Family Planning is Vatican’s Blind Spot on Environment

The Vatican just concluded a joint meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on the critical issues of “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility.” For four days, members of the Academies, church officials and leading experts, including four Nobel Laureates wrestled with the program’s opening questions:

“Are Humanity’s dealings with Nature sustainable? What is the status of the Human Person in a world where science predominates? How should we perceive Nature and what is a good relationship between Humanity and Nature? Should one expect the global economic growth that has been experienced over the past six decades to continue for the foreseeable future? Should we be confident that knowledge and skills will increase in such ways as to lessen Humanity’s reliance on Nature despite our increasing economic activity and growing numbers? Is the growing gap between the world’s rich and world’s poor in their reliance on natural resources a consequence of those growths?”

This is not the Vatican’s first rodeo; it has been dealing with environmental questions for quite some time. In 2009, Pope Benedict released the encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” on the international economic order, the fourth chapter of which focused on the environment. Pope Francis is preparing an encyclical on ecology. The Vatican in the guise of the Holy See has been an active participant in all UN sustainability and environment meetings and has a particular interest in the human dimension, especially the impact of environmental policies on the poor, but also ensuring that the issue of population size and growth as a factor in environmental degradation is excluded from consideration and action. In addition it has an interest in squelching new ideas that do not support the concept of humans as exceptional among creation. We are above the animals and in charge of the earth.

The Pontifical Academies are advisory to the Vatican, but not under its control. On occasion they have challenged the Vatican on its neglect of population size and growth as a matter of concern. Just before the Cairo Conference on Population and Development where the Vatican played a strong role in opposition to extending family planning to all—married and unmarried, and youth—the Academy of Science issued a report, which concluded that:

There is a need to control births in order to avoid creating insoluble problems that could arise if we were to renounce our responsibilities to future generations. Increases in the life span and advances in medical care have made it unthinkable to sustain indefinitely a birthrate that notably exceeds the level of two children per couple. In other words, this is the requirement to guarantee the future of humanity.

But, as one would expect, family planning was not on the agenda of the conference. It came up, as Andrew Revkin blogged in the New York Times, “99 minutes into the conference.” Werner Arber, the head of the Academy of Sciences and a Nobel laureate in medicine was asked by a Hong Kong attendee Hsin-chi Kuan if he believed in birth control. Arber replied that he did. Many delegates believe in birth control, or family planning—the less politically charged expression. Jeffery Sachs from Colombia University and Tim Wirth from the UN Foundation, for example, both see a link between the ability of women to decide on the number of children they want and the ability to ensure planetary survival.

Recent studies have shown that providing contraception to the 220 million women who want it but don’t have access would reduce carbon emissions by 15%. No coercion, just meeting the unmet need. This, of course needs to be balanced by less consumption in the developed world. Statisticians at Oregon State University concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives— things like driving an efficient car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.

None of this is on the Vatican agenda and, other than our friend from Hong Kong, no one seems to have mentioned it.

This is not meant to take away from the importance of such conferences being held by the Catholic church. There are over a billion Catholics in the world and their engagement on climate change, food security, water shortages and the growing consumption of meat in ways that put respect for people and ending poverty front and center would be significant. And let’s be clear, most of those Catholics use or want to use family planning.

The continued blind spot of the Vatican on contraception is tragic. The papal commission on birth control reported to Pope Paul VI in 1966 that there was no impediment to permitting the use of contraceptives. The Pope rejected the report fearing loss of authority. Almost 50 years later, the loss of papal authority is seen not only in Catholics’ rejection of the prohibition in most of the developed world, but in the death and suffering of women in the developing world in childbirth too often and too closely spaced and from unsafe abortion.

The moral authority of the church is squandered before a scientific community that knows that without voluntary reduction in population growth, saving all of humanity is threatened. So, let’s have more conferences in the Vatican and more exchanges with scientists, but let’s see those scientist and experts have the courage to say over and over again that family planning is a responsible choice.