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Is the Pope heeding warnings about population?

According to an unconfirmed report, Pope Francis has urged people to have fewer children in order to address environmental concerns. However, the Catholic Church’s opposition to artificial contraception remains in place.

The report emerges after patrons of Population Matters Sir Partha Dasgupta and Prof Paul Ehrlich warned a conference in Vatican City this week that the “richest array” of plant and animal life ever seen is disappearing from the Earth “in the blink of an eye” and that “humanity is busily making it worse”.

In the comprehensive, deeply researched and sobering paper they presented at a scientific workshop on Biological Extinction at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences this week, the two scientists wrote:

“the driving force of extinction, the ultimate cause of the current sixth mass extinction crisis is much too high a level of … consumption – produced by human numbers multiplied by too high a level of consumption among the rich.”

The paper concludes:

“The short-range solutions to the problem of preserving biodiversity … will all prove to no avail unless the basic drivers of extermination — continued population growth, policies seeking economic growth at any cost, over-consumption by the rich, and racial, gender, political, and economic inequity … are addressed.”

The ‘population bomb’

Paul Ehrlich is one of the world’s most high profile population campaigners and wrote the hugely influential The Population Bomb in 1968. His attendance at the event provoked objections from some Catholics because of his powerful advocacy for family planning.

The Catholic Church opposes artificial contraception although it is used widely by Catholics and predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Portugal have some of the world’s lowest fertility rates.

At the end of the conference, a statement was issued which acknowledged the massive increase in human population but did not discuss the role of family size. According to the Mail Online, one delegate claimed the Pope “urged us to have fewer children to make the world more sustainable”. Pope Francis has expressed strong concerns about the environment and over-consumption in the past. There have been suggestions that he may have a more flexible stance on contraception than previous popes but the policy has not been changed.

Some Catholic scholars have challenged the Church’s policy, maintaining that in the 21st century, birth control is not just “permissible” but “morally obligatory”. They note the essential role of family planning, particularly in the developing world, in empowering women, preventing child and maternal death and helping to lift communities and nations out of poverty.

UPDATE: Following the conference, a statement was issued which acknowledged the massive increase in human population but did not discuss the role of family size.

Why population matters

Stabilising population and bringing it into balance with what the Earth can provide will help to address the critical challenges of the 21st century, including eliminating poverty, reducing conflict and moving from environmental crisis to a healthy planet that can sustain us all.

Find out more about population and Population Matters.


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