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Pope Works to Reconcile Catholic Teaching, Population Pressures and Sustainable Development

23 Sep 2015
Bruce Duncan
Pope Francis in St Peter's square, Vatican. Photo Credit: Wikipedia (Alfredo Borba) Creative Commons

On his first visit to the United States, as well as addressing a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis will speak at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25. There he will highlight concerns in his encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, especially the issues of poverty, equity, sustainability, social inclusion and peace.

Francis is convinced the threat from global warming is dire. He is trying to help mobilise public opinion, throwing the moral support of the Catholic Church behind efforts to transform the way we live and produce.

Francis is very strategic in his thinking and has written his encyclical with two major events in mind. The first is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which 193 countries will endorse at the UN General Assembly. The second event is the second session of the Synod of Bishops discussing family matters in Rome from October 4-25.

Pope seeks consultation and dialogue

Laudato Si’ is not the work of an isolated individual. Francis believes strongly in consultation and dialogue, and the encyclical draws from many experts and groups.

Francis is building on consultations with experts in the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, including Joseph Stiglitz and Partha Dasgupta among its 20 members. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences with about 80 eminent scientists has also contributed strongly, as has the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, who wrote a draft of the encyclical.

There has been overlap between people advising the Vatican and those preparing the Sustainable Development Goals. Francis has met many of the key people refining the SDGs, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and has been strongly influenced by the work of Amartya Sen, Jeffrey Sachs and Stiglitz.

Francis invites full and open dialogue with all serious points of view. One of Sachs’ critics, Naomi Klein, has recently been involved with these consultations.

The Synod on the Family

The encyclical did not discuss adequately the issue of population, presumably because it will be part of the agenda at the October Synod of Bishops. Francis would not want to pre-empt what the synod might say and has insisted the bishops “speak frankly” and honestly.

Francis earlier asked the bishops to encourage their parishes and networks to discuss issues of family life and to feed back responses into the synod process. Nothing like this had been attempted before in the Catholic Church.

Responses appear overwhelmingly to confirm that the great majority of couples have not accepted the teaching of Pope Paul VI against contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. As US commentator Peter Steinfels wrote in May:

… this “non-reception” should be recognised as a theologically significant fact.

Steinfels suggests that the synod should acknowledge the loyalty of many Catholics, but also the pain Humanae Vitae caused many others.

Since the synod is only for three weeks, Steinfels urged that the church begin a process to review its teaching on sexuality, marriage and family, “placing moral responsibility in conceiving children firmly within the larger framework”, rather than in isolated decisions.

Pope Francis and responsible parenthood

Francis attracted media attention with his comment in January about church teaching against artificial contraception. He said:

This does not mean that the Christian must make children in series … Some think, and excuse the term, that to be good Catholics they must be like rabbits.

Francis said there are many methods to exercise responsible family planning and he thought three children seemed about right. He later had to clarify that he was not criticising people who raised larger families.

One commentator wrote that it “seems without precedent for a pope” to say that parents may have a responsibility to limit the number of their children. But popes had been saying that for more than 60 years. Their concern was about means.

Various media reported that Francis had strongly backed Pope Paul VI’s teaching against contraception. Yet I can find no instance of the pope using the word contraception, though he did reaffirm the church’s opposition to abortion. Instead he talked in terms of “openness to life” in his address to families in Manila on January 16.

Francis urges pastoral flexibility in interpreting Humanae Vitae. In March 2014, he commented that:

… pastoral action takes into account that which is possible for people to do.

Acknowledging population pressures

Francis is aware of population pressures in some countries. The 2015 Revision of World Population Prospects indicates that global population is likely to grow much more than the previously expected levelling off around 9 billion people by 2050.

According to the revision, the current world population of 7.3 billion is increasing at 83 million a year. Growth rates are uncertain, but on a medium variant projection, population is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. A higher variant growth rate could result in 16.6 billion people by 2100.

Agricultural and climate experts are warning that it will be extremely difficult to sustain the expected population increase, even with climate change of two degrees Celsius, much less the 4°C that Ban Ki-moon fears.

Some writers hope that breakthroughs in food production can sustain a medium increase in population. Others are less confident. Most experts appear to adopt the precautionary principle, that it is better to restrain population increase as much as possible, though certainly not by coercion.

Catholic teaching holds that couples should be free to decide on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibility to themselves, their children and their community. In difficult circumstances, this may mean avoiding birth “even for an indeterminate period”.

Asked in an interview in March 2015 if the church would reconsider the topic of birth control, Francis said it depended on how the encyclical was interpreted:

The object is not to change the doctrine, but it is a matter of going into the issue in depth and to ensure that the pastoral ministry takes into account the situations of each person and what that person can do. This will also be discussed on the path to the synod.

The way that Francis has been framing the question of contraception suggests a new openness on these matters:

The key teaching of the church is responsible parenthood. And how do we get to that? By dialogue.

It remains to be seen what will emerge from the Synod of Bishops. A change could help provide the means for Catholics to exercise responsible parenthood where the common good clearly indicates the need for smaller families.

Both the Sustainable Development Goals and Laudato Si’ insist that for couples to choose smaller families it is essential that children, particularly girls, have opportunities for equality, education and employment; that nutritional and health standards ensure low maternal, infant and child mortality; that social security systems protect against unemployment, sickness and old age; and that governments provide security and sustainable development. The SDGs offer a detailed program of how to do much of this.

Bruce Duncan is the Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy, University of Divinity. This article was originally published in The Conversation on 22 September 2015. It is republished with permission.