Population Policy and the Roman Catholic Church

By Robert Kyser
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 5, Number 3 (Spring 1995)
Issue theme: "Religious lobbies and the immigration debate"

What may be perceived as 'Catholic-bashing' should not be allowed to detract from this book's important argument Roman Catholic theology and moral teaching in the area of population growth are a danger to humanity.

More people means more intense problems for the planet, for nations, and for the United States - problems of security, as more and more people contend for the same amount of real estate and for other resources. Stephen Mumford performs a great service in bringing back into focus the bold initiatives of Richard Nixon and the Rockefeller Commission, and in bringing to light the resulting National Security Study Memorandum 200 and its fate.

The United States was on the edge of new strategies to deal with population growth in the early '70s. Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book The Population Bomb and the beginning of Earth Day observances in 1970 created a climate in which President Nixon could call for high-level studies of what population growth would mean for the U.S., as well as the security of other nations around the world. The Rockefeller Commission was authorized by Congress in 1970 and reported two years later, making recommendations for plans and policies for population stabilization, including immigration policies. The legalization of abortion, expanded sex education, the fostering of voluntary sterilization - these were hallmarks of a recommended national population policy that understandably hoisted red flags among the Roman Catholic bishops, who are charged with preserving a different set of doctrines regarding human reproduction.

National legalization of abortion became a reality with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in the Roe v Wade case. In the wake of that event, the American bishops prepared a 'Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities' in an attempt to turn the tide of public opinion against legalized abortion. It was a plan to mobilize every Catholic organization, create new structures, and investigate every avenue for molding public opinion and influencing legislation in an effort to preserve the church's teaching about contraception and abortion - a teaching with which many Catholics disagreed, and with which many Protestants agreed.

National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) was a follow-up to the Rockefeller Commission report which had recommended a study of the ramifications of rapid population growth for the security of the United States. Signed for President Nixon by Henry Kissinger, the memorandum led to a compilation of extensive research which was delivered to then-President Ford in 1974. The national effort was underway to really grapple with the issue of population growth in the U.S. and across the world. What happened?

Stephen Mumford has served the cause of population control well by collecting under one set of covers the full texts of the Nixon message to Congress, the report and recommendations of the Rockefeller Commission, the National Security Study Memorandum and the resulting National Security Decision Memo. He then details the vigorous campaign the Catholic bishops mounted to reverse the climate of liberalization that was threatening Catholic doctrine. The American press shied away from challenging the Catholic church in its transparent use of tax deductable dollars to achieve political goals.

Catholic pressure on presidential campaigns is well documented in the campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as in the re-election of President Nixon. Undoubtedly there has been input by the hierarchy into administration staffing of key agencies and departments so that policies in concert with Humanae Vitae could be fostered. One must admire the foresight and strategy of the bishops' Pastoral Plan.

But Dr. Mumford changes our focus and ranges too far afield when he charges the Vatican with undermining the security of the United States for the sake of the security and survival of the papacy. True enough, the Roman church has painted itself into a corner on the issues of contraception and abortion, and now cannot reverse itself in the light of new scientific knowledge without undermining the teaching magisterium of an infallible papacy. The German theologian Hans Küng said it best 'The only way to solve the problem of contraception is to solve the problem of infallibility.' Still, we shouldn't charge the church with anything beyond vigorous efforts at self-preservation - efforts that have often been none too subtle.

'More people means more intense

problems for the planet, for nations,

and for the United States -

problems of security, as more and

more people contend for the same

amount of real estate

and for other resources.'

It is only with reluctance that one faults Dr. Mumford for his belligerence toward the Roman Church. He has spent his entire professional life helping people in poor countries find safe, effective and inexpensive methods of family planning. Yet he, and many of his colleagues, have found themselves hamstrung at every turn by Roman Catholic teaching. Consider how the efforts of the American Congress to fund United Nations population planning programs were effectively hindered during the Reagan years. The entire world could watch as the Vatican used its questionable member status at the UN in an attempt to derail the recent Cairo population conference. Dr. Mumford understandably feels thwarted, but he goes too far in seeing behind every disappointment a Machiavellian plot by the Vatican.

For example, Mumford states (p.339) that he finds it hard to believe that Princeton University Press would publish a book by Julian Simon maintaining that resources are unlimited and there can be no such thing as overpopulation. Because this line of reasoning coincided with Vatican teaching, Mumford charges there must have been covert pressure on the publishers from that source. Similarly, the existence of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition is cited (p.267) as part of Roman church strategy to preserve the papacy rather than as a simple matter of the politics of pro-life issues making strange (ecclesiastical) bed fellows. It is this kind of argumentation that diminishes an otherwise excellent report on how the momentum for population control was lost in the wake of the 1972 re-election campaign, resulting in withdrawals of funding and in subsequent appointments of unsympathetic judges.

The Life and Death of NSSM 200 is a valuable book as it brings to light the substantial scholarship and concern that went into discussions of population growth and the dangers to U.S. security that would result from ever-growing competition for resources. It would have improved the book if the author had placed as appendices the sections on the struggle over infallibility that took place within the church in 1871, about Pope John XXIII choosing that name to resurrect opposition by a prior pope to claims of infallibility, and the point that in a move by the Vatican to study ways to endorse birth control measures, current Pope John Paul II had written the minority report that backed the anti-contraception teaching of Humanae Vitae. NSSM 200 would be a better and more useful book still had it not included extensive allusions to papist plots to overthrow the American democracy. A useful antidote to these sections can be found in A Catastrophe in the Making, with Letters to the Pope by agriculture specialist Keith C. Barrons (Tampa Mancorp Publishing, Inc., 1991).

Dr. Mumford has prepared an eloquent case for putting the United States government back on the track of dealing realistically and constructively with exponential population growth. ;

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