MicSem Publications

Population Pressure and The Church’s Response

by Francis X. Hezel S.J.

April 08, 1989 Religion Social Issues

Reflection Weekend
Truk, April 8 -9, 1989

The chairman, Fr. Joseph Cavanagh, began the reflection weekend, fittingly enough, with the reading of the account from the first chapter of Genesis. "Increase and multiply" was the Lord's injunction to the persons he had made. But He also told his creatures to "subdue the earth," giving them the charge to control the world that was placed under man's dominion. This twin responsibility –to propagate and have children, and to assume authority over the world –set the tone for the two-day workshop.

At times these responsibilities may seem to conflict with one another in the lives of Christians. This workshop marked the first attempt of the Catholic Church in Truk to deal with the sensitive issue of population. When asked why they had chosen this theme, participants pointed to many reasons. Some felt that there was a notable lack of cooperation among different agencies concerned with population policy, especially government and the church. Some of the new methods of limiting birth that were recommended by hospital personnel seemed to be unacceptable to Catholics. Moreover, the traditional Trukese attitude "the more children the better" appeared to be at odds with what present-day planners tell people. In all of this confusion the church has been silent, some pointed out.

Fr. Fran Hezel then presented figures on population growth in Truk. A graph of the Truk population between 1910 and the present showed that the population had remained rather steady at about 15,000 from the beginning of the century until about 1950. Thereafter, the population began rising sharply to 21,000 in 1960, to 28,000 in 1970, to 38,000 in 1980, and to 51,000 at present. The growth rate in the past 40 years has been about 3.5% annually, one of the highest rates of increase in the world. At this rate, the Truk population will double in 25 years or less. Truk's population density at present is about 1000 persons per square mile, four times the density of Pohnpei and Yap, and twice the density of the Philippines. Participants also were given figures on the population increase in each island according to the four recent censuses, with a page of observations appended to these figures.

Why has the population increased in recent years? A few of the participants wondered whether the figures might not be erroneous, but the facilitators pointed out that this sudden turn upward in the population has happened in many other parts of the world. It is a common phenomenon in countries that are in the early stages of modernization. The improvement in medical services boosts the infant survival rate, so that many of the newborn children who would have died in the past now live to maturity. To illustrate this, participants compared the number of surviving children of their mother with the number borne by their wives. This little poll showed a total of 94 surviving children in the precious generation compared with 115 in the present generation. The difference will undoubtedly be even greater when the final returns are in, for many of the women in the present generation are still of child bearing age.

Better diet and living standards increase fertility and add to the life span of present-day individuals. Moreover, some of the elements that once insured longer intervals between childbirth have been lost. Breast-feeding, which delayed fertility, is often enough replaced by bottle-feeding today, and the customary one-year prohibition on sexual intercourse after childbirth has disappeared in our time. Participants suggested other reasons such as the alleged earlier age of marriage today and the fact that today's teenagers have more sexual freedom than those former years. Overall, however, the reasons come down to two major changes: the death of fewer people, and the increased fertility of the woman today.

Is the population increase a problem? The participants were sharply divided in their response to this question. Some said that it was a problem, while others maintained that the population growth in Truk, while not a problem yet, was a valid concern. All agreed that population pressure could at least become an acute problem in the near future. The negative effects of population growth are being felt in several different ways, many thought. Overcrowding has led to more frequent disputes over land, especially when the head of the lineage gives lineage land to his own children in violation of custom. Some argued that this was because there were too many people and too little land, but others wondered whether it might not be owing to simple greed.

Furthermore, as the number of children in the family increase, parents are more hard pressed to provide adequate care and support for their children. This is all the more true as the family is becoming nuclearized and parents can rely less and less on help from lineage mates in providing supervision for their children. Resources are also being stretched thin, it seems. Those with cash incomes are finding it more difficult to provide food and material needs for their families. Even those still supporting themselves from their land seem to be experiencing greater difficulties, for taro is dug up more quickly today than it was in the past. Finally, the added population also puts a strain on social services provided by the government. Education and medical services especially must be expanded at a greater expense to the government.

Many of the participants pointed out the advantages of large families, to be sure. "We all love children and want to have them around us," one person said. Another reminded us that children are regarded as a kind of social security in Truk as in other traditional societies. A large family has always been a value for Trukese since this means more workers to care for the family's needs and to assume responsibility for their parents when they become too old to work. Yet, the picture of the future as presented by one of the groups was apocalyptic. If the population growth rate continues unchecked, there will be enormous pressure on the island resources here. Families will find it difficult to produce enough to feed themselves on the land available. Yet there will not be enough jobs to go around and unemployment will be rampant. A large segment of the population will become poor, and possibly even develop into a servant class. As numbers increase, the society will undoubtedly become more impersonal, as has already happened on islands like Moen, since face-to-face contacts are impossible to maintain regularly when a population reaches a certain critical size. We can expect more emigration in search of jobs, and possibly the government, in its uncertainty as to how to fund its growing costs, will compromise its political autonomy and renegotiate with the US for commonwealth.

What should the response of the church be to this population pressure? All were reminded of the passage they had heard from the first chapter of Genesis with the command to take charge of the earth and be responsible for God's handiwork. The church and its members are entrusted with the task of solving their own problems, as one person put it. But we must do this in such a way that God will look at what we have done and declare once again "And it was good." Another person observed that the problem in the day described by Genesis was that there were not enough people and so our ancestors were commanded to "multiply". In our own day, however, the situation is otherwise and so the imperative could be quite different. When should people reproduce and when should they emphasize the exercise of control and their authority over creation? One participant urged that the church should promote responsible population control, but each member should also listen to the church's teaching authority on this question. Moreover, to the greatest extent possible, the church and the government should work together to solve the population problem.

The Vatican II document, "The Church in the Modern World" (Para 50), teaches that marriage and married love is directed towards the procreation and education of children, who are to be the fruit of this love. But the passage goes on to state that couples must assume Christian responsibility for decisions on their family size in the light of many factors, including the good of the family, of society, and of the church. "It is the married couple themselves who in the last analysis must arrive at this judgment before God." Elsewhere in the same document (Para 87), the church teaches that the government has no right to impose upon its people measures or norms for limiting birth. The church insists that "the decision regarding the number of children depends on the judgment of the parents." The supposition, of course, is that they have a "properly formed conscience… that takes account of divine law."

In the final session of the reflection weekend, participants worked together to clarify principles that might shed additional light on family planning. From the outset participants acknowledged that there was a wide diversity of views among them on this area. Yet they felt that they should search for areas of consensus where they existed. In the controversy over methods of limitation of family size, the underlying values for which the church stands are sometimes lost sight of. At bottom is the church's insistence on the value of human life: the life of mothers and other members of the family and society at large, as well as the life of the unborn. Moreover, the church has always maintained the there is a close connection between the sexual act, procreation and a commitment of love. This conviction underlies much of the teaching of the church on sexual ethics, genetic experimentation, and family planning. The principles on which participants expressed consensus were these:

1) The married couple themselves has the basic responsibility to decide on the number of children they will have, and they must be accountable to God for their decision. This principle has been asserted repeatedly by the church in its documents, particularly in those passages in "The Church in the Modern World" read during the conference.

2) The church should provide guidance to the couple as it makes its decision. The church, especially those who have pastoral care for its people, must be prepared to assist in the couple in making their decision. This assistance should not be only focus on church teaching on the subject of family limitation, but it should help them discern on legitimate family concerns and the broader needs of society that might be at stake.

3) The couple must agree among themselves on whether to limit their family size and on the means to be used. Family planning, like other important decisions in family life should strengthen the love relationship between the husband and wife.

4) The direct taking of human life through abortion is wrong. The basic value asserted by the church time and again is the value of human life, and it must not be destroyed by the married couple.

5) The government may not force families to limit the number of children or coerce its people to accept certain methods of family limitation. This is in accord with the church's teachings on the matter and the first principle above.

There is much that was left unsaid in the workshop. The matter of what means of family planning may be used remains problematic for many couples. But Fr. Fran Hezel suggested that instead of focusing narrowly on methods, we give serious attention to the reasons for limiting family size. Some reasons may be selfish –as when a couple wants to be free of the burden of children to enjoy themselves. Other reasons may be profoundly unselfish –as when the life or health of the mother is at stake. The morality of methods cannot be accurately evaluated without some account of the seriousness of the reasons for using them.

The last session ended with a chorus of appreciation for the advances that were made during the weekend. Participants said that they had grown at their understanding of and respect for the opinions of others. They felt this initial step was long overdue.