Radiant Beams from the Gospel of Life

Chapter Seven: Overpopulation and Natural Family Planning

Pope John Paul II has not asked families to practice natural family planning to avoid overpopulation in the world. In Evangelium Vitae #91 he denounced the promotion of contraception, sterilization, and abortion as solutions for overpopulation: "The ways of solving the population problems are quite different." But he did not follow through with a recommendation that governments should promote natural methods of birth control instead of contraception, in order to curb overpopulation. That, I believe, is very significant; and very correct.

The Vatican Delegation at the 1994 International Conference for Population and Development in Cairo may have been tempted to propose ethical use of NFP, instead of contraception, to solve overpopulation. The delegation had an opening to ask, for example, that a fair share of the $17 billion dollars being asked for, to promote birth control in the world, should be set aside for teaching natural methods. But the delegation did no such thing. And now in Evangelium Vitae the Pope distances himself from the prevailing mind-set that birth control is needed to solve overpopulation. The Pope's solution is quite different:

The ways of solving the population problem are quite different. Governments and various international agencies must above all strive to create economic, social, public health and cultural conditions which will enable married couples to make their choices about procreation in full freedom and with genuine responsibility (Evangelium Vitae #91).

His critique of promoting birth control to solve overpopulation, in an earlier paragraph, is clothed in undramatic terminology, but beneath the surface its import is devastating. It is smooth-gloved diplomatic contempt for the very idea that birth control solves overpopulation. He implies that it is not even a "serious" approach to the problem, by contrasting birth control with other approaches which are "serious." He thus implies, without spelling it out, that birth control to cure overpopulation is a "childish" idea, immature, a pipe dream. What we really need are:

serious family and social policies, programs of cultural development and of fair production and distribution of resources" (#16).

Anti-birth policies, in the Pope's framework of thought, are not "serious" in the sense that they are worthy of sincere and thoughtful consideration. Admittedly, he continues, "contraception, sterilization and abortion are certainly part of the reason why in some cases there is a sharp decline in the birthrate" and the temptation to use these anti-life measures to meet a situation of a demographic explosion is ready at hand. But the policy is as wrong as was the command of Pharaoh to kill all the male babies of the Hebrews (cf. Ex 17-22). And that approach cloaks a refusal by policy-makers to meet the real problems connected with growing populations in a serious and realistic manner:

Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems ... they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive program of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy (#16).

What is needed is policies which respect human dignity, and which create the conditions in which individuals and groups can maximize their creative potential and realize them to the full in developmental activities. And that is part of the message the Pope proclaimed at the United Nations General Assembly on 5 October, six months after issuing Evangelium Vitae. We are a family of nations, he said, and need to solve our problems together in a spirit of one united and functioning family, in an exercise of mutual solidarity:

Yes, distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen! The international economic scene needs an ethic of solidarity, if participation, economic growth, and a just distribution of goods are to characterize the future of humanity. The international cooperation called for by the Charter of the United Nations for "solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character" (art. 1.3) cannot be conceived exclusively in terms of help and assistance, or even by considering the eventual returns on the resources provided.

When millions of people are suffering from a poverty which means hunger, malnutrition, sickness, illiteracy, and degradation, we must not only remind ourselves that no one has a right to exploit another for his own advantage, but also and above all we must recommit ourselves to that solidarity which enables others to live out, in the actual circumstances of their economic and public lives, the creativity which is a distinguishing mark of the human person and the true source of the wealth of nations in today's world (No.13).

The United Nations Organization, he continued, needs to rise to think about itself as a "family of nations." "In an authentic family the strong do not dominate; instead, the weaker members, because of their very weakness, are all the more welcomed and served" (No.14).

"We must overcome the fear of the future" continued the Pope. "But we will not be able to overcome it completely unless we do so together... "

We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue. With these gifts, and with the help of God's grace, we can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom. We can and must do so! And in doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit (No. 18).

In contrast with these noble aspirations of the Pope, how trivial, how mistaken, how negative are the anti-birth programs, which borrow a plume of respectability by association with the United Nations. The Pope rejects an anti-birth policy based on contraception utterly, definitively, consistently, and resoundingly. But he gives no sign whatsoever, that he wants governments or the United Nations to launch programs for the spread of natural family planning with the aim of solving overpopulation. Why not?

Decisions about Children Belong to Families, Not at all to Government and Social Engineers

If there is one single phrase which is practically sure to appear each time the Magisterium deals with the question of family planning, it is this: "The state may not legitimately usurp the initiative of spouses, who have the primary responsibility for the procreation and education of their children" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2372). The Church recognizes that the state may give "objective and respectful information" about demographic problems, but is certainly not entitled to use "authoritarian and coercive measures"(ibid.) And if I am not mistaken, the Church is distancing herself more and more clearly from the foggy notion that parents must take so-called overpopulation problems into consideration when deciding about how many children they choose to bear and educate.

The understanding of the Church is that the family is the primary cell of society, to which the state is subsidiary. That is, the state has no mandate from God to exist and operate on a basis which is independent of the welfare of families and individuals. It is families and individuals who "beget" the state as "their offspring." To the state these families and individuals delegate a limited amount of right and authority by which they capacitate the state to foster their individual, family, and common welfare.

What powers, then, do families give to the state to deal with problems of rapid population growth? Does that situation automatically give to the state the right to decide how many children parents may have? It certainly does not. The one child per family law now being ruthlessly enforced by the Government of China, has no validity in the moral sphere. It is a pseudo-law, one based on usurpation by a government of a right which belongs to families.

Yet, when Dr. Yin Wong sought to save a mother's baby who was a second child, she learned at first hand how insensitive to family needs and rights official workers can become when coerced by an unjust law. The baby she tried to save was eventually killed, because the government had made its birth - a second child - illegal. To her request to save the child came the answer: "Absolutely not!...This is a second birth!" Nothing she could do or say prevented the officials from killing the child. (See "A Question of Duty" in Reader's Digest, Asia Edition, October 1995). And that is wrong! And China's wrong policy will not last forever. The right order, which resilient society tends to restore in the long run, is that the state cannot make illegal what is by nature legal for families.

Overpopulation Policies Are Vipers' Eggs

The lie that contraception is good family practice squats on top of the other lie that birth-control solves overpopulation. The notorious team of birth-control promoters are now Planned Parenthood (PP) and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). They rationalize their wicked campaign for contraception by assuming blindly and irrationally that "Holy War" against births is good and necessary for the world. They tout Holy War as magic to make virtue out of the vices of contraception, sterilization, and abortion. Their ubiquitous propaganda is a mist of poison gas by which they attempt to paralyze better judgment and a sense of human dignity in our entire world family.

But no amount of public adulation put clothes on the naked Emperor, whose nakedness an innocent child pointed out. And no amount of propaganda can make truth out of the myth that contraception solves overpopulation. Imposed birth control deprives parents of the joys of generous family life without doing anything at all in the line of economic and social development. It builds no schools, establishes no hospitals, constructs no roads, lays out no orderly cities, produces no machinery, and cultivates no fields. Promoters of birth control are parasites who consume without giving, scavengers eating the carrion of silent consciences numbed by their poisonous culture of death.

As the Pope points out time and again, freedom must not be allowed to run wild by being severed from truth. When truth about overpopulation is suppressed, families lose their freedom to make their own decisions about bearing and rearing children. Tyrants rape and mug freedom when she is alone, not chaperoned by truth. The tyrant may be a government with an ideology, as in China; it may be a manipulator of public opinion which then becomes a tyrant, as happened in Japan and elsewhere. They treat truth like a potter shapes clay, to respond to current fancy.

Japan abruptly "re-shaped truth" about overpopulation in a surprisingly short time. Until 1945 the government extolled and decorated parents of large families as heroes and welcomed population growth as a national asset. But during the temporary period of post-war adjustment, when Japan's economic machinery lay in ashes, when 4.5 million soldiers and civilians returned from abroad, when husbands and wives were happily re-united after a long separation, population increased from 72.1 million in 1945 to 78.1 million in 1947 and 83.2 million in 1950. But now the government and the media hauled down the flag of welcome to population growth and turned on a screaming alarm as though the population growth were a destructive tsunami, a disastrous tidal wave. Whoever didn't obey the alarm - didn't practice birth control - was made to feel like a social misfit. Typical was the scolding of villagers about large families: "Look there! They have one baby after another! The government is telling us exactly what to do, and they ought to know!" A Catholic mother came to me weeping: she had four children, and neighbors were telling her she was selfish. So quickly had public opinion in Japan changed, when the media uncoupled freedom to propagandize from truth.

Even more dramatic was the change from a pro-birth to an anti-birth policy in China. At the 1974 World Population Conference at Bucharest the chief of the Chinese delegation gave a fiery speech, pouring scorn upon anti-population Malthusians. He shouted his speech in a barrage of words as though fired from a machine-gun, frustrating my attempt to take down notes, and challenging the racing interpreters to keep pace. Population is a plus! he thundered, when stupid governments don't mess things up:

One superpower asserts outright that there is a "population explosion" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and that a "catastrophe to mankind" is imminent. The other superpower, while pretending at some conferences to be against Malthusianism, makes the propaganda blast that "rapid population growth is a millstone around the neck of developing countries." Singing a duet, the two superpowers [USA-USSR] energetically try to describe the Third World's population growth as a great evil. If this fallacy is not refuted, there will be no correct point of departure in any discussion of world population. Of all things in the world, people are the most precious. Once the people take their destiny into their own hands, they will be able to perform miracles. Man as a worker and as creator and user of tools, is the decisive factor in the social productive forces. Man is in the first place a producer and only in the second place a consumer... (See Population and Development Review, June 1994, p.451).

Soon after the 1974 Bucharest Conference, however, China reversed its policy by 180 degrees. After adopting a totalitarian anti-baby policy, the pro-population rhetoric changed overnight, as swiftly as a Doctor Jekyll became a Mr. Hyde.

But we look ahead to better times for China, when her government will again adopt the basic insight that "of all things in the world, people are the most precious." This is more in accord with ancient Chinese wisdom than the current madness of the "one child policy." For as sinologist Dr. Chen Huang-Chang observes: "From the example of Confucius the Chinese always think that the population is the chief element of the national assets."

Confucius observed that the state ought to encourage immigration from foreign countries, and noted that if the ruler be of high quality, "the people from all quarters will come to him carrying their children on their backs" (see Chang, p. 180). Good government, then, is the key to turn population into positive national assets according to Confucian wisdom. [The above several paragraphs about China are adapted from Zimmerman 1996, Catholic Teachings, pp. 53-54).

Thus governments and manipulators of public opinion tend to change truth about population almost as they change clothes to suit the style of the day; whereas the Magisterium of the Church stands erect while the earth rolls on its axis. Three pillars of truth which the Church holds in reference to population problems are as follows:

  1. Contraception, abortion, and sterilization for contraceptive purposes are always wrong. Nothing can change that. Ever.
  2. Families, not governments, have the right to decide about the number of children
  3. Couples, for good reasons, may use natural family planning.

Does the Church also teach a 4th principle, namely licit or obligatory natural family planning for solving overpopulation? Negative, because human nature doesn't agree. Not now, at least.

NFP is Designed for Family Welfare Not as a Cure for Overpopulation

When our team of 65 contributors was preparing the book Natural Family Planning, Nature's Way-God's Way for the 1980 Synod of Bishops, a problem arose. One of the contributors had written that when a nation is overpopulated, couples have an obligation to reduce births; and when a nation is underpopulated, couples have an obligation to increase births. As editor of the book, I disagreed. And when I reasoned with the contributor, he agreed that we should expunge those sentences.

Natural Family Planning is a gentle art exercised together by consenting husbands and wives, who love each other, who love their children, who love the Lord and so obey His commandments. They strive to abstain from sexual intercourse periodically for the benefit of their families, and not for some far-away population problem mouthed by a government. Their periodic abstinence during 8-12 days or more of the monthly cycle is for them an important matter. To succeed smoothly they need to anchor their joint endeavor on truth, so that their sacrifices are meaningful to them.

They ideally aim to achieve what is best for their children. When they deliberately space births by the natural way, they do so out of love for the children and for each other. The mother should not overtax herself physically and mentally, the father should be a provider with some room to spare, the babies should get quite exclusive mother's love for more than a year. So they see the reason to abstain periodically. But reasonableness does not make it less trying. The wife feels the tension of depriving him, and may blame herself. They may snap at each other when the waiting is long. Or they wisely plan ahead to smooth their way through the rough waters. They wait, and pray, and welcome the honeymoon once more when the time is right.

Will the two offer these sacrifices month after month, year after year, for questionable reasons which they do not feel in their immediate family circle? Will they succeed in practicing periodic abstinence smoothly and lovingly in order to prevent world overpopulation? Can they convince themselves that another loving child of their own would be harmful to the world? Hardly! Parents cannot believe that their own beloved little ones can upset the world balance of population. NFP doesn't make sense to parents if they are not motivated by reasons of immediate family concern.

Common sense tells government agents and birth control providers, I believe, that they cannot convince the masses to use NFP to curb population growth. Parents may indeed respond almost like robots, if governments dispense Pills to them to "solve overpopulation." But the same parents would do a double take if governments teach NFP to "solve overpopulation." "Show me that we are overpopulated" might be a typical response. "We need to know the truth." The sacrifices of NFP are a litmus test for truth about overpopulation. Propaganda about overpopulation and birth control falls on deaf ears if the solution must be NFP. That's why overpopulation salesmen peddle pills and condoms.

But what about the future? NFP users will say: "Let's cross the bridge when we get there." They don't see the danger when they look through the sacrificial glasses of periodic abstinence. If ever population impinges its pressures on their family, that is the time when families, in a spirit of solidarity, can reasonably convince themselves to prevent another darling child from being born because there is real overpopulation.

But so long as "overpopulation" has easier and more proper solutions than curbing births, it is not reasonable to expect parents, on a large scale, to make the sacrifice of periodic abstinence for a cause that does not really affect their immediate family circle.

In Japan especially, public opinion and the entire economic and social system make it difficult for many parents to have more than two or three children. Do these social indications motivate parents powerfully enough to practice NFP? And is it ethical? Actually about a million couples in the nation already practice natural family planning, without condom or other, according to an extrapolation of figures from the 1990 national survey conducted by Mainichi Newspapers. If so many families do it, it must indeed be possible for them. Whether overpopulation is now an actual problem in Japan is another matter, but various pressures felt in the immediate family circle combine to motivate family planning. The same survey indicates that 15.5% of couples in which the wife is in the age bracket of 20-29 use the temperature method (Summary Report, p.58), although that part of the survey does not exclude the possibility that they use other methods in combination.

Responsible parenthood has wide limitations of legitimacy here. If parents in Japan feel less inclined to stand alone against these pressures, and do not wish their children to be subject to ridicule by their peers if they have many brothers and sisters, these pressures may be reasonable motives for parents to have fewer children than the ideal would be for them. The biased and skewed social conditions and public opinion provide some excuse for parents to go with the general trend, provided, however, that they do not use contraception, abortion, and sterilization. However, courageous parents who have the wherewithal should rather adhere to the truth of the matter, should exercise their God-given right to properly bear and educate a relatively large number of children (Gaudium et Spes, 50) and so eventually correct the social pressures against large families which are objectively wrong in the first place.

The Church and Responsible Parenthood

What is to be said about the passage in Humanae Vitae #10 which mentions duties toward human society as part of responsible parenthood? The passage reads: "Responsible parenthood requires that spouses recognize their duties toward God, toward themselves, toward the family, and toward human society, as they maintain a correct set of priorities." Those who believe that the world is really overpopulated may want to draw a conclusion from Humanae Vitae #10 that responsible parenthood uniformly forbids large families because the world is already assumed to be overpopulated.

Two responses must be given: 1) The Church has not acknowledged that there are too many people in the world; consequently she does not teach in Humanae Vitae #10 that parents ought to have fewer children today in view of such a supposed and non-validated problem. 2) Social circumstances may oblige or influence parents to have fewer children if the family has genetic defects which tend to make their offspring a burden to society; similarly, parents who neglect their duties to educate their children properly should not irresponsibly beget children whom they then impose upon society for their education because they themselves do not do their duty. Humanae Vitae #10 means, then, that parents must use foresight and prudence so that they strive properly to educate the children whom they bear.

As Pope John Paul II counsels wisely: "It is essential to resist the temptation of a dangerous short-cut, which would be to direct every effort to reducing the birth rate, regardless of method" (Angelus Reflection, 5 September 1994, referring to the Cairo Conference). In Evangelium Vitae the Pope repeats his constant advice to parents, namely that they should be generous in regard to rearing and bearing children:

In its true meaning, responsible procreation requires couples to be obedient to the Lord's call and to act as faithful interpreters of His plan. this happens when the family is generously open to new lives and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life even if (#97). This happens when the family is generously open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life, even if, for serious reasons and in respect for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely.


Wisely, the Church recommends, in season and out of season, that contraception is not good for humanity. But she also recommends that all married couples and all those preparing for marriage should be given a chance to learn the natural methods, and should be educated in self control. The Church, expert in humanity, proclaimer of the Gospel of Life, desires that parents be generous in begetting and rearing offspring.

Next Page: Chapter 8: Teaching NFP in Calcutta
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