Bruce Duncan. 

afghanistan girls education
Afghanistan: UNICEF Girls’ Education, PROUnited Nations Photo, flickr cc.

Pope Francis has been criticised for not addressing the population issue fully in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’. Despite its’ being such a critical issue, he only refers to it in Paragraph 50 in the context of resisting international pressure to make economic aid conditional on introducing programs of “reproductive health”.

He quoted the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, making the point that population pressure creates difficulties for development efforts, but that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”

Francis added that population growth is blamed by some for environmental problems, as a way of avoiding looking at the impact of extreme consumerism and the current model of distribution. Nevertheless, he said “attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on national and global levels”, taking into account other factors including environment, resources, and quality of life.

Francis is clearly aware of the importance of the population issue, especially since he is warning of catastrophic climate change; so what are we to make of his caution, even reticence, on this topic?

Mobilising support for action

Pope Francis has issued his encyclical to support global efforts to alleviate poverty, inequality, and climate change. He will carry this message to the US Congress on 24 September, and to the UN General Assembly the following day. This will be his first ever visit to the United States, and he said recently that he has to customise his message to the US audience, some of whom have been somewhat rattled by his critiques of failures in economic systems.

Francis hopes to help mobilise world opinion in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris 30 November to 11 December. This is the 21st annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference aims for a legally binding and universal agreement on addressing climate change by all nations.

sust devt goals
Sustainable Development Goals, Adam Adamus, flickr cc.

He has also written Laudato Si’ in tandem with the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), onto which nearly 200 countries will sign at the UN General Assembly. Francis has encouraged political leaders in support of the Goals, and met with President Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, among many others.

The encyclical builds on the extensive work of many leading academics and scientists, especially in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, as well as Vatican diplomats and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Many of the key minds behind the SDGs, Amartya Sen, Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz, have been consulted by the Vatican agencies preparing Laudato Si’.

Francis has articulated a moral framework in which to locate these global issues, but not in a narrowly sectarian way. He has drawn particularly from the documents of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, as well as inviting the collaboration of other Christian groups and world religions. Islamic leaders from 20 countries met in Istanbul in late August and issued the Islamic Climate Change Declaration, calling on all Muslims to heed their religious duty to protect the environment. Cardinal Peter Turkson and the Islamic leaders exchanged letters encouraging action in response to climate change.

Francis has welcomed the involvement of people who are atheists or agnostics, too, saying all people of good need to be part of this critical conversation about the future of our planet. In fact, one of the key scientists involved with the encyclical is Professor John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, who spoke at the launch of Laudato Si’ on 18 June in the Vatican, representing the natural sciences. He describes himself as “an agnostic with Christian leanings”.

Fresh concerns about population increase

Francis is presumably aware that the United Nations Population Division recently revised upwards its figures on population growth, indicating that the world by 2100 will need to provide for well over a billion people more than earlier estimated. 2004 UN estimates were that world population would reach 8.9 billion by 2050, levellling off at about 9 billion by 2100.

According to the 2015 Revision of World Population Prospects, the current world population of 7.3 billion is increasing at 83 million a year. Growth rates are uncertain, but on a medium variant, population is expected to grow to 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. If all countries increased the birth rate by half a child above the medium variant, that would result in 16.6 billion people by 2100, 5 billion more than the medium variant.

In almost half (46%) of the global population, including China and Vietnam, the growth rate is currently below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Another 46% of the world’s population lives in countries with fertility of between 2.1 and 5 children per woman.

Some 9% of global population lives in high fertility countries with five or more children per woman, mainly in Africa, which is expected to add 1.3 billion people of the 2.4 billion growth in population globally by 2050.

Overwhelmingly, agricultural and climate experts are warning that it will be extremely difficult to sustain the expected population increase, even with climate change of 2-degrees C. An increase of 4-degrees C or more would be even more alarming, and it is almost inconceivable that we could support our populations adequately in such climatic conditions.

While aware of the enormous challenges, some writers, like Joel K Bourne in The End of Plenty: the Race to feed a Crowded World, are hopeful 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 preferable to restrain rapid population increase, though in line with the Program of Action of the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development, certainly not by coercion.

Catholic views on population growth

The Catholic Church’s views on family size are often misunderstood. The Church does not teach that Catholics should have large families. For many decades, the Church has endorsed responsible parenthood.

The popes have followed the population debate closely since John XXIII in his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, recognised that population growth could cause problems for developing countries. He thought tentatively that these problems, with international collaboration and the sciences, were manageable “at least for the present and in the near future”. As it turned out, with help from the Green Revolution, an imminent crisis was averted, at least for a time.

There was serious concern in the 1960s that rapid population increase would soon result in mass starvation as population outran food supplies. Many thought the birth rate had to be reduced urgently, with some even advocating coercion. Pope Paul strongly opposed abortion and sterilisation campaigns, and coercive human rights abuses associated with some population programs.

The issue was discussed at the Second Vatican Council. Its 1965 document, The Church in the Modern World (Par 87), affirmed that it was up to parents to decide freely on the number of their children, and that they had a right to information about morally acceptable methods to plan their family size. This was widely anticipated as foreshadowing approval of artificial methods of birth control, though Paul VI reserved this decision and sought advice from a special commission of experts.

In his 1967 encyclical, Development of Peoples (Par 37) Pope Paul recognised that “too frequently” rapid population increase adds to the problems of development, and authorities are tempted to use “radical measures”. He said governments can intervene only within limits, providing suitable information and morally acceptable measures, while respecting the freedom of couples.

Finally, it is for the parents to decide, with full knowledge of the matter, on the number of their children, taking into account their responsibilities towards God, themselves, the children they have already brought into the world, and the community to which they belong. In all this, they must follow the demands of their own conscience, enlightened by God’s law authentically interpreted…

Humane Vitae in 1968 unexpectedly and against the majority opinion of the expert commission said no to the contraceptive pill. But the document recognised that parents had to make their decisions about family size in often difficult conditions which may mean deciding not to have children.

In relation to physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a large family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth (Par 10).

Thus, Paul VI endorsed a common sense view that couples had to consider their circumstances to see if they were well enough and financially able to raise and educate their children, according to their circumstances.

These principles still inform Catholic teaching, and are widely accepted. What has changed is that the moral principle of the common good apparently now requires reduced population growth urgently.

The unresolved issue was the question of means, and I presume that the Pope is not wanting to preempt what the October Synod of Bishops will say about this.


Even before the alarming figures in the 2015 Revision, experts were concerned about our ability to increase food production by at least 70 percent, and lift living standards for 2.5 billion people by 2050. Africa would have needed to triple its food production by 2050 to feed its populations adequately.

It is quite in accord with these Catholic principles that, where population growth is clearly a major handicap to improving living conditions, governments, with the support of the Church, appeal to the responsibility of couples to limit the number of their children.

The factors are complex in influencing couples in deciding on the number of their children, and it is not clear how much Church teaching and cultural or other expectations influence people in making these decisions. In Africa and elsewhere, large families are often prized, and bring social prestige. Yet Church support for reduced family sizes could perhaps help moderate the cultural expectations which encourage large families.

Iran is an example of how religious leaders can reshape cultural expectations about family size. In fifteen years from 1989, Iran reduced its fertility rate from 5 per woman to 2.1. The Ayatollah Khomeini had, years earlier, approved contraception, but other Islamic leaders disagreed with him. It was only after health officials appealed to the Supreme Judicial Council that the Quran forbid the self-harm which occurred when women bore children too frequently, that the policy changed to allowing all women access to free contraception.

However, as demographers well know, couples choosing to have small families are also critical in the social context: children, and particularly girls, need opportunities for education and employment; health services must ensure low maternal, infant, and child mortality; social security systems need to provide protection against unemployment, sickness, and old age; and governments have to offer stability and sustainable development. All these dimensions are needed.

Francis strenuously objects, along with public opinion in developing countries, to rich countries imposing economic or diplomatic coercion on poor countries to curtail population growth sharply in order to counter climate change and sustainability issues, but without helping significantly their economic development.

The rich countries are largely responsible for global warming, but some refuse seriously to reduce emissions or help raise living standards in poor nations. Australia is a prime instance in its dismal response to global warming and in recently cutting its international aid by about two-thirds.



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