Man vs. Nature?

“Environmental stewardship” is a concept that has grown more important in Catholic political discussions over the past few decades. Our rights and responsibilities with respect to the natural world have been addressed in many recent social encyclicals, including Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. While the pope is quite clear that we are to respect the environment as God’s gift to all mankind, he also issues a grave warning against its elevation above human beings. This disordered view is both caused by, and further exacerbates, the disrespect for human life that is manifest not only in abortion and euthanasia, but also in scientific experiments on human embryos and manipulation of the human genome. The pope declares:

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It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. (51)

It would merely be unfortunate if the activists and officials that engage environmental issues simply compartmentalized their concerns about human welfare and the natural environment. Far more dangerous is an emerging tendency to view human beings in general, and childbearing in particular, as one of the chief threats to the environment.

One year ago, a study conducted by Oregon State University concluded that “having one less child” would be the best way for a family in the United States to reduce their impact on the environment, even more so than all of the energy-efficient cars and appliances that they could use in a lifetime. But it is the researchers at the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) at the London School of Economics who consistently make strident arguments for population reduction as the most effective way of combating global warming.

Their decision to look directly at how contraception would affect carbon emissions should be unnerving enough for Catholics: For every $6.63 spent on birth control, it would cost $31.48 to reduce carbon emissions with low-carbon technology by the same amount, in their estimation. But it is the shift in language that we ought to find more disconcerting. To quote the chairman of the OPT: “It’s always been obvious that total emissions depend on the number of emitters as well as their individual emissions.” Is this how we are to be seen by those who have arrogated to themselves the task of rescuing the planet? As “emitters”?


Those who think that the very question is alarmist would do well to consider the praise some of our Western intellectuals offer the Chinese population-control regime, which includes regimented family size as well as forced abortions and sterilizations. At the Copenhagen summit last year, Chinese officials proclaimed that, due to such policies, “China has seen 400 million fewer births, which has resulted in 18 million fewer tons of CO2 emissions a year.” Of course, the majority of those prevented births were not caused by forced abortion; rather, they are largely attributable to the fact that the Chinese government has promoted contraception to the point that “85 percent of the Chinese women in reproductive age use contraceptives, the highest rate in the world.”

Around the same time, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed his admiration for the Chinese authoritarian regime, lauding it as “a reasonably enlightened group of people” that can, without any checks or balances, impose whatever policies it sees fit “to move a society forward in the 21st century.” While this did not directly praise China’s population-control measures, a column in the Financial Post by Diane Francis caused quite a controversy for doing exactly that. In the midst of her alarmist screed forecasting the immanent doom of the planet if governments did not take sharp measures to reduce the population, she identified the main obstacle to this goal: “Leaders of the world’s big fundamentalist religions preach in favor of procreation and fiercely oppose birth control.”

Used in this pejorative sense, there is of course nothing “fundamentalist” about the largest religious organization on the planet that also happens to preach these unpopular ideas with the most resolve: the Catholic Church. But there is something quite fundamental about the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and the true purpose of sexuality. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote that, “to defend and promote life, to show reverence and love for it, is a task which God entrusts to every man, calling him as his living image to share in his own lordship over the world” (42). In bringing new life into the world, men and women take part in “a certain special participation” of spouses in the “creative work of God” (43).

Though her teaching is rooted in Scripture, the Church also recognizes the practical consequences of collapsing birth rates in the developed world. Returning to Caritas in Veritate, Benedict highlights an increased burden on welfare systems, a reduction in skilled labor, impoverished social relations, and “moral weariness.” He concludes, “It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person” (44).

In light of these considerations, Catholics ought to be cautious when participating in the great environmental debates taking place today. The hostility toward the Church for her teachings on sexuality — which Pope Paul VI anticipated in Humanae Vitae — has degenerated in many cases into vicious hatred. Though much of the media focus is on the sexual abuse scandals, it seems clear that the role the Church plays in obstructing the secular environmentalist’s view of “progress” is an even greater source of this hatred. It isn’t concern for children that is the driving force behind the attack on the Church and the pope, but rather concern that people will continue having them.

Though I disagree with many of the measures proposed by unelected international bodies to regulate emissions, there are sincere Catholics who are convinced that drastic measures must be taken to combat climate change and other environmental problems. They should have a full understanding of the philosophy and methods of those who have placed themselves in charge of addressing these problems, lest they end up supporting an international assault on human life and the family.


  • Joe Hargrave

    Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

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