Man vs. Nature?

“Environmental stewardship” is a concept that has grown more important in Catholic political discussions over the past few decades. Our rights and responsibilities with respect to the natural world have been addressed in many recent social encyclicals, including Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. While the pope is quite clear that we are to respect the environment as God’s gift to all mankind, he also issues a grave warning against its elevation above human beings. This disordered view is both caused by, and further exacerbates, the disrespect for human life that is manifest not only in abortion and euthanasia, but also in scientific experiments on human embryos and manipulation of the human genome. The pope declares:

It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. (51)

It would merely be unfortunate if the activists and officials that engage environmental issues simply compartmentalized their concerns about human welfare and the natural environment. Far more dangerous is an emerging tendency to view human beings in general, and childbearing in particular, as one of the chief threats to the environment.

One year ago, a study conducted by Oregon State University concluded that “having one less child” would be the best way for a family in the United States to reduce their impact on the environment, even more so than all of the energy-efficient cars and appliances that they could use in a lifetime. But it is the researchers at the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) at the London School of Economics who consistently make strident arguments for population reduction as the most effective way of combating global warming.

Their decision to look directly at how contraception would affect carbon emissions should be unnerving enough for Catholics: For every $6.63 spent on birth control, it would cost $31.48 to reduce carbon emissions with low-carbon technology by the same amount, in their estimation. But it is the shift in language that we ought to find more disconcerting. To quote the chairman of the OPT: “It’s always been obvious that total emissions depend on the number of emitters as well as their individual emissions.” Is this how we are to be seen by those who have arrogated to themselves the task of rescuing the planet? As “emitters”?


Those who think that the very question is alarmist would do well to consider the praise some of our Western intellectuals offer the Chinese population-control regime, which includes regimented family size as well as forced abortions and sterilizations. At the Copenhagen summit last year, Chinese officials proclaimed that, due to such policies, “China has seen 400 million fewer births, which has resulted in 18 million fewer tons of CO2 emissions a year.” Of course, the majority of those prevented births were not caused by forced abortion; rather, they are largely attributable to the fact that the Chinese government has promoted contraception to the point that “85 percent of the Chinese women in reproductive age use contraceptives, the highest rate in the world.”

Around the same time, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed his admiration for the Chinese authoritarian regime, lauding it as “a reasonably enlightened group of people” that can, without any checks or balances, impose whatever policies it sees fit “to move a society forward in the 21st century.” While this did not directly praise China’s population-control measures, a column in the Financial Post by Diane Francis caused quite a controversy for doing exactly that. In the midst of her alarmist screed forecasting the immanent doom of the planet if governments did not take sharp measures to reduce the population, she identified the main obstacle to this goal: “Leaders of the world’s big fundamentalist religions preach in favor of procreation and fiercely oppose birth control.”

Used in this pejorative sense, there is of course nothing “fundamentalist” about the largest religious organization on the planet that also happens to preach these unpopular ideas with the most resolve: the Catholic Church. But there is something quite fundamental about the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and the true purpose of sexuality. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote that, “to defend and promote life, to show reverence and love for it, is a task which God entrusts to every man, calling him as his living image to share in his own lordship over the world” (42). In bringing new life into the world, men and women take part in “a certain special participation” of spouses in the “creative work of God” (43).

Though her teaching is rooted in Scripture, the Church also recognizes the practical consequences of collapsing birth rates in the developed world. Returning to Caritas in Veritate, Benedict highlights an increased burden on welfare systems, a reduction in skilled labor, impoverished social relations, and “moral weariness.” He concludes, “It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person” (44).

In light of these considerations, Catholics ought to be cautious when participating in the great environmental debates taking place today. The hostility toward the Church for her teachings on sexuality — which Pope Paul VI anticipated in Humanae Vitae — has degenerated in many cases into vicious hatred. Though much of the media focus is on the sexual abuse scandals, it seems clear that the role the Church plays in obstructing the secular environmentalist’s view of “progress” is an even greater source of this hatred. It isn’t concern for children that is the driving force behind the attack on the Church and the pope, but rather concern that people will continue having them.

Though I disagree with many of the measures proposed by unelected international bodies to regulate emissions, there are sincere Catholics who are convinced that drastic measures must be taken to combat climate change and other environmental problems. They should have a full understanding of the philosophy and methods of those who have placed themselves in charge of addressing these problems, lest they end up supporting an international assault on human life and the family.

Joe Hargrave


Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

  • JC

    In _The Abolition of Man_, C. S. Lewis says that “Man’s Conquest of Nature” is not so much the conquest of Nature but the conquest of the majority by the elite using nature as their tool. He includes contraception in that. Ironically, the Environmental Movement today is doing the same thing from the opposite direction, though it still includes contraception in the plan: now, it’s *opposition* to technology being used as a means towards control

  • matt

    I agree it is ridiculous to treat the environment as an end to itself in the same way human life is. But I am curious what the Church’s teaching is on the protection of higher forms of animal life. It seems unlike the environment as a whole these creatures are valuable as ends in themselves (not on par with human life of course, but not simply valuable as a utility to human’s either or just simply property). I am mostly talking about non-human primates, cetaceans, elephants, dogs, cats and a few others. Their lives and their suffering are important and unless there is some very good reason to kill them, I would think there would be some serious prohibition against it. If there is, then you might also consider this would extend down somewhat to lesser animals as well. In wealthy countries there is almost no reason to be killing any animals other than the pleasure of hunting or eating them (medical research is probably a different question), and since there is a high cost involved and it is generally considered a less healthy diet anyway, where would be the justification? I don’t want to appear self-righteous or hypocritical here, I do eat meat. But i do see a genuine moral dilemma in the fact there is no good reason in the west other than pleasure and maybe some social convenience. Those dont seem like very good reasons to kill something that has value that is not simply human utility (if you agree to that anyway). Just a moral problem i have been bouncing around in my head and have never heard what the church has had to say on this one.

  • H Karlson
  • Mundabor

    By reading these idiots one would not be surprised if one of these geniuses would extol the positive effects on emissions of a nuclear war. Yes you would have some extra emissions in the beginning but it is only a matter of time until they get recovered and from there, it is all profit…

    The peak of the stupidity must have been that movie last year (can’t remember the title, thankfully) in which people from another planet decide to kill the human race because the human race is “kiling the planet”. Besides being a blasphemy, a complete inversion of values. I am afraid many among the public didn’t get either.

    G.K. Chesterton said that when people stop believing in God, they start believing in a lot of other things. Environmentalism is a beautiful example of this.


  • Deacon Ed

    about environmental issues and the natural order, I interpret it as a call to once again read the scriptural account of creation and the natural order in Genesis. Let the environmentalists ponder the truths contained therein before moving forward – especially those parts having to do with the sins of pride and disobedience.

    And when it comes to the issues of population control and the environment, let’s remember the part about being fruitful and multiplying. I think it’s high time for the bishops to collectively call Catholics to be open to children and not just the 2.1 children per family that Catholics manage to pump out during the time of their married life. (I find it truly amazing that in a religion like ours which hold contraception as an evil and where marriages may last 30 years or more, that Catholics are able to produce only 2.1 children per family. Most Catholic families must purchase at least 5-6 new vehicles during that same period).

    If the Chinese mandate only 1 child families, would it be too much of a stretch for Catholics, who purport to understand God’s design for creation, to be encoruaged to have 5 children per family at a minimum. After all, aren’t we going to need sufficient numbers of Church militant if we are going to have any chance of effectively evangelizing the Muslim world?

  • Austin

    “Deacon Ed” presumes to make everyone have at least 5 children? Deacon Ed knows little of what he is talking about and for him to suggest forcing people to have more children than they can handle, is a receipe for misery and disaster. His simplistic comparisions of children to vehicles seem to indicate a mind that is incapable of serious thought, just parroting what the hard right tells him.

    Perhaps he should focus more on his own flaws and worry less about how many children other people have. I would never presume to tell other people how many children they should have, but Deacon Ed seems to think he has the right to do so. Duh?

    Let me inform you of some basic facts: virtually every couple I know has contracepted and many of them have been married for 30+ years and have good marriages [a big myth that couples who contracept get divorced]. They are good parents and good citizens and frankly, you have no business worrying about their sex lives. I am getting sick and tired of reading the falsehoods that are promulgated on this website and this is my final post.


  • Kathryn

    Ok, I’ll come out and say it: I’m not a fan of big families. I mean, if you want one (I once wanted 8 and a dog) fine. No problem. Your choice. We have a more modest sized one (more than 2.1 however.) Maybe part of that is sour grapes on my part. In the end, God did determine our family size, and we are incredibly averaged size for our area. No standing out in a crowd for us. No nasty comments in the grocery store line about “not knowing how that happens” or “how to prevent it from happening.”

    But there is NOTHING wrong with Deacon Ed suggesting that Catholic familes be “encouraged” (Yea, he said ENCOURAGED, not “forced”) to have 5 kids (even at minimum).

    I think the people who are contracepting ‘n’ sterilizing and then whining about the Church proclaiming it evil are being w-a-y over sensitive here.

    Incidentally, the contracptive assault on human life is also an assault on aquatic life. Chemical contraceptive found in run off water that goes into streams and lakes is partly (mostly?) responsible for the altering of fish and amphibian reproductive organs.

  • Jim B

    The point is the two competing camps of philosophy and who is winning the hearts and minds and framing the discussion. One side (the Church) sees a hierarchical creation with man at the top being given responsibility for stewardship. The other (Secular) is pantheistic. Unless you understand that basic difference the conversation can quickly degrade into meaningless Cul de Sacs about “what to do” (sounds a lot like congress now that I mention it).

    The reason this distinction is so important is the consequences for both the planet and humanity if the philosophy behind the argument is wrong. Just yesterday there was an article plastered all over the MSM about the latest book by Stephen Hawking saying God did not create the universe.

    God did not create the universe, says Hawking…in_hawking

    The ramifications of believing this secular gospel go far beyond winning a theological debate. It is precisely this phony “science” that is used to back totalitarian methods such as China’s one child policy and forced sterilization – all in the name of “saving the planet”.

    This is precisely the philosophy backing the “philanthropy” of our “celebrity” oligarchs like David Rockefeller, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah et al.

    Meeting of America’s Richest About ‘Need,’ Attendee Says
    Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett Discuss Coming Together ‘to Do More’…545&page=1

    David Rockefeller has been quoted as saying that he believes China is a “model for the world” regarding economics and policy making. It is also used in shaping polices and programs at the UN, World Bank and IMF.

    Many people here in n the US are oblivious to this and even if they are aware, take the attitude that it doesn’t affect them. That blissful ignorance (or willful support) is precisely what allowed the health care bill to be passed here in the US, and anyone who doesn’t believe that the regulations that were left to the Secretary of Health & Human Services as a result of that bill won’t incorporate the policies of the money backing the politicians who passed it are either ignorant or complicit.

    Population control of “lesser developed countries” has been official US policy since 1974 and it has never been revoked. For more information see:

    Kissinger Report 2004
    How U.S. foreign policy uses population control to exploit third world economies.…eport.html

    As the US economy continues to be systematically dismantled and shipped overseas, it will become more and more difficult to pay for all the phony promises of the health care bill. That bill (and the upcoming climate change bill) are the US version of “karma”. People need to wake up and smell the fair trade coffee.

  • Ann

    Austin, I hope this doesn’t mean you’re leaving for good. I enjoy your comments. In fact, I often don’t comment because you’ve already written what I was thinking in a more eloquent fashion that I would have.

    96% of married Catholics in America use some form of non-church approved BC. I suspect it’s even higher, more like 99.9999999% over the course of the entire marriage. Is it the train that’s left the station, or should we kick everyone out? IDK.

  • Deacon Ed

    couple know how many children they can afford unless they actually have that many children? Sometimes we forget that this is America and not the Sudan.

    I arbitrarily stated “5 children” but I could have easily said “15” or “3”. My point is we are not open to life. To new cars, HD TVs, electronic gadgetry, vacations on the Cape, etc etc, we are very open. I have never once heard any couple say: “We can’t afford cell phones.” But children are not affordabe because we ply ourselves with visions of having to live in the streets, wearing ragged clothes and our children with bloated bellies if we have more than 2.1 children.

    “Your 2.1 children will be like olive plants on your table.”

  • Brian English

    “By reading these idiots one would not be surprised if one of these geniuses would extol the positive effects on emissions of a nuclear war. Yes you would have some extra emissions in the beginning but it is only a matter of time until they get recovered and from there, it is all profit…”

    A nuclear war does far too much harm to the environment. However, I am sure many of the anti-life environmentalists would love to see a plague wipe out most of the planet’s population.

  • RK

    The west is breeding itself out of existence. Americans and Europeans whine endlessly about immigration yet the immigrants are filling a void left by the sterility of selfish westerners. We’re supposedly the most enlightened and advanced people in history but we’ll soon disappear because the “more fit” immigrants from Mexico and the Arab world view children and life as a blessing.

    Some day the church’s strong position on contraception will be seen as wise. Unfortunately it’ll probably be too late for the survival of the west.

  • Ben


    Surely, more than one in a billion Catholic married couples faithfully follow the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception–don’t you think?

    Hyperbole aside, since when does fidelity to Church teaching become a measure of that teaching’s truth? As a thought experiment: what percentage of American male Catholics, do you think, never once violate the Church’s teaching on pornography in their entire lives? How many people consistently follow the Church’s teaching on less sensational sins; say, gossip? Are these also trains that have left the station?

    The Church isn’t really in the business of kicking people out–not as a primary function. It’s there to call sinners to repentance. But to do that, She has to call sin what it is.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    My wife and I have never used artificial birth control during the entire course of our married life. Likewise,my sister and her husband have never contracepted during the course of their entire married life. So, there are two couples right there. Since there are not two billion Catholics in the entire world, my family alone demonstrates that less than 99.99999999% of Catholic use artificial birth control.

    Ben’s point, however, is THE point.

    There might be an argument out there for contraception that is not based on selfishness, but I haven’t heard one yet.

  • Brian English

    “96% of married Catholics in America use some form of non-church approved BC. I suspect it’s even higher, more like 99.9999999% over the course of the entire marriage. Is it the train that’s left the station, or should we kick everyone out? IDK.”

    Just because the vast majority of Catholics do not follow a certain teaching of the Church does not make that teaching wrong. Indeed, any reasonable person evaluating the impact of contraception on Western culture would have to concede that the Church’s teaching on this point is absolutely correct.

    Just look at what Pope Paul VI predicted would happen with the widespread use of contraception in Section 17 of Humanae Vitae: (1)a general lowering of morality — check; (2) a general deterioration in mens’ attitudes towards women — check; (3) governments would mandate family planning through coercive measures — check; and (4) we would begin to regard our bodies as simply machines — check.

    Another catastrophic consequence that was not predicted by Paul VI, but that we see playing out before our eyes, is the collapse of societies simply because they did not have enough children to allow the society to continue. I suppose the Pope simply could not imagine that Europe, the cradle of Catholicism, would destroy itself in that fashion.

    Human beings always try to rationalize and justify their actions. One day we will find out if our justifications are considered valid by the Judge who really counts. In the meantime, people agitating to change Church Doctrine just so they can feel better about themselves are missing the broader issues the Church is trying to address.

  • Ann

    The statistics show 96% of married Catholics use some sort of BC not approved by the Church. 99.9999% was just to make a point that over the course of the entire marriage, I suspect it’s higher than 96%. But when you’re already at 96%, what’s the difference…

    Now, I never said anything about what the Church should do about this.

  • Virginia

    Ditto Bruce. My husband and I have never used BC either. We learned Natural Family Planning before we married and now we teach NFP through the Couple to Couple League. Be sure to check out their website and maybe take a class if you are skeptical about how NFP living can enhance and enrich your marriage. I just attended the CCL Convention with a couple hundred other Catholics who also have chosen to follow the Church. That should knock down the percentage a bit too.

    Austin, sounds like Deacon Ed hit a nerve. No one should “tell” anyone else how many children to have. I don’t believe Deacon Ed was doing that. I believe the point he was making was that when you are open to life and trusting God with your sexuality then you may find yourself open to welcoming more kids into the fold. I have 5 kids but if you had asked me 15 years ago if I would, I would have said no. I believe it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit and also the desire of my husband and I to have more children which gave us the 5 babies we have. Our sexuality is something that we don’t want God to have any say over because we are afraid of Him ruining our fun. Instead, by allowing Him to guide us and love us we experience joy, love and fulfillment like we never would have known. We are all works in progress and when you close the door to God through BC you lose the opportunity to grow in faith, love and hope.

  • JC


    If the Church kicked out all the contraceptors, they’d all still go to Hell.

    But as for your argument, of course, it *is* safe to say 99+% of people use some form of “contraception” at some point in their marriages or in their lives, especially since contraception does not just include artificial stuff but also any sexual pleasure that isn’t coitus.

    However, it’s also safe to say that 99.9999% of Catholics take the Lord’s name in vain, or say “I hate you,” or committed some act of violence, etc.

    The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. The goal is repentance. Unless the message is preached, the repentance can’t occur.

  • JC

    Deacon Ed,
    I don’t know how couples can know how many children they can “afford” unless they have crystal balls. I’m very close to getting a full time position that I will be able to work while my wife retains her current full time position, doubling our income.
    1. A doctor who’s mortgaged to the hilt on a luxury home decides to start a new practice in another town, and ends up living in an apartment over his office.
    2. An Engineer making $110,000 while his wife makes $75K suddenly gets laid off.
    3. A small business owner loses a major contract when GM becomes Government Motors and cuts his service from their budget.
    4. A modernist couple wait to have children till they can “afford” them, get to that point in their lives, and then find out they can’t conceive because of contraception, so they spend all that accumulated “savings” on IVF and/or international adoption.
    5. A Catholic couple use NFP to avoid kids until they can “afford them” and find out that the wife has developed a health condition that, if she had had her kids at a younger age, she’d have been able to bear them, but now she can’t.
    6. A couple live on providence, have the children they feel God wants them to have, work hard and struggle for years, often living on charity, and one day their metaphorical “ship comes in.”
    Point being: you never know what’s going to happen.
    And all laity are called to live the evangelical counsel of poverty to some degree.

  • N. joseph

    and too (not to be mysoginistic or anti-female in the work force) it used to be that families could afford a mortgage and feed the family on one income (usually the husbands.) Families used to save up for a new car, or new whatever, or bought used cars or whatever. When women left the home for a more fulfilling life the cost of things (especially mortgages) went up. Now I know that other economics are involved and I have no problem of women in the greater work force but the middle class man could not afford $150,000 and up mortgages plus transportation costs, food, clothing etc. in todays economy. How was “todays economy” created anyway? Was it a natual organic progression? Now that my wife no longer works I wish I would have held on to our older suburban instead of making payments on a new one that we need for our 6 kids. Oh the charity and things we could have done with those monthly payments.(Pay off our carbon foot print perhaps!) I do not think the prices of homes would be as high today if society did not go down the road that it has. Who could afford them? I thank the Good Lord that that my family and I have such a great life (my wife loves being at home getting all kinds of things accomplished)even though we just get by every month and are beholden to some banks so we can have this great life. Now what the hell was this article about again?

  • Marthe L

    It seems that many people have not heard the truth yet, but I have heard a talk by a human resources expert last year that strongly deplored the fact that there are no longer enough tradesmen in Canada to meet the needs of the construction industry (that was at a convention of roofing contractors) and said that it was very important to change society’s attitudes towards having children. Low birth rates are already threatening most Western countries, but those people quoted in the article as praising China’s population control are sadly deluded. However I have also read about demographers describing China’s 1 child rule as “demographic suicide”. In very few generations, China’s population will be in very deep trouble. And it is my impression that in about 50 years the world’s populations will have shifted in a major way because the populations of many, or most, Western countries, as well as that of countries like China, will be well on the way to disappearing. It does not worry me, since I will no longer be on this earth… But maybe it will not be such a disaster as we think – peoples who believe in having children will once again own the earth, maybe? And I have read somewhere that the fastest growing church in Africa is the Catholic Church – I find it reassuring in a way. But one thing I cannot understand is how blind those people are who are still screaming for “population control”. Right now we badly need MORE population, and those university people just do not get it!

  • Daniel Molinaro II

    Deacon Ed, I think there would be a danger in picking an arbitrary number and encouraging that. 1) People may stop at the number, even if they are meant to have more. 2) Some will be guilted into having that number, even though they should not. 3) Those who are physically incapable are going to be judged by someone around them why they stopped at three instead of five. 4) Those who do have more will be judged by those who are not truly open to life as trying to be holier than thou and go beyond what the Church requires.

    No, it is best for the Church to not pick some number.

  • Ann

    If the message is preached, some/many people won’t come back.

    Which is fine, as long as the Church is ready for that. Smaller and stronger can be a good thing. However, maybe we have to be ready to be smaller by a factor of 10. Which means a huge loss of power and influence.

    We can’t have it both ways.

  • JC

    Ann, again, one way or another, those who are actively contracepting are on the fast road to Hell, and, by going to Mass sacrilegiously, they’re bringing condemnation on themselves. I would charge that a more vocal and consistent advocacy of authentic church teachings may drive some away, but it would also bring many others in.

    Of course, what else isn’t taught? Piety and mysticism. The saints say that it’s more important to teach people *TO* pray–which most priests don’t do in their homilies–so that their hearts will be more receptive to the Gospel.

  • JC

    Also, Austin, a few exceptions do not make a rule.

    What matters is not whether some marriages that contracept last long. What matters is that NFP couples a) have a less than 1% divorce rate, and b) are proven by an objective secular study to be “happier” according to sociological criteria than the average American couple.

  • Deacon Ed

    what would the family demographics look like if married Catholic couples were open to life and God’s will?

  • Don L

    There are few areas where man has chosen to play God more than that of the “environment;” to be spoken of only in hushed, almost sacred terms. It makes a lot of sense, I suppose, when one has no heaven to look foward to and thus must create a paradise here on earth. This is the same corrupted mindset that creates diabolical concepts like biodiversity which equates lowly animals as having the same value as man, and by so doing, effectively (if not deliberately)reduces man to the level of mere animal. It is not surprising at all that in such a Godless culture men should then begin to act like animals.

    This entire eco-worship is not just an illness; it has been birthed in Hades. Environmental worship is just another tool to bring down those creatures made out of love in God’s own image.

    It is wonderful to be guided by a Church that refuses to accept the separation of man from his environment, from his inherant dignity and worth, and his God.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Ann’s “statistics show” is one if those card shifts in a penny ante game. What statistics? Complied by whom?

    I suspect the 99.99999% figure is an attempt at self justification.