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Pope Benedictís ethical critique of global issues

By Bruce Duncan - posted Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Pope Benedict’s World Day of Peace for January 1 this year not only highlighted the Church’s advocacy for social justice and peacemaking, but it anticipates the Pope’s ethical critique of globalisation in his forthcoming social encyclical.

Curiously the Pope’s January statement received little analysis in the media, despite the papacy being a major moral actor in international diplomacy and even more so in social movements and organisations worldwide. Benedict and Vatican officials comment constantly in international forums about pressing social issues, from appeals to protect human rights in Gaza or Africa, to urging greater efforts to eliminate hunger and poverty.

Entitled Fighting Poverty to build Peace, the Pope’s statement highlights “the negative repercussions for peace when entire populations live in poverty”. It urges renewed efforts to improve living conditions, including “safeguarding the environment and above all … defence of the family” (#5). Benedict also laments the “immense military expenditure” which diverts resources from development efforts (#6).


The Pope urged that “people everywhere feel personally outraged by the injustices in the world and by the concomitant violations of human rights” (#8). He reiterated pleas to give “priority to the needs of the world’s poor” (#13) and urged Christians to help “not only by ‘giving from one’s surplus’, but by ‘a change of life-styles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power’”. (#15). Many readers would heartily endorse these views.

Yet Benedict’s statement gives surprisingly little attention to the global economic crisis, including the rising costs of food in poorer countries. There is little critique of the neo-liberal economic philosophy underlying the financial debacle, even though such a critique has long been part of the Church’s social tradition. Presumably the forthcoming encyclical will stress more strongly the Church’s teaching on distributive and social justice, and the need to support equitable policies of redistribution, while also still taking global warming into account.

However, many people will query the document’s treatment of population issues: “Poverty is often considered a consequence of demographic change. For this reason, there are international campaigns afoot to reduce birth-rates, sometimes using methods that respect neither the dignity of the woman, nor the right of parents to choose responsibly how many children to have; graver still, these methods often fail to respect even the right to life. The extermination of millions of unborn children, in the name of the fight against poverty, actually constitutes the destruction of the poorest of all human beings” (#3).

The Church’s strong stand against abortion is well known, including when it is used as a means of birth control. And it is true that some birth-control campaigns have violated the rights of women and used coercive methods, including abortion, as has occurred in China. Such abuses have been strongly condemned at international conferences by feminists and human rights advocates as well as religious groups. Most commentators would insist that if such coercive or manipulative practices are reviving, they should be stopped.

The World Day of Peace statement continues that the proportion of people living in absolute poverty has been halved since 1981 “and whole peoples have escaped from poverty despite experiencing substantial demographic growth” (#3). However, the statement does not connect the dots here: that much of this improvement has been in China, with its stringent one-child policy!

Fighting Poverty to build Peace contends that the new economically powerful countries “have experienced rapid development specifically because of the large number of their inhabitants … In other words, population is proving to be an asset, not a factor that contributes to poverty” (#3).


In my view, this is too sweeping. Population growth can aid economic development, as in Australia. But development economists are generally of the view that rapid population growth can put great pressure on resources, making it extremely difficult to lift peoples out of acute deprivation.

In such circumstances families and communities may feel morally obliged to reduce their birth rates. Individuals would have a duty to consider these issues when deciding the number of their children, but governments would also have a role to moderate population growth, using morally acceptable means, if it were clearly for the common good.

These considerations were recognised by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae as far back as 1968:

In relation to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised, either by the deliberate and generous decision to raise a large family, or by the decision, made for grave motives and with respect for the moral law, to avoid for the time being, or even for an indeterminate period, a new birth.

Responsible parenthood implies therefore, that husband and wife recognise fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values (#10).

Pope Paul did not endorse abortion as a means of birth control, of course, since he insisted firmly that the unborn had an innate right to life. But he recognised that the complex issues of population and poverty are distinct from the question of abortion. Moreover, he acknowledged that parents needed to consider what the common good might require in deciding on the number of their children.

The forthcoming encyclical on globalisation will likely deal with these issues in a more comprehensive way, though it seems that the population question may prove controversial. Hopefully, differences of view on population will not undermine current global efforts to reduce hunger and poverty.

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About the Author

Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest and lives in Melbourne

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