What happened at the Vatican’s bio-extinction conference

What happened at the Vatican’s bio-extinction conference

A conference sponsored by two pontifical academies embraced a kind of environmental determinism that looks at human reproduction as a mere bio-technical issue.

[Catholic World News note: Paul Ehrlich, the alarmist author of the discredited book The Population Bomb, took a careful stance. But Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academies, supported national population-control programs, saying that parents must be conscious of a nation’s concerns about large families.]

September 21, 2017
Stefano Gennarini

A papal commission is reviewing Humanae Vitae ahead of its 50th anniversary in 2018. Some worry the commission is part of a conspiracy to change the teaching of the Church on spousal love and procreation. It’s hard to say.

On the positive side, a review of Blessed Paul VI’s final encyclical could clear away many misconceptions about the magisterial teaching on the transmission of life, chief among them the notion that the Church should sanction population control to stop climate change and achieve sustainable development. A clarification on this subject is urgent because of the rapid resurgence of aggressive population control policies in Asia and Africa.

The Church has always emphasized the autonomy of spouses in all matters pertaining to procreation vis-a-vis the state. The magisterium has never sanctioned governments orienting or directing procreative decisions that are exclusively reserved to spouses.

Concern over the direction of the Magisterium in this area cannot be ruled out as speculative. Recent events at the Pontifical Academies for Science (PAS) and the Social Sciences (PASS) have created ambiguity in this area, and Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the academies, voiced these very views in a letter published by First Things.

“You will be aware that there are methods of regulating births and of population control that are approved by the Church,” Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo wrote in reply to my criticism when Jeffrey Sachs was honored by the Vatican academies two years ago. Sachs is a Columbia University economist who has spearheaded a neo-Malthusian revival in academia and at the United Nations, warning of humanity “trespassing planetary boundaries,” and writing that abortion is a low-cost solution to the problem of unwanted children.

More recently, in February the academies welcomed Paul Ehrlich alongside other renowned population control theorists for a conference on biological extinction. Ehrlich predicted the starvation of millions people because of over-population and resource scarcity in his famous 1969 book The Population Bomb. Though his predictions were wrong, he became a celebrity and helped trigger a wave of population control policies around the world, including forced abortion, forced sterilization, and coercive family planning.

The scandal of a pontifical body giving a moral imprimatur of sorts to Ehrlich has been addressed amply. The quality of the science on which the Vatican academies are relying has also been questioned. Very little has been said about the views on the Church’s teaching on the transmission of life that surfaced from the conference.

The bio-extinction conference, in their own words

To be clear, no one at the event said forcible population control is ever justified. Nevertheless, participants challenged Church teaching about contraception and supported the idea of population control, at least by means of state propaganda encouraging spouses to have fewer children.

Alongside the entirely laudable goal of promoting awareness of the threat of bio-extinction from a range of scientific perspectives, the academies embraced a kind of environmental determinism that looks at human reproduction as a mere bio-technical issue. A conference concept note cited the “carbon tax” and the “social rate of discount” as models of the kind of utilitarian calculus that it was hoped the conference would stimulate with regards to bio-diversity. Ehrlich is known for wanting to tax large families in this respect.

In a recent New York Times interview he said letting women have many children is like allowing them to dump “garbage” in their neighbor’s yard. A leaked draft of his paper for the Vatican conference on environmental websites, co-authored with Vatican academy member Partha Dasgupta, calls for environmental taxes and regulation to change not just behavior but social norms, because “responsible parenthood and consumption decisions at the individual level” result in a “collective failure” to protect the environment.

Their remarks during the conference, available on YouTube, were more guarded. Ehrlich candidly explained his reason for treading carefully. Even if Pope Francis agreed with conference participants, Ehrlich said, any final statement should be carefully drafted to “avoid it being used against the Pope” and to not “fire up his enemies.” All the same, Ehrlich asked that the final statement of the conference admit that “growth in consumption and population is not good for the future of humanity.”

Conference organizers and participants were similarly coy in deflecting attention from population control. They stressed economic inequality, blamed wealthy nations for overconsumption, and called for a redistribution of wealth. But they could not escape Ehrlich’s same conclusion.

After the event Peter Raven, a member of the pontifical academies chosen as spokesperson, claimed papal support for population control during a press conference.

“We need at some point to have a limited number of people, which is why Pope Francis and his three most recent predecessors have always argued that you should not have more children than you can bring up properly,” he said. But he denied wanting to change the teaching of the Church on contraception.

Further justification for population control came from Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo in a discussion with Jon Bongaarts, an influential population control theorist from the Population Council, a think tank founded by the Rockefellers in 1952 to convince developing countries to use abortion and contraception to reduce poor populations.

Bongaarts spoke of a great unmet need for contraception in developing countries, described population growth as a threat to development, and extolled the benefits of low fertility. He called the teaching of the Church against contraception an “obstacle” to development. Then he proceeded to list papal pronouncements about “responsible parenthood” in support of his work to promote contraception in poor countries. Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo did not dispute him. Quite the contrary.

Premising his remarks by saying that many people failed to understand the teaching of the Church, Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo said, “Many, many priests say to me that the great solution to the question of procreation is the education of women. When we have education, we don’t have children. We don’t have seven children. We have maybe one child, maybe two children, no more. This is also an obligation for the Church.”

He then read a portion of the English translation of article 2372 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“I want to say that also in the Catechism of the Church it says…the state has a responsibility for its citizens’ well-being. In this capacity, it is legitimate for it to intervene to orient the demography of the population. This is also an idea of the Catholic Church!” he said emphatically. “This” being the obligation not to have more than one or two children.

Then, bizarrely, Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo challenged spousal autonomy to make such decisions.

In his talk, Boongarts’ had commented that “no institution, nobody outside should tell or coerce couples to have either more or less children than they want,” politely offering an olive branch to a Church that has largely seen the work of his organization as hostile to the Gospel of Life.

Archbishop Sanchez Sorondo responded, “You say, only for the family. No! Also, the family needs to understand the situation of the country,” he said raising his voice.

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