What are the disasters which face the human race? I imagine that many would put climate change first. Others would choose increasing resistance to antibiotics. But I put population growth ahead of both, and, in this matter, the Church has not yet faced up to important issues.
Toward the end of last year the UN published its revised population figures. The revisions were frankly dramatic. The old projection to the year 2100 of 8.5 billion is now 11 billion. Many regions have remained stable, and even Asia’s high projections are lowering somewhat. Africa is the problem: its projection has risen from under 2 billion to over 4 billion. African fertility rates are high and the mortality rates from AIDS have lowered. Combine that with improvement in infant mortality and care for the aged and you have a recipe for huge population increases in countries which are in no condition to cope. Many Africans are ready to risk their lives to get into Europe today; what will they do with swollen populations and the advent of climate change? Get your imagination around that. (Gender selection in favour of males is a growing issue, especially in the East. A surplus of young immigrants soaked in testosterone is not a positive factor.)
The simple long term solution is to have a total fertility rate which reproduces the population plus manageable increase. In developed countries today this would be a little higher than two children per woman on average. (In many African countries the number is currently over five.)
Unfortunately this solution is more complex in the short term. The lowering of the fertility rate leads to a disproportionately high aged population compared to the economically active. To give you a flavour, by 2100 the ratio of workers to retired in the US will drop from 4.6 to 1.9; in China, from 7.8 to 1.8; in Nigeria, from 15.8 to 5.4. We are already seeing the effect of this in the UK. While these dramatic falls will stabilise when the correct fertility rate is established throughout all generations, it won’t be in our time. In our rich country, we already fail the aged poor.
So what is the Church offering? At one level it is heroic. It is the largest non-governmental provider of health care services in the world. Two thirds of its hospitals are in developing countries, and it manages over a quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. But where population control is concerned she finds herself in a position where her options are limited. Leaving aside doctrinal questions, the idea that natural family planning has a prospect of becoming sufficiently widespread to match population need is simply unrealistic. And the effect of this limitation reduces the possibility of the Church influencing family planning projects both in the protection of human rights and in the sad matter of abortion. She will be ignored as irrelevant.
The Church is the champion of openness to life, and we will be discussing just how this should be expressed in its fullest sense as we approach the Synod in October. There are certainly obstacles to be overcome. The crass use of abortion is favoured even by the great and the good; the preference for small families which ironically we see in countries we once thought to be Catholic such as Poland and Italy; and, more fundamentally, the separation of marriage from its procreative purpose.
Yet openness to life dares not be profligate. The natural fertility rate was set by blind evolution to counter the high infant mortality which preceded the 20th century. It stands at over 6 live births per woman – that is, around three times too high for current conditions. Compound tripling of the population would have staggered even Malthus. Do the maths! What are our responsibilities when a change in environment turns an evolutionary benefit into a threat? So one challenge for the Synod will be to show how this mismatch, brought about through improved living standards, should be corrected. Idealistic answers will not do; nor, I think, will we be happy to leave the solution, as we have done in many developing countries, to methodologies which we condemn – particularly when abortion will inevitably play a large part.
Leaving aside Jonathan Swift’s teasing solution to overpopulation and hunger in Ireland (they should eat their babies), it is essential to lower the fertility rate in poor countries, while encouraging a higher rate in developed countries. And, for the next century or two, we must accept the huge burden of caring for the elderly. These three challenges are interdependent. The Church will instinctively address two of them, but a reluctance to address the adjustment of fertility effectively, where this is needed, will make her appear to be the enemy of life rather than its defender.