Difference between revisions of "A New Theology for a Small Planet"

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Latest revision as of 13:46, 29 July 2020

Zero Population Growth

Washington, D.C.


Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. Genesis, 1:28



Since God spoke those words to Adam and Eve, the human race has multiplied from an allegorical two to an actual 5.4 billion, and has so dominated nature that an estimated one to three species are rendered extinct every day.

Is this what God intended? Many theologians think not. In fact, the magnitude of global environmental damage is prompting religious leaders throughout the world to question how they can inspire restoration.

Some, like Timothy Weiskel of the Harvard Divinity School, believe religious leaders have a crucial responsibility to help humankind assume a more humble role within the whole of creation. Says Weiskel: "The time has come for contemporary theologians to re-state some simple truths; we did not create the world; we cannot control it. Instead, we must learn in full humility to live with all other creatures within the world's limits."


Population from the Pulpit

It may be surprising to learn that so many of the current efforts by the religious community include curbing population growth as a primary concern.

For example, approximately 80 individual churches and temples from 27 states are currently active in the newly-formed Ministry for Population Concerns. The Ministry states as it goal building "a strong faith-based movement for change in our country's population policies." It encourages member congregations to support appropriate Congressional action and circulates population-related sermons.

National church bodies are also addressing the population issue. The American Baptist Church's Policy Statement on Ecology stops short of directly advocating population stabilization or individual fertility control. But both the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s and the United Methodist's environmental policy statements call for measures to stabilize world and U. S. population.

In addition, many religious leaders are collaborating with others, outside of the faith community. For example, close to 300 religious leaders have endorsed an appeal which calls for a joint science-religion commitment on the environment. Drafted by Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan during the 1990 meeting of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, the appeal calls upon spiritual leaders to advocate, among other things, the need for "a voluntary halt to world population growthwithout which many of the other approaches to preserve the environment will be nullified.'

Also in 1990, in preparation for the World Council of Churches annual meeting held this past February, theologians and church leaders joined scientists and economists in issuing a statement that blamed human actions of "mastery and dominion" for overwhelming the planet's life-support systems. The Statement calls upon churches to recast as necessary all hymns, doctrines, confessions and liturgies "to ensure that they reflect new theological and ethical insight into human responsibilities for the care and preservation of creation", including "the stewardship of human fertility."

Other religious coalitions are currently preparing for the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). One goal of UNCED is the issuance of an Earth Charter; a basic statement of principles on humankind's relationship with nature, including guidelines for sustainable and equitable development. Some religious coalitions have already drafted Earth Charters for consideration by the governmental and non-governmental leaders attending UNCED.

The International Coordinating Committee for Religion and the Earth (ICCRE), composed of 50 representatives from all of North America's major faiths, is one of those coalitions. Following their first recommendation of redistributing ownership and control of the Earth's resources, ICCRE identified the need to "stabilize the world's population."

Similarly, the Working Group on Ethics, Development and the Environment of the U. S. Citizen's Network on UNCED included in its proposed Earth Charter that "International organizations and member states should make concerted efforts to slow the dramatic growth in world population by encouraging fair standards of living for all and making family planning services available to all on a strictly voluntary basis." The Working Group is made up of members from the North American Coalition on Religious and Ecology, the Consortium on Religion and Ecology International and other religious leaders.


"Pro-Life" Predicament

Not all religious leaders, however, are so willing to address overpopulation. Many Christian fundamentalists continue to espouse the "Be fruitful and multiply" ethic. And others, like Pope John Paul II, conspicuously deflect the population issue.

For instance, according to a spokesperson at the United States Catholic Conference, the Vatican emphasized that humankind has a moral responsibility to alleviate global problems like hunger and poverty through resource distribution. In addition, the Vatican now cautions couples that responsible parenthood entails being able to provide for the children's well-being.

Nonetheless, the Vatican has in no way altered the Church's long-standing view of contraception: Fertility is to be controlled outside of marriage through abstinence, and within marriage through natural family planning.

The Pope's position, which ignores the simple biological fact that natural family planning is not fool-proof, is the cause of much consternation. As Dr. Robert Goodland from the World Bank said in his challenge to the Vatican: "Is there a hierarchy between starvation, unwanted children, abandoned babies and infanticide (mortal sins) at one end, versus prevention such as by contraception (venial sins) at the other?

And what about the women who consider terminating an unintended pregnancy? The Roman Catholic Church holds that ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception and thus is vehemently opposed to abortion.

Other religious sects are not so adamant, Judaism, for example, maintains that full personhood occurs at birth. Consequently, the United Synagogue of America states that "under special circumstances, Judaism chooses and requires abortion as an act which affirms and protects the life, well-being and health of the mother." And the Presbyterian Church (USA), like several other Protestant faith communities, has "long affirmed women's ability to make responsible decisions, whether the choice be to abort or to carry the pregnancy to term."

Nonetheless, "pro-lifers" use the Bible to argue that personhood begins at the moment of conception and consequently that abortion is murder and must be outlawed. But as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights (RCAR) points out, that position is theological belief, not biological fact, and the moment of personhood as been disputed by theologians for centuries. RCAR, comprised of 35 national Protestant, Jewish and other denominations and faith groups, asserts that reproductive freedom, including the right to abortion, is intrinsically tied to religious liberty: "We oppose any attempts to place into secular law one theory of when life begins."

Further, Dr. Paul D. Simmons, a professor of Christian ethics and the author of Personhood, the Bible & the Abortion Debate, argues that, taken in complete context, the biblical portrait of a person is one of a "complex, many-sided creature with god-like abilities and the moral responsibility to make choices"a definition which he says does not fit the fetus until, at best, the second half of gestation.

Instead, Simmons stresses, it is the woman who fits the biblical definition of personhood. He maintains that abortion is a "god-like" decision, which should be made by a woman "reflecting on her own well-being, the genetic health of the fetus and the survival of the human race."

Many people of faith now recognize that survival of the human race rests, ironically, on its very ability to limit both its numbers and its polluting, consuming ways. As Reverend Peter Moore-Kochlacs said in a recent sermon at the Culver-Palms (California) United Methodist Church: "A number of Americans question aborting a fetus, yet many miss the equally grave problem that through our continued population explosion we are killing entire species of other plant and animal life. There is nothing pro-life about this predicament"