Letter: Catholic perspective on rapid population growth

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Sir: Conor Cruise O'Brien's lengthy attack ('A holy and explosive alliance', 26 August) on the Pope's attitude towards the UN Population and Development Conference caricatures the Catholic Church's teaching. The Second Vatican Council and successive papal documents have fully acknowledged the problems of rapid population growth. The problem is not population itself, but the well-grounded fear of depletion of resources, degradation of the environment, and also the complex linkage with poverty - Dr O'Brien's 'misery' under multiple forms.

Like Dr O'Brien, I quote one statistic only: the 5 million children born in one year in the developed world will consume far more than the 90 million children of the less developed countries. Our consumption degrades the environment directly; and indirectly through the Third World by the distorting effects of our demand, of inappropriate technology transfer and of structural readjustment programmes.

Dr O'Brien's observation of present conditions in the Third World leads him to suggest, in effect, fewer people and therefore fewer people in misery. Would it not be just as important, and less despairingly passive, to tackle directly present conditions - the lack of access to resources of water, food, sanitation, shelter, primary health care (including maternal health), land, education (particularly for women) - just as urgently as helping to finance more narrowly focused reproductive and sexual health care programmes? This is particularly important when social spending has been cut back in many of the poorest countries. Social development is the way to make it possible for the perceived needs and experienced wants influencing individual choices about family size to be brought into balance in Third World countries, as they have been in the wealthy developed countries.

The Catholic Church urges responsible choices on parents, and supports natural family planning as a means suitable to enhance joint responsibility between man and woman. A series of articles in the British Medical Journal (autumn 1993) documented from field trials the efficacy and suitability of this method for less developed countries, where motivation is strong. Like the UN, the Catholic Church rejects any coercive element in family planning programmes and, like many of the development agencies, the UK government and the international consensus of 10 years ago at Mexico, the church rejects the attempt to make abortion an accepted means of population control.

The Catholic Church is an international organisation quite uniquely independent of ties to any of the world blocs. It is free to criticise any defects in capitalism, Marxism, and even in the Third World, as well as to appreciate their merits - and that would apply to the 'values of the Enlightenment' as well.

Yours faithfully,


Assistant General Secretary

Catholic Bishops' Conference

of England and Wales

London, SW1

26 August