THE BLOG

The Pope on Childess Couples

02/12/2015 08:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015
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Your Holiness, please do not disparage childless couples as "selfish" and "greedy." It's true that couples who do not enjoy children can make a "selfish" decision not to have a child. But some couples, even those who enjoy children, can elect to go childless because they are concerned that there are, or will soon be, too many human beings on the planet. Such a motivation is hardly selfish or greedy. To the contrary; it can reflect a deeply held concern about the damage that we are inflicting upon the natural world and what that means for future generations, not to mention all the other creatures with whom we share this planet.

All decisions about childbearing, including the decision to have a child, can be made for selfish reasons. As you acknowledged in your recent talk, couples may elect to have a child because children make their "hearts throb." Couples, of course, can also have children for "unselfish" reasons, but that's not necessarily a good thing. They may, for example, have children because their parents are demanding grandchildren. Similarly, a woman may not want to be a mother, but may end up having a child because her husband demands it.

Every child deserves, and needs, loving parents. The world, unfortunately, is filled with unwanted children who are abused or ill-treated, some of whom end up in orphanages. With 7.2 billion people on the planet, and population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, we do not need more unwanted pregnancies. The Global Footprint Network warns that we are already over-utilizing the world's renewable resources and exceeding nature's capacity to absorb carbon, pollution and waste. At present, we are consuming an estimated 150 percent of the world's annual supply of renewable resources, and by 2050 we will need two Earths to sustain us for the long haul. Unfortunately, we only have one Earth.

In your remarks in St. Peter's Square, you said that, "Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies. It is enriched, not impoverished." In a world with unlimited resources, having more children might, indeed, be enriching. We live, however, in a finite world with limited resources, and in many parts of the world today, large families are, in fact, impoverishing. In countries where chronic hunger is widespread, where farmland, water and other resources are in short supply, and where many children, particularly girls, are not enrolled in school, large families perpetuate poverty. You insist that "Children are a gift," but for couples already desperately struggling to feed their families, another child can be an unsupportable burden, not a gift.

Flying back from the Philippines earlier this year, you suggested in an interview that women do not need to have children "like rabbits." In truth, however, many women in this world have little or no control over how many children they will bear. That's particularly true in male-dominated societies where child marriage is prevalent, but it's also true in areas where women lack physical access to modern contraceptives or where religious teachings strictly prohibit their use.

Your Holiness suggests that low birth rates can result in a "depressed society," but research suggests just the opposite. Last year the United Nations published a World Happiness Report that ranked Denmark the happiest nation on Earth, followed by Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden. All of those countries have low birth rates. And, almost without exception, the unhappiest countries in the world are those with very high birth rates. Children can give joy, but where poverty and hunger persists, large families tend to generate hopelessness, not happiness.

St. Francis loved all God's creatures. Wherever he went, he made a point of preaching to birds, animals, and even fish, but the populations of those same creatures are shrinking today. Because of hunting, overfishing, and loss of habitat many species are on the verge of extinction. Our "unselfish" desire for more children is contributing to what scientists now refer to as the "Sixth Mass Extinction." By some estimates we are extinguishing species at a rate that is one thousand times higher than the natural rate of extinction. God may have given us dominion over all his creatures, but that does not give us license to exterminate them.

Childbearing is, and should remain, a highly personal decision. If every woman is able to decide --free from any coercion -- how many children she will have and when, the growth of world population will inevitably slow and eventually decline to more sustainable levels. Having smaller families may be deemed "selfish," but it is certainly good for humanity and for all the other creatures that call this planet home.