The false dichotomy of population and consumerism in Laudato Si’

The lauding of Laudato Si’ in the development community reflects the sympathy that many beyond the Catholic fold feel for Pope Francis and his clear concern for social justice, poverty, and equitable development. It is also being lauded as evidence that science and religion can work together, and when they do, they agree on the importance of tackling climate change.

Much of Laudato Si’ sends a good message, but there is a gaping hole in it: the issue of population, and population growth. The silence on this is damaging and dangerous, and reflective of a broader failure of Catholic social teaching to tackle seriously issues that impinge on its historic doctrine.

Laudato Si’, like its doctrinal predecessors, evades the question of population with a false dichotomy built on false associations. What we end up with is a purportedly empirical claim – unchecked population growth is commensurate with equitable and sustainable development – based on moral argument, and a weak one at that, which seems primarily designed to provide secular justification for a theological opposition to birth control.

Laudato Si’ in Catholic Doctrine

The statements in Laudato Si’ (LS) on population growth and the environment build on previous doctrinal statements in the Catholic church in a very consistent manner. While Laudato Si’ is much more comprehensive in its scope than previous encyclicals and other doctrinal teaching on the environment, the broad message is the same: the environment is suffering because we are failing to care for it as a ‘common good’, and while the developed world indulges in irresponsible consumerism, the developing world is left to languish in poverty and under-development.

Francis discards overall population growth as a contributory factor to environmental degradation and climate change thus:

“While it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environmental, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (LS, pp. 35-36).

This is a direct quote, sourced from a formal Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It is worth noting that this compendium itself goes on to acknowledge a role for population policies but as “only one part of an overall development strategy”. 

Following the source in the Compendium leads to a previous 1987 encyclical by John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS), in which he stated (SRS, para 25) that

“one cannot deny the existence, especially in the southern hemisphere, of a demographic problem… On the other hand, it is very alarming to see governments in many countries launching systematic campaigns against birth, contrary not only to the cultural and religious identity of the countries themselves but also contrary to the nature of true development”.

This statement in SRS is, again, sourced back to a wider discussion of the role of the family in John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio (FC). We find the same kind of statements here. The church “recognizes the serious problem of population growth in the form it has taken in many parts of the world”, but holds that “consideration in depth of all the aspects of these problem” would led to a reaffirmation of “authentic [i.e. Catholic] teaching on birth regulation” (FC, 31). Moreover, in a far blunter statement than can be found in Francis’ work, there is “a certain panic deriving from the studies of ecologists and futurologists on population growth, which sometimes exaggerate the danger of demographic increase to the quality of life” (FC, 30).

Scissoring Out Population Growth

The overall method of argumentation in these various documents is remarkably similar. Firstly, population growth is acknowledged to be a development challenge in the Global South. The viability of birth control as a policy option, however, is excluded by false association of all forms of birth control with extreme and oppressive versions. Instead, the blame is placed exclusively on over-materialist consumerist culture.

In SRS, for instance, John Paul II writes of birth control policies that

“there is an absolute lack of respect for the freedom of choice of the parties involved, men and women often subjected to intolerable pressures, including economic ones, in order to force them to submit to this new form of oppression. It is the poorest populations which suffer such mistreatment, and this sometimes leads to a tendency towards a form of racism, or the promotion of certain equally racist forms of eugenics” (SRS, 25).

Moreover, the fundamental problem is “super-development, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups” (SRS, 28).

This common reasoning, then, is a clear scissor movement to reject population control: population control leads to morally bad things (eugenics); and, population growth is not the problem, consumerism is.

The first half of this scissor movement is, of course, unnecessary for the Catholic faithful in the sense that birth control is subject to theological rather than moral prohibitions. Even if population control did not lead to moral wrongs, it would still be theologically wrong. Put another way, this emphasis on the moral dangers of population control can be read as an appeal to non-Catholics to justify a theological position in non-theological terms.

This certainly creates some argumentative tensions. We can note the irony that a church which declares deliberate and knowing artificial birth control to be a mortal sin punishable by damnation should declare economic inducements to birth control as ‘intolerable pressure’. More generally, the argument is based on the negation of a negative, and even that by dubious association: population growth must be commensurate with development, because the alternative leads to moral wrongs.

What we end up with is a purportedly empirical claim – population growth is commensurate with equitable and sustainable development – derived from a weak moral argument, which seems primarily designed to provide secular justification for a theological opposition to birth control.

Francis’ take on the argument in Laudato Si’ is less ostensibly focused on rejecting birth control. Indeed, he has nothing to say about birth control per se. From the above, however, we can see that his argument that population growth is commensurate with ‘integral and shared development’ is directly built upon these rather poorly reasoned doctrinal claims about population control.

Instead, Francis focuses on the second half of the scissor movement: the critique of crass consumerism. He justifies this focus thus:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution (LS, p. 36)

This is a curious argument. It claims others use a false dichotomy to reject consumerism as a source of our environmental problems, but uses precisely the same false dichotomy to reject population growth as a source of environmental problems. Francis wants us to believe that those who talk about population growth do so to divert attention from the current consumerism, but his own critique of consumerism is, it seems, sufficient reason not to talk about population growth.


Pope Francis is being praised by climate activists across the religious and secular landscape for providing global leadership on climate issues when so many others have failed to do so. In this respect, he certainly deserves commendation. But this does not mean we should be uncritical of his contribution.

I am not saying that over-consumption in the developed world is not a fundamental cause of our environmental problems. It clearly is. But a false dichotomy is a false dichotomy, whichever way one swings it. It is not necessarily population growth or consumerism that are the problem. It is both.

Laudato Si’ may provide a moral clarion call to act on climate change, but it also falsely refutes one of the fundamental global challenges we face. Moreover, it is not even honest about its theological grounds for doing so, building on a doctrine of weak moral claims and purportedly evidential arguments that serve to provide purportedly secular justification for what is actually a theological prohibition on birth control.

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