Reviewed by Russell B. CONNORS, Jr., The College of St. Catherine, SAINT PAUL, MN 55105
I had a teacher years ago who said to us often - especially when we looked for simple answers to complex questions - Hey, life is complicated; simple answers won't do". As the years have passed I have come to appreciate more and more the wisdom of those words.
And that is why I appreciate what John Schwarz has done in this fine book. The title is descriptive. This is a study of the implications of the world's growing population for Catholic moral tradition and teaching. Because of the controversy surrounding Catholic teaching on birth control and because of the largely interpersonal context in which that teaching is usually discussed, it is not often that scholars attempt to do what Schwarz has done, i.e., place Catholic teaching about reproduction in social, global, and environmental contexts. The result is a contribution to Catholic thought, one that is bold and careful at the same time, and one that is accessible to both scholars and students. Those inclined to either/or thinking will find this frustrating. Those convinced that life is often complicated and that when it is both/and thinking is called for will find this insightful.
The book is in two parts. The four chapters of Part I accomplish much quickly. Schwarz brings important statistics to the table, such as the amazing rate of growth of the world's population. While it took approximately 150,000 years for world population to reach 1 billion, it took only 13 years to move from 4 to 5 billion (as of 1987), and it is likely to hit 9.4 billion by the year 2050 (pp. 22-23). More startling is the fact that the most dramatic increases took place "almost exclusively in the developing world" (p. 23), where access to resources that can secure an acceptable quality of life are most limited. In the chapters that follow Schwarz reflects on the implications of this data for Catholic tradition and teaching. It is clear throughout that Schwarz does not simply mean Catholic teaching on contraception, but Catholic social teaching as well. Accordingly, he discusses the Church's prohibition of contraception and its promotion of natural means of birth regulation. But he also discusses Catholicism's commitment to promote the dignity and well-being of all persons, its passion for the full human development of all people, and its concern that the resources of the earth be used wisely (i.e., with an eye to their just distribution to all persons today and to their preservation for the people of tomorrow). The result of this inclusive approach to "the population question" is the avoidance of narrow questions and simplistic solutions. The population question is about far more than contraception. Among other things, it is about justice, human development, and sustainability. This is Catholic tradition at its best.
Part II, entitled "Reflections on a Pastoral Theology of Global Population," consists of six chapters. Together they are directed toward the possibility of a reconsideration of Catholic teaching on reproductive issues in light of the global population. Demonstrating a keen awareness of recent developments in Catholic moral theology, Schwarz builds the case that such reconsideration is not only possible, but necessary. Current Catholic teachings on reproduction were developed in contexts quite different from our own, he suggests, and the Church must make sure it does not make "inappropriate or inadequate application" of those teachings to our present global context (p. 154). At the end of a chapter reflecting on Cardinal Bernadin's "consistent ethic of life," Schwarz concludes that "Catholicism's rich moral tradition of acknowledged, realistic, long-tolerated exceptions is at odds with itself in declaring other areas exceptionless..." (p. 139). Though he thinks reconsideration of its absolute prohibition of contraception would help Catholicism's ability to contribute to the population issue, Schwarz avoids reducing the Catholic contribution to a change in that teaching. What Catholicism offers, rather, is deep convictions about human dignity and freedom of conscience, about distributive justice and commitment to the poor, and about the fact that the goods of the earth belong to all. Schwarz is right: To address the population issue in a realistic and helpful way Catholicism needs all of its resources. It has plenty.