From the 1998 Inside the Vatican 

Special Supplement on Humanae Vitae

A member of the Holy See’s delegation to recent 

UN conferences on population assesses the global political scene in 1998


By James T. McHugh, Bishop of Camden, New Jersey, USA

Bishop James T. McHugh of Camden, New Jersey (USA), is one of the leading Church figures in the world on issues related to population control and family planning. In the US, heis thedirectorofthe bishops’ conference’s Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning. He is also a special advisor to the Mission of the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York. He served as a member of the Holy See’s delegation to the UN conferences on world population in Bucharest (1974), Mexico City (1984) and Cairo (1994). He is a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family. Here he gives the Vatican’s perspective on the current efforts underway worldwide to impose methods of population control condemned as immoral by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae.

Thirty years ago Pope Paul VI issued his great encyclical — Humanae vitae — on the regulation of birth. The encyclical touched off a firestorm of ridicule and rejection, along with a well-organized dissent on the part of theologians. Most of those who rebelled im- mediately and stridently had not read the document. It was not that its reasoning was flawed or incomplete; it was simply that its conclusions were unexpected and unaccept- able to the world of the late ‘60s. Remember, this was the decade of the sexual revolution in which sexual intercourse was torn from its moorings of marital love and mutual respon- sibility.

Within the Church, the issue of birth con- trol had been under study by a Papal Commission and expectations in some circles ran high for a change in teaching. The contra- ceptive pill promised to be the answer to family planning, as well as to all other exer- cises of sexual encounter. There was little receptivity in these circles for a carefully rea- soned document that looked at sexuality in the context of conjugal love, responsible par- enthood, the sanctity and value of human life and the importance of sexual self-restraint.

Thirty years later, we can look back and realize that Paul VI may not have written in the expectation of popular acclaim, but rather to call the world to a deeper appreciation of marriage and parenthood. Much can be said of the many themes of the encyclical. The purpose of this essay is to zero in on one topic--population--and follow the Church’s adherence to the principles of Paul VI through the last three decades.

Humanae Vitae and Population Policy

In the very opening paragraphs of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI noted the changes taking place in the world that prompted his writing the encyclical. Paragraph two of the encyclical states:

“In the first place, there is the rapid demo- graphic development. Fear is shown by many that world population is growing more rapid- ly than the available resources, with growing distress to many families and developing countries, so that the temptation for authori- ties to counter this danger with radical mea- sures is great. Moreover, working and lodging conditions, as well as increased exigencies both in the economic field and in that of education, often make the proper education of a larger number of children difficult today. A change is also seen both in the manner of considering the person of woman and her place in society, and in the value to be attrib- uted to conjugal love in marriage, and also in the appreciation to be made of the meaning of conjugal acts in relation to that love.”

Over the years, the emphasis on rapid population growth, depletion of natural re- sources, shortages of food and water, sparse employment possibilities as well as the con- centration on women’s issues were con- stantly played up in the battle for ever more stringent measures of population control.

Paul VI was keenly aware of the popula- tion question which he had addressed con- sistently on a number of occasions prior to Humanae Vitae. He emphasized the princi- ples on which population policies should be based. His writings provided a foundation that was expounded and applied in papal and curial statements, especially those ex- pressing the position of the Holy See at Unit- ed Nations Conferences on population. A brief overview of the development of Paul VI’s thinking will give better understanding to Humanae Vitae and subsequent documents of John Paul II and other Vatican offices.

Before proceeding to this review, it is important to emphasize that the Church has not rejected government efforts in establish- ing population polices, but has urged that such efforts be carried out in a positive way supportive of human dignity.

For more than 40 years, debates about population policy have been taking place in the United Nations, in governmental assem- blies throughout the world, and in the com- munications media. For practical purposes, two different approaches have emerged:

(a) the developmentalist approach, which emphasizes the need for socio-economic development which would inevitably result in a decrease in birth rates; and

(b) the “family planning first” approach, which calls for determined efforts to de- crease birth rates as a pre-condition to aid from developed nations or international agencies. Paul VI, from the outset, adopted and encouraged the developmentalist ap- proach.

On October 4, 1965, addressing the Unit- ed Nations General Assembly in New York, Paul VI encouraged U.N. efforts to maintain peace and foster the development of peoples. Asserting that “human life is sacred” the Holy Father urged the U.N. to search out ways of providing sufficient food for the entire human family, and he explicitly rejected the “family planning first” approach: “Your task is so to act that there will be enough bread at the table of mankind and not to support an artificial birth control that would be irrational, with the aim of reducing the number of those sharing in the ban- quet of life.” (The banquet of life metaphor came from Thomas Malthus.)

In 1967 the Pope addressed population in the encyclical Populorum Progressio. The two para- graphs 36 and 37 are quite similar to Gaudium et Spes 87, issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Since these are the pivotal texts, they can be considered together. Both documents take the developmentalist approach, and explicitly reject the family planing first approach. Both documents then assert the following basic principles:

(1) Granting that rapid population growth may impede the development process, governments have rights and duties, within the limits of their own competence, to try to ameliorate the popula- tion problem. These are described in terms of pro- viding information concerning the impact of popu- lation growth, and also in terms of legislation and programs that will help families.

(2) Decisions regarding the size of the family and the frequency of births should be made by the parents, without pressure from the government. Such decisions are premised on a correctly formed conscience that respects the Church’s authentic interpretation of the Divine law in regard to the means used. In the formation of conscience, cou- ples should take into account their responsibilities to God, to themselves, the children they already have and the community or society to which they belong.

(3) The family is the basic social unit, and it should be protected from pressures that prevent it from pursuing its legitimate goals, especially in terms of family size, and it should be given assis- tance by society in regard to education, stable social conditions and the welfare of its members.

(4) In many countries there is a need to adopt new methods of farming and new forms of social organization. Some antiquated customs, even those related to the family (e.g. inheritance of land, dowry systems) should be changed or abandoned if they impede the development process.

(5) In addressing question of sexual morality, the Church begins with an integral vision of the human person, created in the image of likeness of God, redeemed by Christ and given title to eternal glory. This is the basis of human dignity and human rights.

Populorum Progressio urged that people be in- formed of scientific advances in methods of family planning that are medically safe and morally acceptable — a reference to natural family planning which was expanded in Humanae Vitae (16).

Humanae Vitae (1968) used almost the same language as Populorum Progressio regarding the role of the rightly formed conscience (10). The en- cyclical then went on to reaffirm the Church’s tradi-tional prohibition of artificial contraception, steril- ization or abortion as means of family planning (cf. 10-14).

Humanae Vitae also urged public authorities to protect the family unit from legally authorized im- moral practices in regard to demographic problems, and to choose instead to heighten efforts to bring about a just and equitable socio-economic order that supports the family and assists couples in ob- serving the moral law (23).

1974 International Population Conference

The U.N. Population Year, 1974, and the World Population Conference at Bucharest, provided an occasion to apply Paul VI’s teaching in a specific way. Late in 1973, the Vatican Secretariat of State circulated to the episcopal conferences a confiden- tial document prepared by the Committee for the Family providing information and direction in regard to the planned U.N. activities. The document subsequently became public. It asked episcopal conferences to cooperate with the Holy See in preparing for Population Year and to provide infor- mation to their people and their governments.

The document pinpointed specific responsibili- ties of episcopal conferences:

(1) to analyze closely and pass judgment on the moral aspects of initiatives of government agencies and private organizations;

(2) study the positions that the government will take on the proposed agenda, and where possible, make some recommendations to the government;

(3) try to insure that representatives of episcopal conferences and Catholic organizations, and the- ologians and scholars present clearly and forth- rightly the teaching of the Church as contained in Gaudium et Spes, Populorum Progressio and Hu- manae Vitae. The document drew attention to the danger that Population Year might become the platform for those within the Church who reject the magisterial teaching to propound their own views and represent them as a “quasi-official position.”

The document then summarized the points con- tained in the Church’s teaching: “The fundamental values which moral teaching must now underline particularly are, among others, the meaning of pro- creation, the responsibility of those who exercise it, respect for life and its transmission, the nature of the marriage act which must remain open to the transmission of life, the right to life, the rights of the family as the fundamental cell of society, the quali- ty of life, the nature and the just demands of the national and international common good.”

But the document also stressed a positive effort to motivate people to show respect for human life, for the human person and for the family.

Moreover, it noted that “Population Year could be the right time for intensifying our concern and our efforts in the service of life and for creating a cli- mate of social justice and social institutions favor- able to life.”

The document saw two extreme attitudes that warranted correction:

(1) the assumption that population growth must be slowed in any way possible because “we should not allow people to be born if their life may be completely frustrated”; and

(2) the tendency to deny or ignore any popula- tion problems at all.

The former tendency ignores solutions in accord with human dignity and the latter position ignores the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood.

The document also listed certain points that should be included in a population policy:

(1) definite support for the dignity and stability of the institution of the family;

(2) safeguarding the rights of family members by the avoidance of policies favoring contraception, sterilization, abortion and lack of respect for the dignity of either party;

(3) concentrated efforts to achieve social justice;

(4) considering population policy as only one aspect of a sound development policy;

(5) efforts to develop positive attitudes toward sexuality, including information on natural family planning methods.

This document of the Committee for the Family was quite comprehensive and detailed, and in its delineation of the responsibilities of episcopal con- ferences, perhaps more specific than any previous other document from the Holy See.

On March 28, 1974, Pope Paul VI met with Rafael Salas and Antonio Carillo-Flores, U.N. offi- cials responsible for the World Population Year and conferences. The Holy Father again emphasized that the activities of World Population Year could be beneficial if they stressed social justice instead of radical measures to decrease population growth. Pope Paul urged a holistic approach in which all factors received proper attention: “the demands of social justice as well as respect for the divine laws governing life, the dignity of the person as well as the freedom of peoples, the primary role of the family as well as the responsibility proper to mar- ried couples.”

To sum up, Paul VI recognized the problems of population growth, but he clearly asserted that those problems could be resolved, basically by an emphasis on socio-economic development. He warned against destructive population policies that would include coercive measures to enforce the one-child family, mandate abortion or sterilization, punish couples that exceed the government norm by refusing them social benefits, housing or employment opportunities or other social or eco- nomic benefits. While opposed to artificial means of birth control, the Church has never insisted on unlimited reproduction on the part of couples, approving and encouraging the use of natural methods of family planning as part of responsible parenthood. The Church has also recognized the valid concerns of governments in regard to popula- tion issues, which have been the source of debates at population meetings.

Bucharest to Cairo

The 1974 U.N. Population Conference at Bucharest was followed by similar conferences in 1984 at Mexico City and 1994 at Cairo. The Holy See took an active role in each conference, rising to a high level of visibility at Cairo. But each of these conferences, and numerous other international meetings, were premised on the fear that world population was growing so rapidly that it canceled out development efforts, generated widespread poverty, threatened the environment and limited the rights and opportunities of women. In effect, the propaganda machine was at full throttle, and objective evidence was ignored or misinterpreted.

So, for instance, in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the gloom-doom specialists overshadowed the demog- raphers. Paul Ehrlich warned that “the population bomb” was ticking, Garret Hardin worried that there wouldn’t be enough room on “spaceship earth” and the Club of Rome came up with a computer prediction that population problems would virtual- ly destroy the world in the 1990’s. What has really happened?

World population has gone from 4 billion per- sons in 1974 to 5.7 billion in 1995. According to carefully drawn and universally accepted U.N. pro- jections, global population will increase to 9.4 bil- lion in 2050, 10.4 billion in 2100, and stabilize at about 11 billion in 2200.

Declining fertility and mortality rates will lead to dramatic population aging. In the U.N. medium-fer- tility scenario, those aged 60 years or above will increase from 10 to 31 percent of the world popu- lation between 1995 and 2150.

The ultimate world population size of nearly 11 billion persons, again according to the medium fer- tility scenario, is 0.7 billion persons fewer than pre- viously published by the United Nations in 1992, mainly due to larger-than-expected declines in fer- tility in many countries.

Clearly, the world of the 90’s is not overpopulat- ed, and not likely to be. Actually we do not know the limits of population growth. Some speculate that the carrying capacity of spaceship earth is up to 40 billion persons. Far more important, the present problem is decline in population in the developed nations of the world.

A recent New York Times article (July 10, 1998) reviews the impact of present trends, especially in Europe. There we are faced with widespread low fertility rates, less than two children per family in many places and well below that in parts of Italy. Bologna records the lowest rate in the world — .7 children per family. The U.N. reports that the devel- oped countries of North America, Europe and parts of Asia will decline in their proportion of the world’s population while the developing countries — South America, Southeast Asia, Africa — will increase.

This has serious repercussions on socio-eco- nomic development because the work force will decline in the wealthy, industrialized countries where workers are needed to insure production of goods. There will be more workers in developing countries but they will be largely uneducated, untrained and unemployed because the developing nations have not yet been able to train the work force and create the manufacturing and production capacities to be suppliers of consumer goods. Developing nations need technology, capital funds, machinery and education assistance from the developed countries to overcome poverty and assure that nations and peoples become indepen- dent and secure. This assistance also prepares some workers to be part of the labor force that will be needed for basic services in the wealthier coun- tries. So the U.S. will need workers from South America, Europe, from Africa and Asia, and within Asia, there will likely be mobile work forces.

Europe is faced also with an older population, as is the United States. In Europe, by 2050, there will be twice as many old people as young people, with governments encouraging early retirement.

Italian demographer Massimo Livi-Bacci says the whole system is backward. “We have the best pen- sion system in Europe and the worst system of fam- ily support. Rich old people supported by the labor of poor young people. No wonder no one wants to have a family.”

And French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais notes that the decline in population rates in devel- oping countries has distracted us from the grave problems of Europe. “We must look beyond simple numbers,” says Chesnais, “because you cannot have a successful world without children in it.”

We are at a point where the social scientists are beginning to sound like Paul VI.

But don’t be distracted by the objective facts. Werner Fornos, a population control spokesman, is in the press one day later warning us that world population will double in less than 50 years and we must take strong measures to bring about popula- tion stabilization now.

John Paul II and Cairo

Paul VI probably could not foresee the demo- graphic changes of the 90’s, nor the continued struggle that the Church would be caught up in. But John Paul II has led the Church forward, especially with his highly visible, dedicated and effective lead- ership at the 1994 Cairo Conference.

By Cairo the ground had shifted and the abor- tion issue was center stage. In 1984 at Mexico City the Holy See was successful in introducing a para- graph to the Plan of Action urging governments “to take appropriate steps to help women avoid abor- tion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning and whenever possible, provide for the humane treatment and counseling of women who have had recourse to abortion.” This was adopted by consensus, with the support of many western nations and the United States.

But in preparation for the 1994 Conference, the Clinton administration was committed to eliminat- ing this paragraph and its intent. Efforts were made continually in the preparatory meetings to cancel the paragraph or reduce it to vagueness.

The pro-abortion strategy was to emphasize the right to sexual health and reproductive health, and to include abortion as a reproductive health service.

It fell to two women, Gail Quinn and Sheri Rickert, on the Holy See Delegation to carry the de- bate and in the process to be the victims of verbal abuse by the American feminist gang. But in the end, Malta and a number of Latin American nations, along with Muslim delegations, rejected the Amer- ican efforts and the anti-abortion sections re- mained.

Meanwhile, John Paul II took up his own strate- gy. He met with the Secretary General of the Conference, Dr. Nafis Sadik, who supported the American efforts and tried to facilitate the pro-abor- tion efforts.

John Paul also addressed diplomats and Curial officials, and issued a series of weekly statements pointing to the dangers of the Cairo conference. He personally followed the events by daily reports from the Holy See delegation in Cairo.

In the end, the Holy See prevailed in supporting the family, parents, human dignity and the need for developed countries to assist the developing coun- tries. The Mexico City language against abortion remained.

Where from Here?

Cairo gave way to the International Women’s Conference in Beijing where the same issues were debated again. The Holy See anticipates that the struggles of Cairo will be replayed at every interna- tional meeting, as well as the annual meetings of U.N. Commissions and Agencies.

The Church’s witness to the sanctity of human life is its major responsibility as the century comes to its end. John Paul II is well aware and deeply committed to proclaiming and implementing the Gospel of Life.

The Church remains loyal to the legacy of Paul VI, a legacy in which he was secure and from which he took hope. This was shown dramatically in what was his final public Mass and homily before his death.

On June 29, 1978, in St. Peter’s Basilica on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Paul VI reviewed what he considered the most important endeavors and teachings of his pontificate at a time when, in his words, “the natural course of our life goes toward its close.” He described Humanae Vitae as a specif- ic part of his overall commitment “to defend life in all the forms in which it can be threatened, dis- turbed or even suppressed,” in fulfillment of Vatican II’s mandate to safeguard human life.

He noted that his program of respect for life in- cluded emphasis on socio-economic development, especially for the Third World, as expressed in Populorum Progressio. It also included defense of life at its very beginning, and the Pope quoted the Gaudium et Spes (51) condemnation of abortion.

The Holy Father then called special attention to Humanae Vitae in which he sought to protect mar- riage and the family from civil legislation that threatens the marriage bond or the inviolability of human life in the mother’s womb. The Holy Father also noted his concern for young people, who suf- fer most from the disruption of family life.

There are many who see Humanae Vitae as an encyclical that was never accepted and has eroded the Church’s teaching authority. But they are wrong. Paul VI believed it was the fulfillment of a charge given the successor of Peter by the Second Vatican Council. Teaching the truth and defending the sanc- tify of life, said the Holy Father, “is the untiring, watchful and consuming purpose that has carried us forward during these 15 years of our pontificate. ‘I have kept the faith!’ we can say today with the humble but firm consciousness of never having betrayed ‘the holy truth.’”

Six weeks later, on August 6, 1978, Paul VI entered “the final and beatifying encounter with the Lord.”

— Most Reverend James T. McHugh, Bishop of Camden, July 14, 1998