VATICAN CITY — A closed-door, contentious workshop at the Vatican this week attended by Paul Ehrlich and other leading advocates of population control — a concept the Church has long condemned — is being described as scandalous by some Catholic experts in the field.
But the chief organizer, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has insisted it is about learning from world-renowned scientists to enable the Vatican to comment effectively on political, social or economic policies.
The Feb. 27-March 1 conference on biological extinction — entitled, “How to Save the Natural World on Which We Depend” and held jointly by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences — brings together a number of experts on sustainable development, including some who support population control as an indispensable condition for development and environmental protection.
In its pre-conference publicity, the academy said its aim is to look for “appropriate social conditions” to help prevent further biological extinction. It drew attention to the thousands of different species on the planet, stressed how many are threatened with extinction or are already extinct, and questioned whether the world is “able to support the demands that humanity has been making on it.”
The academy also warned that extinction of life-supporting species “will probably be the sin for which our descendants will be least likely to forgive us.”
The most controversial and well-known speaker at the workshop is Paul Ehrlich, who, in his much-criticized best-selling book The Population Bomb, published in 1968, strongly advocated population-control measures, including abortion, to protect the environment.
His radicalism has not attenuated over the years: In his 2014 book Hope on Earth: A Conversation, the U.S. biologist criticized “‘God-fearing’ people” for “trying to maintain their rigid positions, especially trying to control the lives of women.”
He added that such “rigid opposition” to “controlling reproduction” is “just as unethical as any major affront to the environment or terrorist act.”
The academy has invited Ehrlich because of his studies in the field of conservation biology. However, as fertility levels have fallen everywhere and stayed deeply depressed in much of the world, the biologist and other population-control advocates have not changed their position.
“If anything, with a weaker empirical case, they have become more touchy and aggressive,” said Glenn Juday, professor of forest ecology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks School of Natural Resources, who has been acquainted with Ehrlich’s scientific and popular work for a number of years.
The Church has always supported responsible parenthood and condemned coercive birth prevention as a means of dealing with environmental degradation.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches that the answer to questions connected with population growth must be sought in “simultaneous respect both of sexual morals and of social ethics, promoting greater justice and authentic solidarity so that dignity is given to life in all circumstances, starting with economic, social and cultural conditions.”
In his encyclical Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), Pope Francis stressed that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” and that to “blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
He slightly qualified those remarks, adding that attention needs to be paid to “imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations.”
But according to Riccardo Cascioli, president of the European Center for the Study of Population, Environment and Development, many of the speakers at the workshop call for the “physical elimination of the poor” in order to “eliminate poverty.”
In Feb. 25 comments to The Guardian newspaper, one of the conference organizers, the economist Sir Partha Dasgupta of Cambridge University, especially focused on Africa, where he predicted the population would increase from roughly 1 billion now to around 4 billion by 2100.
“Can you imagine what tensions there are going to be there, especially with climate change coming and hitting the continent more than anywhere else?” he asked. “What do you think is going to happen when the arid regions spread and 100 million Africans try to swim across the Mediterranean? It is terrifying.”
Ehrlich told the newspaper that what he believes is an unsustainable population increase is “wrecking our planet’s life-support systems,” and “we have the capacity” to halt it. “The trouble is that the danger does not seem obvious to most people, and that is something we must put right,” he said.
But for Cascioli, to have such speakers as Ehrlich address the conference “is a scandal.” Cascioli added that it is “no less scandalous” that John Bongaarts, vice president of the Population Council, and Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Footprint Network, will be taking part.
“They are all representatives of rich international organizations that have as their purpose birth control, whose idea is that a reduction of the population is the indispensable condition for development and environmental protection,” he said.
Their positions are “not only contrary to the teaching of the Church — they are against reality,” Cascioli added. “Western history is there to prove that the opposite is true. And these gentlemen are called to give lessons at the Vatican!”
In a standard conservation biology textbook that he co-edited with Navjot Sodhi, Ehrlich stated that human population growth “does much more than simply cause a proportional decline in animal biodiversity — since, as you know, we degrade nature in many ways besides competing with animals for food. Each additional person will have a disproportionate negative impact on biodiversity in general.”
“That’s his whole message in a nutshell,” said University of Alaska’s Juday. “It is a vast overgeneralization in its basic logical structure, it faces many counterexamples with serenity, and it ignores the increasingly painfully felt reduction in fertility across the world. Yet it persists.”
But he added that he thought it would be a mistake to accuse Ehrlich or the other participants in the workshop who also advocate population control “of insincerity.” He said it is as if their “one great idea,” which is always a “red flag” to scientists, fills a number of needs, including devoting all their energies to one cause, “as a means of filling the God-sized hole in their hearts.”
The alternative, Juday said, is “life-affirming and humane Catholic environmentalism,” which allows for “substantial collaboration” with the environmental movement to face real and serious problems. A number of scientists and academics, however, are seemingly convinced that they must “break the Church” through “pre-empting human reproduction by non-moral means,” he said.
Some Catholic scientists believe the outspoken population-control advocates now feel falsely encouraged due to the deference being shown to them by the Pontifical Academy, and other organizations such as the Order of Malta, which have at various times broken with Church teaching to allow the distribution of artificial contraception. They also feel it is less about dialogue and more about surrender to a worldly vision of development.
The Pontifical Academy’s Role
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a successor to one of the first scientific societies in the world, the Accademia dei Lincei, (“Academy of Lynxes”). That academy, established in Rome in 1603, once had Galileo Galilei as its president and now survives as a wholly separate institution.
The institution believes its contribution to the Church and the world is improved by the inclusion of scientists of various backgrounds, not only Catholics, but also members of other religions and atheists.
Pope Benedict XVI noted in 2012 the “urgent need” for continued dialogue between science and faith to build a future for “our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet.”
Juday said the academy’s belief is that if the Church and a variety of scientists “can agree that x or y or z is true, then when the Church bases one of its teachings or statements on such ‘consensus,’ there is a greater likelihood that the Church’s statement will be accepted.” Ehrlich, he added, “seems to fit the mold of a classic mid-20th century scientific materialist who fulfills this role.”
He also noted that another key speaker at the workshop, Peter Raven, has worked closely with Ehrlich on publications. A former faculty member at Stanford University, Raven was also a key figure behind the academy’s conference on climate change in 2015, attended by the U.N.’s then-Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. That conference, like the workshop, was notable for excluding anyone who might offer alternative views to the ones the academy was intent on pursuing, even if they might be considered legitimate Catholic views to hold.
For this week’s meeting, the academy has barred all reporters from covering the event, except for a press conference after it ends on Thursday, and also limited academics from attending. At least two had flown to Rome from the United States expecting to observe the workshop on the understanding that they could obtain accreditation, but after much prevarication, the academy also firmly refused them entry.
Some observers contend the restrictive nature of the workshop points to the Holy See drifting toward tacit and growing acceptance of some type of population control and argue that if the academy were firmly upholding the Church’s teaching, why would it be so guarded about this week’s meeting?
“This meeting is not an isolated incident,” said Cascioli. “It is the outcome of a process that has been going on for a few years, one that is leading the Holy See to become an instrument of the birth-control movement.”
Cascioli said that, for him, an “important turning point” was the acceptance of the concept of “sustainable development” in the encyclical Laudato Si. The concept, he said, “is based precisely on a negative conception of man and therefore aims to limit his presence from a quantitative point of view [birth control] and a qualitative one [economic development].”
This week’s workshop follows not only the controversy over the one-sidedness of the 2015 U.N.-backed academy workshop on climate change, but also the presence of Huang Jiefu, a Chinese government official, at an academy conference last month on organ trafficking.
Critics said Jiefu’s presence served as a propaganda opportunity to the Chinese regime, which has admitted to harvesting and trafficking organs from executed prisoners. Despite pressure from human-rights groups, the academy rejected requests to invite other specialists to give a more balanced and well-informed discussion.
One argument for allowing such figures as Ehrlich and Jiefu to attend these events is the hope that their exposure to the Church and her magisterium might lead to their openness to the truths of the faith or even conversion. But for this to happen, Juday believes “a clear, confident and accurate explication of the Catholic faith is essential at some point — pre- or post-decision.”
He said when non-Catholics see “more clarity and confidence” in the charitable proclamation of the faith, “the greater the number of obstacles that fall away and the greater the number of people who follow the prompting of conscience into the Church.”
For Cascioli, however, the academy’s approach to this workshop cannot be reconciled with the Church’s teaching against population control.
“There is an obvious inconsistency, which will have to burst at some point. You can continue to say that the Church is against birth control, abortion and forced sterilization, but if this ban is put into a discourse and a cultural climate in which man is considered an enemy of the Earth, it becomes clear that only a moralistic appeal will sooner or later be superseded,” he said. “The only way is to go back to rediscover Christian anthropology, which is the only one capable of giving a reason both for the existence of man and the care of creation.”
Bishop Sanchez declined to comment to the Register on the reasons for the restricted nature of the workshop or about the controversy surrounding it.
But in Feb. 2 comments to Catholic News Service, the Argentinian chancellor said: “Naturally, someone can say, ‘Oh, look who they have invited to the Vatican,’ but the positive side is that he can help us find the truth in the theme we are discussing.”
He said the object of the workshop and Ehrlich’s speech is not population control, but rather how to respond to the call of Pope Francis in Laudato Si to protect the diversity of plants and animals God created.
He said objecting to a scientist contributing “is not logical,” and critics are “always the same people” following “the logic of attack.” He said he was only interested in the speakers’ scientific achievements, their global reputation and the “conclusions that we will draw.”
“To imagine that the conclusions will contradict Church teaching on the gift and sacredness of human life is crazy,” he said, and suggested critics who reject scientific findings are “afraid of their own shadows.”
“Truly, I just don’t understand them,” Bishop Sanchez said. “Through dialogue, we are able to obtain much more than they are with their policy of always criticizing others.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.