According to general census data we are currently hovering at 7 billion people; a population that could comfortably fit in the land mass of Alaska. The general trend is that developing countries are expanding in population and wealthy countries are decreasing in population. As the Western, Northern Hemisphere, societies continue to fall short of “replacement levels” one wonders if these cultures will just melt away. On the other hand, as populations continue to grow in the Southern Hemisphere; there are fears of wars over limited resources and immigration problems.
How real and immediate are these fears? It sort of depends on who you talk to. Is it really about distribution of resources or have we really reached a global limit of resources? Are our resources really that limited or is it more a question of how we are managing them? If everyone could fit in “Alaska” then truly that must mean that we have vast tracks of land that are available for agriculture and resources?
I am sure some really smart people have done the math on both sides of this question; and it would be really interesting to look at the data. However, here are somethings that we can all agree on. The resources of the Earth are finite and only so many people can be sustained on its surface. Whether we calculate that it can sustain 10’s of billions of people or only a few billion more, there is still a limit.
But even deeper, the question arises; do we need to stretch the outer limit of this bubble? Do we really need to keep populating the earth until we all live in small, high-tech modulars, sustained on algae biscuits like the Borg? Is that really the height of human flourishing? Yeah, we could stream line the production processes of the world to a dictatorial, clockwork bureaucracy so that we can keep everyone alive; but is that what we want to do?
In Pope Francis’ recent letter Lauda Si he touches on the need to be mindful of the environment and populations density. He also mentioned that Catholics do not have to “breed like rabbits” and that we should practice responsible parenting. All of this raises a whole list of questions. Is it responsible for us to have children? Children are good, and having a large family is a beautiful thing, but maybe it is really a bad thing? Shouldn’t we, when discerning our actions, consider the needs of our neighbor and the world? If we have children, how many should we have?
I would argue the answer is yes to all these points; which may not be very helpful if we are looking for a straight forward answer.
In the past there has always been a simple solution to overpopulation; War, Famine, pestilence; death and violence. When your population got too big you just invaded the other and killed off the inhabitants. It was a rather efficient system.
However, now we’re civilized, we have contraception and infanticide. Instead of violence we have medicine; which in reality is just one big stopgap measure for the real work of human maturing; both as individuals and as a society. Like the invention of nuclear weapons, it uses technology to keep the peace but without addressing the issues. Eventually these selfish tendencies manifest in other ways. As Hollywood keeps predicting, humanity may, once again, use war and violence to solve the population crises.
There is however a different way; a way that Christianity has been preaching for a long time. It is the way of discernment and virtue.
This different way of living one’s life was expressed by Paul in the 7th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. In it he talks at length about some principles of discerning marriage and the single life. While the context of the discussion is the felt immediacy of Christ’s second coming; the principles he enumerates are universal. First of all, he calls on us to be attentive to the “times” the circumstances, in which one lives. He then calls on us to consider our own strengths and qualities when discerning whether one should be married or not. In other words, our vocation should be discerned through the eyes of both our desires and qualities and the needs of the world. As Paul continues to speak in this passage he walks a thin line between adjuring the Christians not to seek marriage for the sake of the Gospel but not saying that marriage is bad. In the end, what he wants them to do is to be discerning individuals who have their hands on the pulse of the Church and the world and out of that awareness make a decision.
Therefore, a cornerstone of the Christian revolution is that getting married and having children should not be a default position. That one’s success in life is not based on fecundity. This was revolutionary, in a special way for women, in the ancient world. In a way, Christianity was the beginning of feminism. Chastity and celibacy was no longer a failure to launch but a vocation that all Christians should consider. The needs of the world are great, come and give your life so that others can live. “Come follow me, and I will make you fisher of men.”
Is this possible? In the 1940’s 12 million American citizens, mostly men, left their homes, their wives and girlfriends, and embraced a life of obedience and simplicity for the sake of the common good. They put aside many of their dreams and ambitions for the sake of the urgent needs of the world. This event was World War II, and, as we know, many did not come back. The call to live poverty, chastity, and obedience for the common good is something that has been asked of others even in the greater society.
Throughout history the Church has held out the vocation of embracing poverty, chastity and obedience in order to attend to spiritual and material good of the greater human community. In light of the freedom of the Gospel message marriage becomes a vocation, a manner of giving one’s life, not a necessary means of dealing with loneliness. Furthermore, part of the work of the Church has always been to supply a frame work of community life and support for those who take on the single vocation.
So, am I proposing that a great portion of the world embrace celibacy and, there you have it, world population solved? They just all go and become priest, monks, and nuns and we balance everything out.
Let’s not over simplify the paths of Christian discernment.
First of all, consecrating your whole life to God and the needs of the world doesn’t need to be limited to priesthood and religious life. The Peace core, foreign missions, social services, doctors who can serve low income people, even serving in the military are all a myriad of ways in which a single individual, who has great freedom for generous service, could give their life for others.
Second, it doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. Generously giving the first years of ones adult life in service to others and to God is a completely legitimate way to live the Christian life. There is no requirement to be married at 20 or 22. Giving yourself generously to service and programs of education and formation is an excellent way to discern ones vocation, grow in virtue, and perhaps meet someone who has the same aspiration for virtue as you do. Already, in modern societies, people are waiting until they are older to get married, and thus, naturally having fewer children. What is being rejected is foregoing marriage so that you can sleep around, indulge in the selfish pleasures of being a bachelor, and avoiding commitment.
Third, we need to stop thinking of the single life as a failure. On the other hand, I think it should be a natural thing for all Christians to consider it as a possibility for themselves. It is a legitimate vocation that the world needs. These are people who have no dependents who have the freedom and availability to do great things for others.
In this vision marriage and having children should never spring up from desperation. Our happiness should not depend on when or if we can marry. When an individual has this freedom of heart they are able to demand a high standard for their future spouse. Having accepted the possibility of living a generous life for others; a Christian entering into marriage has the maturity to embrace the cross of the married life. This attitude also enables the couple to embrace both the possibility of being infertile (and thus the possibility of opening their house to the orphaned) and to the possibility of being blessed with great fecundity (because embracing marriage and sex means they have embraced the risks of having children and all that it entails).
How might we summarize this third way; this Christian response to the pressures of population growth? First, Christians embracing the priesthood, religious life, and single life should be a common phenomenon that we should celebrate. Those who embrace the single life with the intent of generous self-giving need the support of a community; which is what the Church was meant to be. Second, there is nothing wrong with dedicating the first years of your adult life to ministry, formation, and education. Spend a few years in the missions, live a few years in a religious community, join the peace core or the armed forces; allow yourself to be formed so that if you enter marriage you will have a firm foundation. Third, your happiness should never be dependent on marriage and children. These are modes of self-giving not desperate requirements. The greater our freedom of heart the more likely we will discern well. Fourth, marriage should be open to life. If we choose to have only three by nature; we should seriously consider the possibility of opening our doors to adoption, according to our means. Marriage should never be a place where we rest, where we stop the work of discernment through artificial barriers; where we simply silence the invitation to greater generosity.
In the end, Christians were already addressing the fundamental issues of overpopulation before it even became a fad. Using overpopulation as a validation for artificial contraceptives is to give up on inviting others to the work of discernment and virtue. It is dehumanizing. On the contrary, the Christian world view sees over population as a positive thing. It means that we can go beyond surviving as a species and attend to the work charity and the spiritual goods with greater freedom.