By Fr. George Welzbacher
November 6, 2011
43 years ago, in July of 1968, Pope Paul the Sixth issued his historic encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which he solemnly reasserted the Church's age-old teaching that all forms of artificial contraception, including the chemical reconfigurations powered by "The Pill", constitute a serious disruption of the divinely instituted sacred order governing the transmission of human life and in consequence are gravely sinful. With publication of this world-historical document all hell broke loose in the media-and appallingly even in many a Catholic classroom, confessional and pulpit as well. Father Charles Curran, a junior professor at Catholic University, led an improvised league of Catholic protesters (including at least one cleaning lady who was somehow included in the hastily assembled list of theologians) in denouncing the papal teaching. And in many a Catholic parish the norm imposed for the sermons to be given the following Sunday was "No comment!"
Far too many parish priests began to answer inquiries from their congregations about the binding force of the papal pronouncement with a non-committal "Follow your own conscience" (which of course is the essence of Protestantism). But the fury particularly of the media knew no bounds. Pope Paul was denounced as a kind of war criminal, supposedly abetting by his teaching a growth in world population that the resources of this earth could not sustain, thus consigning millions to the horror of starvation. Here in Minnesota the local media gave maximum publicity to the predictions of the University of Minnesota's Dean of the Institute of Technology, Athelstan Spielhaus, who lent his considerable prestige as a scientist to this party line, while every dissenting Catholic who cared to make his or her dissent known was hailed in the media as a hero. Most notably the young Auxiliary Bishop of St. Paul, James Patrick Shannon, former president of the College of St. Thomas, described on the cover of Time magazine as "the thinking man's bishop," lent his politically estimable support to the rejection of the papal teaching, in the name of compassion for those parents unable or unwilling to bear the expense of rearing a family of several children in today's urbanized world. But it was the allegation that observance of the Church's teaching would inevitably lead to mass starvation that gave the dominant color of "reasonableness" to the brief of those who opposed this teaching.
That was then and this is now. Everything that the Pope warned would be the consequence of adopting the contraceptive mentality has come true in the intervening nearly half-century. Widespread addiction to casual sex, the breakdown of marriage, the sky-rocketing growth in the number of children deprived of the benefits of stable family life, the proliferation of homosexuality together with an enormous impetus for abortion on demand-it has all taken place before our eyes. And the predicted mass starvation? Such widespread starvation as exists today is generally and correctly perceived to be not the result of "too many people for the resources of the earth" but "too many political LEADERS whose actions DEPRIVE their people of ACCESS to what the earth can and does provide"--think Somalia.
And yet the purveyors of this discredited pseudo-scientific nonsense are with us still. A case in point: the self-appointed "town-criers" of whom the Wall Street Journal's William McGurn provided a trenchant critique in a recent op-ed. May I share his thoughts with you here.
* * * * *And Baby Makes Seven Billion
Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2011
Nothing brings out the inner Malthus like a newborn baby. [The reference is to Thomas Malthus, whose famous book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, held that Europe's growing population would soon outstrip the available food supply].
That's especially true when that baby is born to a mother somewhere in Africa or Asia. According to the United Nations Population Fund, some time this coming Monday [October 31], probably in India, the world will welcome its SEVEN BILLIONTH PERSON. Well, maybe welcome isn't exactly the right word.
At Columbia University's Earth Institute, Professor Jeffrey Sachs tells CNN "the consequences for humanity could be GRIM." Earlier this year, a New York Times columnist declared "the earth is full," suggesting that a growing population means "we are eating into our future." And in West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette editorializes about a "human swarm" that is "overbreeding" in a-way that "prosperous, well-educated families" from the developed world do not.
The smarter ones acknowledge that Malthus's ominous warnings about a growing population outstripping the food supply were not born out in his day. The track record for these scares in our own day is Ehrlich's 1968 The Population Bomb, which opened with these sunny sentences: "The battle to feed all humanity is OVER. In the 1970's the world will undergo famines-HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of people are going to STARVE TO DEATH in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."
The book was wildly popular, and the assertions large. India was so hopeless he advocated a policy of "triage" that would just let them die. In fact, the mass starvation he predicted never materialized, and the Indians who he thought could never feed themselves are now eating better than ever despite a population of more than TWICE the size it was when The Population Bomb appeared.
The record, alas, doesn't seem to matter. Like so many other articles on population, one in the New Yorker this month concedes that the predictions Malthus made "proved to be wrong." Like so many other articles too, it goes on to conclude that "the PREMISE of [his] work - that there must be some LIMIT to population growth - is hard to argue with."
The truth is that the main flaw in Malthus is PRECISELY his premise. Malthusian fears about population follow from the Malthuslan view that human beings are primarily MOUTHS to be fed rather than MINDS to be unlocked. In this reasoning, when a pig is born in China, the national wealth is thought to go up, but when a Chinese baby is born, the national wealth goes down.
Behind this divide between those who worry about limits put on human exchange and those who worry about limits to growth are two very different views of the human person. The former believe that so long as people are FREE to trade and use their talents, the more the merrier. The latter treat people as a great mass of more or less interchangeable cogs, hence the worries about "sustainability" and "carrying capacity" and the like.
This latter is a highly static view, one that grossly underestimates the POWER OF AN INDIVIDUAL to improve life for millions. Perhaps the best example of that power is Norman Borlaug, whose scientific work introduced high yield varieties of wheat and rice that helped farmers GREATLY TO increase their food production. In so doing, the "father of the Green Revolution" helped poor nations feed their people and give the lie to all those predictions of hopelessness and starvation from Mr. Ehrlich and Co.
The static view of the human person underestimates the DYNAMISM of ordinary men and women going about their business in a free economy. The young people "occupying" Wall Street may decry capitalism, but societies open to risk and initiative and free exchange have always done better by the "99%" than those that do not. That is why a place like Hong Kong, with no natural resources, has prospered, while many other countries rich in natural resources (some in Africa) have not.
Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, suggests that human progress is driven when people connect with one another and exchange IDEAS as well as goods. In our own day, he believes, this interaction has been accelerated by the revolution in technology that has made distance largely irrelevant. It's one reason he takes a generally benevolent view of population growth.
In a line bound to seem extravagant to the doom and gloom set, he offers his own prediction: "I would go further and say that the mixing of IDEAS made possible by the Internet makes the drying up of innovations almost impossible to achieve, even if we wanted to, and the improvement in living standards almost inevitable."
In short, it all comes down to your conception of the human person. Another way of putting it is this: Instead of looking for ways to reduce the number of people at the banquet of life, we would do better to look for ways to lay a better and more bounteous table.
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