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Catholic Perspectives on Climate Change and Population
What does the Church say about population control and climate change?
The Holy Father and the U.S. Catholic Bishops recognize climate change as a moral issue which threatens Creation, places added burdens on poor people, and compromises the common good of all. The Church also maintains that acceptable means to address climate change must meet the Church’s standards of morality. These standards include an authentically Catholic Pro-Life position which uncompromisingly excludes abortion, artificial contraception, and/or sterilization, and which forcefully reaffirm the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition, the dignity of the person and the unique mission of the family, where one is trained in love of neighbour and respect for nature. (Pope Benedict XVI, 2010 World Day of Peace Message If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Care for Creation)
Some environmentalists and environmental organizations have called for population control and artificial means of family planning as a way to address climate change, arguing that fewer people on the planet would reduce the amount of climate-changing greenhouse gases. However, as Cardinal Justin Rigali pointed out in his 2009 Statement for Respect Life Sunday:
- As used by population control advocates, the innocuous term ‘family planning’ includes abortifacient contraceptives, sterilization, and manual vacuum aspiration abortions. He went on to conclude that, Death is not a solution to life’s problems. Only those who are blind to the transcendent reality and meaning of human life could support killing human beings to mitigate economic, social or environmental problems.
In order to faithfully address the moral imperative of acting on climate change the Church is focused on the lifestyles, industries and consumption habits of industrialized nations and their citizens as these are the primary drivers of climate change. For example, the average American’s energy use leaves a carbon footprint that is 2,000 times larger and deeper than a poor person in Africa. And 80 percent of global emissions come from just 20 percent of the world’s population. As Pope Benedict XVI has observed:
- It is all too evident that large numbers of people in different countries and areas of our planet are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment (2010 World Day of Peace Message If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Care for Creation #7)
As with other social concerns, the protection of human life and the promotion of human dignity are guiding principles calling us to action and provide a vital framework for discerning among options in addressing climate change. Below, you will find a number of quotes from Church officials which further highlight and express the interrelated issues of protecting the sacredness of human life and dignity and using properly the earth’s resources in addressing climate change.
The Sacredness of Human Life and the Imperative to Respect Human Dignity
From Pope Benedict XVI:
- The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.
- Hence I readily encourage efforts to promote a greater sense of ecological responsibility which, as I indicated in my Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, would safeguard an authentic “human ecology” and thus forcefully reaffirm the inviolability of human life at every stage and in every condition, the dignity of the person and the unique mission of the family, where one is trained in love of neighbour and respect for nature.
- Sad to say, it is all too evident that large numbers of people in different countries and areas of our planet are experiencing increased hardship because of the negligence or refusal of many others to exercise responsible stewardship over the environment.
- If we wish to build true peace, how can we separate, or even set at odds, the protection of the environment and the protection of human life, including the life of the unborn? It is in man’s respect for himself that his sense of responsibility for creation is shown.
From the U.S. Bishops:
- Population and climate change should be addressed from the broader perspective of a concern for protecting human life, caring for the environment, and respecting cultural norms and the religious faith and moral values of peoples. Population is not simply about statistics. Behind every demographic number is a precious and irreplaceable human life whose human dignity must be respected.
- A more responsible approach to population issues is the promotion of “authentic development,” which represents a balanced view of human progress and includes respect for nature and social well-being. Development policies that seek to reduce poverty with an emphasis on improved education and social conditions for women are far more effective than usual population reduction programs and far more respectful of women’s dignity.
- We should promote a respect for nature that encourages policies fostering natural family planning and the education of women and men rather than coercive measures of population control or government incentives for birth control that violate local cultural and religious norms.
- Thus, the Church addresses population issues in the context of its teaching on human life, of just development, of care for the environment, and of respect for the freedom of married couples to decide voluntarily on the number and spacing of births. In keeping with these values, and out of respect for cultural norms, it continues to oppose coercive methods of population control and programs that bias decisions through incentives or disincentives. Respect for nature ought to encourage policies that promote natural family planning and true responsible parenthood rather than coercive population control programs or incentives for birth control that violate cultural and religious norms and Catholic teaching.
From Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia, Chairman, Pro Life Activities, USCCB
- Some environmentalists now claim that the most efficient way to curb global climate change is to make “family planning” more widely available in the developing world. . . As used by population control advocates, the innocuous term “family planning” includes abortifacient contraceptives, sterilization, and manual vacuum aspiration abortions.
- Death is not a solution to life’s problems. Only those who are blind to the transcendent reality and meaning of human life could support killing human beings to mitigate economic, social or environmental problems.
Proper Use of the Resources of the Earth Intended for All
From Pope Benedict XVI:
Papal Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, July 7, 2009
- The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries. Those countries lack the economic means either to gain access to existing sources of non-renewable energy or to finance research into new alternatives. The stockpiling of natural resources, which in many cases are found in the poor countries themselves, gives rise to exploitation and frequent conflicts between and within nations.
- Furthermore, as I noted during the recent FAO World Summit on Food Security, “the world has enough food for all its inhabitants” (Address of 16 November 2009, No. 2) provided that selfishness does not lead some to hoard the goods which are intended for all.
From Pope John Paul II:
- It is manifestly unjust that a privileged few should continue to accumulate excess goods, squandering available resources, while masses of people are living in conditions of misery at the very lowest level of subsistence.
From the U.S. Catholic Bishops:
- The global climate change debate cannot become just another opportunity for some groups—usually affluent advocates from the developed nations—to blame the problem on population growth in poor countries. Historically, the industrialized countries have emitted more greenhouse gases that warm the climate than have the developing countries. Affluent nations such as our own have to acknowledge the impact of voracious consumerism instead of simply calling for population and emissions controls from people in poorer nations.
To learn more about Church Teaching on Respecting Life, see the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Pro-life Activities webpage.