family issues often find good reporting on UCA News, particularly in its coverage of the fight over the Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines.
This article, however, has problems that might be instructive for all pro-lifers. Bangladesh’s rapidly falling birthrate, in which the author seems to find cause for optimism, comes with drastic social costs that must be considered, especially in poor nations where the security of the elderly is a traditional concern of the family. And, with China’s draconian one-child policy as a painful ongoing reminder, we must also be very careful before, as the author does in the article, speaking approvingly of governmental fertility targets.
But the biggest problem is the article’s headline and subheading: to champion NFP as a means of halting overpopulation demonstrates serious confusion about both NFP and overpopulation. Catholics, even those with the best intentions, need to be careful about adopting the error- and agenda-filled language of those whose preferred means of eliminating poverty in the developing world is to reducing the number of poor people through population control.
Worldwide “overpopulation” is a myth. It was first popularized by the now thoroughly discredited entomologist Paul Erlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted hundreds of millions of deaths by starvation in the 1970s, and other dire consequences sure to befall humanity due to what the author believed were unacceptably high fertility rates. Because of the religious fervor to which his thesis gave birth, however, the idea that there are too many people in the world has proven difficult to extricate from the modern imagination. Ehrlich, the man who taught Western progressives to see people of the developing world as something similar to the overbreeding insects that were the subjects of Erlich’s primary area of research, remains a hero of the environmentalist movement; and his basic thesis, though excoriated even by fellow liberals for decades, somehow remains unassailable to the international development cartels: To save the world, we must get rid of a whole lot of people
Now, it is true that the people of the densely-populated and poverty-stricken nation of Bangladesh, whose plight is touched upon in the CNA News article, could benefit from a robust program of authentic human development, including education in natural family planning. It can also be reasonably argued in harmony with Catholic teaching that many, if not most, parents in the Asian nation have what the Church would describe as “grave reasons” for postponing pregnancy, which is one of the possible uses of fertility awareness programs like NFP. Indeed, Mother Teresa famously found creative and simple ways to teach the method to women and men in the slums of Mumbai and other Indian cities where poverty was a crushing burden for too many persons. She showed them how to use fertility awareness – and human freedom, properly understood – to space births. Maya D’Rozario, director of the Caritas Community Health and Natural Family Planning project in Bangladesh, neatly explains this. We should be grateful that she is teaching the method as part of a program of Caritas Internationalis to educate and minister to the people of Bangladesh.
But Mother Teresa also fearlessly and lovingly proclaimed the Gospel. The author of the article makes an error that Catholic international development and news organizations should be careful to avoid: the assumption that Bangladesh’s very real problems are a result of overpopulation.
A prominent theme of Pope Benedict’s papacy is to set right a Catholic development regime that too closely resembles its secular counterparts, and has for the most part given up evangelization as the cornerstone of authentic human development. The stern but charitable words spoken by the Holy Father and by the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, Robert Cardinal Sarah, recently to the leadership of Caritas Internationalis are now unmistakably reinforcing key elements of Pope Benedict’s two social encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate.
The charitable work of the Church is not a side project or an option for those who happen to have the time; it is essential to her mission, which is to bring Christ to the world, and the world to Christ. Just as charity is essential to the Church, the fullness of the Gospel and Church teaching are essential to authentic Charity: and these cannot be reduced to certain quotes that secular collaborators find inoffensive. The Church, through properly formed persons and organizations, must, in a spirit of both solidarity and subsidiarity, directly confront poverty and other social ills, and respond with material and non-material assistance. But the Church must respond in truth, addressing the needs of the whole person, not only his material needs. Every single one of the 160 million Bangladeshis, just like every one of us, is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus has inviolable dignity. Encountering poverty and suffering on the scale of that found in Bangladesh, suffering which is a grave offense to human dignity, must move a heart formed in truth, calling for a response adequate to the challenge. This, although too simply put, is how the Church sees authentic and integral human development; and many new ministries are forming every year that creatively and faithfully answer Our Lord’s challenge to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The Church does not confront the real problems of the people of Bangladesh with the secular view that the real problem is that there are too many people. This is to continue the destructive error of Ehrlich and too many others who clearly do not share an authentically Christian view of human nature and human flourishing. This is why population control has become a cornerstone of multi-billion dollar “development” organizations like the United Nations Population Fund, USAID, International Planned Parenthood Foundation, and Marie Stopes International.
In other words, it isn’t population growth that imperils society, it is turning away from God and adopting the flawed assumptions and false solutions of those who have already given up on Him that is the true source of social decay. And NFP isn’t about satisfying a government’s desired fertility rate. Those in Catholic media who want to speak for the Church, and those who want to respond to poverty and injustice with the heart of the Church, must not be afraid to suffer the slings and arrows of their secular colleagues by embracing and proclaiming the fullness of her teaching.
Stephen Phelan is communications director for Human Life International (HLI). The article was originally published on HLI’s international blog, www.hliworldwatch.org.