In 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical upholding the Catholic Church's ban on artificial means of birth control, talk of a population explosion was frequently countered by arguments that impressive advances in food production proved the Earth could easily accommodate the expected growth. Now, 25 years later, the signs are not encouraging. Sometime soon, the Earth will reach its "carrying capacity," the point at which its resources cannot sustain greater numbers of people.
Many people who watch critical indicators think this point is now within sight. World grain production has fallen 8 percent over the past eight years, while the land available for grain production and the effectiveness of fertilizers are declining.
Population is increasing by 91 million people each year, which means that every three years the world adds numbers equivalent to another United States. Unfortunately, the population increase isn't coming in countries most able to accommodate these people but in the poorest nations. In many parts of the world, rapid population growth is putting severe strains on political, economic and social institutions.
So it is ironic a church pronouncement that should have provided enlightenment and guidance in areas important both to the family and to society is noted primarily for how widely it has been disregarded among Catholics. The document, though, had considerable impact on an institutional level.
Because of the Vatican's influence, a number of governments around the world have faced active opposition to family planning and AIDS prevention efforts. For example, during his 1991 visit to Brazil, Pope John Paul II called the country's family planning programs "gravely illicit."
Yet the choice for impoverished Brazilian parents can be either birth control or having more children than they can care for, with the castaways living as the ubiquitous "street children" in Brazilian cities (many of whom are subject to "extermination" by "death squads" as in Rio de Janeiro last week). Another curious result in Brazil of the church's opposition to most forms of birth control is the high rate of births by Caesarean section -- simply because a Caesarean birth provides a medical justification for contraceptive sterilization.
As the world adjusts to a more crowded future in which resources are limited, it needs the moral guidance that religion can provide. So far, the failure of church leaders to modify Catholic teachings to reflect new understandings of human reproduction and population realities has damaged its ability to play a more compelling role in this debate.