Andrew Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY. 2003.

And He said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.” Matt. 13:52

Some people may think that the “creation versus evolution” controversy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was about the conflict between faith and science. Not at all. The conflict was not theological but cultural, a clash between two world views, one static, the other dynamic. After all, it is the way we understand ourselves and the world that surrounds us, which provides the tone and the color of interpretation of all that has been written, new or old, historical or inspired.

Charles Darwin in the book “The Origin of Species” described a dynamic view of life, as the natural process of selection, which from the rich variation nature provides, constantly shapes and molds the characteristics of all that is alive, and assures for them the means to survive in an ever changing environment through a sequence of adaptive changes. He did not deny creation, or the power and wisdom of God. He simply presented creation as a process. The very last sentence of the Origin explains this: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one, and . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

Cultures change, and we should benefit from the wisdom of experience of ancient times. But do we really understand them? To make sure that we do, it is important to make a clear distinction between the content of an ancient text, and the cultural wrappings in which this content has been presented. The usual procedure is to go back in time and understand first the culture in which a given text was written in order to understand the meaning of the text itself. The next step is to separate this recovered meaning from the peculiarities of the time, and then translate it into the language of today.

Cultures do change. It would be a mistake to attempt to fuse the original meaning of an ancient text and the expressions of that time without understanding how much our way of thinking and our vocabulary have changed. Otherwise, we may loose the content. Take the first few chapters of the book of Genesis as an example. If we were to fuse the theological meaning of this text about creation and the static and anthropomorphic images of ancient times, and so present them today without explanation, the style would be alien to us and the meaning the text tried to convey would be distorted. That would be a real loss, because the unacceptable in this situation is not the theological content about creation, but the cultural elements of a static world presented in heavily anthropomorphic images. Hanging onto such descriptive ideas as “six days” of creation, and the origin of the Sabbath, because God got tired by all this creating and rested on the seventh day, and the idea that once created all must forever remain the same, are the unfortunate shortcomings of a by now bankrupt ancient view of life. Add to this the male chauvinism of the time, and you have the story of Adam’s rib. What we should know as we read the book of Genesis is that creation, as a divine act, is not in time because time and space are the created frameworks of a created world, which we perceive in our created way, that is in time and space. God as a creating force is present in every moment of every process, be that the processes of human development or history of a few years, or the processes of evolution spanning millions of years. The book of Genesis is the presentation of creation for all times, but expressed in the language of the fifth century before Christ, which in so many ways is not the language of today. Charles Darwin provided us with appropriate words to talk about creation in our century. He replaced the created stasis with a created process. And so the static gave room to the dynamic, while our understanding of creation became further enriched.

Controversies are somewhat upsetting because they bring forth confusion and hostility, but at the same time they also provide many creative opportunities for better and deeper understanding of issues. The creation versus evolution controversy was not the only and was not even the most important crisis of transition from the static world view into the dynamic one.

In a static world we would much rely on the secure wisdom of the past. That is the way it has always been, and that is the way it’s going to be. With this attitude of mind, it is clear that any change would mean a deviation from the established and safe tradition, and the only rational response to such deviation is the effort to return to the original. In a static world human nature is fixed. Natural law is valid for all, at all places, and for all times. But what if there is something new?

Something totally unique happened in the twentieth century, that had no historical precedent. A large, worldwide demographic imbalance came about, mostly because of a series of advances in the medical sciences substantially reducing death rate, especially in terms of lowering child mortality nearly everywhere. Without the appropriate adjustments in lowering the birthrate as well, the imbalance that followed resulted in exponential population growth increasing the one billion people entering the century into six billion by the end of the century. Growth from a small population is of little significance, and may even be highly desirable, but growth from a large base population with a doubling time of less than fifty years may be devastating. Being well aware of the impact of six billion of us upon the earth, the idea of having twelve billion by the year 2050 would be against any concept of love and respect for life. Those who choose to remain in the static world view of the past are unable to deal with this new situation. They come from a world where high death rate was balanced by an equally high birthrate. In such conditions, we had to maximize our reproductive success in order to maintain the balance in favor of survival. But now, because of the demographic imbalance we have been experiencing, we need to exercise reproductive restraint for the sake of survival. The principle of love and respect for life remains the same. What must change is the practical applications of this principle to satisfy the new conditions.

This creates a dilemma. Either we give up on the idea that the traditional moral directives should never be changed, or we go against the requirements of love and respect for life in our new situation by doing nothing. There are many possible responses to this predicament, but if we remain in a static world view, none of them are workable. Some people may go into denial by simply identifying the population problem with economic issues, or with issues of social justice, while remaining blind to its ecological dimensions. Jacqueline Kasun, among others, is a good example of such denial. In her book “The War against Population,” published by Ignatius Press in 1988, the presentation is exclusively in terms of economic growth without any ecological realism or concern. Another form of denial is found in the papal encyclical “Mater et Magistra.” Pope John XXIII, after having stated that there is an imbalance between population growth and economic well being, he reduces the problem to a lack of social, distributive justice. At the same time, he disregards the importance of the ecological implications of continued growth in a limited world, saying, that they are based on unreliable statistics. He looks upon the earth’s ability to support human life as almost inexhaustible, a view that reflects the absence of any ecological perspective. (Mater et Magistra: §185-189.) Others may propose solutions of compromise, which however at closer scrutiny turn out to be uncompromising no solutions at all. The strongest example of this kind of approach is found in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” where Pope Paul VI, recognizing the necessity of reproductive restraint, proposes natural family planning as the only morally acceptable means to achieve it. Experience shows that NFP is neither natural nor planning for many people. First of all, accidental conceptions while using NFP correlate with irregularities of the menstrual cycles. Since the characteristics of regularity are genetically transmitted, such accidental conceptions provide a strong selective advantage in favor of irregularity. In other words, the NFP method is biologically self defeating, and no self defeating process can exists in nature. Secondly, NFP requires a high level of sophistication of use, which is not practical for many people in many cultures today. They are also psychological problems with NFP caused by overwhelming regimentation and loss of spontaneity of the relationship. (See Population, Evolution, and Birth Control. A collage of controversial ideas, assembled by Garrett Hardin. Freeman and Co. 1964. See also personal accounts such as “Forum,” National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 1985.) Both, the denial of the ecological dimensions of the problem, and the restriction of control exclusively to NFP, are objectively inadequate and dysfunctional responses to an obvious need for change. In view of the importance of the issues, they achieve nothing but a loss of credibility.

How serious is the present demographic situation from an ecological point of view? The earth is our life support and the impact of six billion people on the earth is clearly damaging. Here are some data to consider from the conclusion of the “World Watch Papers, #143, 1998 by Brown, Gardner, and Halweil.

Frank Notestein, a Princeton demographer, formulated in 1945 the idea of the three observable stages in the demographic transition that characterizes the twentieth century. The sequence of the three stages explains the widely different population growth rates in the world today. In the first stage, represented by the pre-industrial societies of the past, both birth rates and death rates were high and balanced out close to zero growth rate in a relatively small base population. In more modern societies, death rates fell because of new developments in the medical sciences, while birth rates remained high. The difference created a demographic imbalance and an explosive population growth resulting in an enormous increase in the size of the base population. This situation represents the second stage of the demographic transition. As modernization continued, birth rates fell mostly through contraception and came into balance with the already low death rates. Once again balance has been reached but at the level of a now large base population. This population stabilization at low birth rates and low death rates represents the third stage of the demographic transition.

According to demographic data, all countries today are in either stage two or stage three. As to date some 32 industrial countries have reached stage three. The other 150 or so countries are in stage two. Among these, 39 countries are approaching stage three including China and the United States. In the European Union population stabilized around 380 million while grain consumption and water consumption reached a balanced level within the limits of its own land and water resources. This represents an ideal situation today.

It is unfortunate that not all countries can look forward to such bright future as those in the European Union. A number of countries have reached and even passed the limits of their land and water resources and are still facing enormous population growth in the near future. These countries are at risk of falling back into stage one because of a natural increase of death rates. Countries at risk are Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sudan, Tanzania, and Yemen. This falling back into stage one is a devastating experience because a new balance is achieved by a sudden rise in death rates due to fam- ine, water shortage and disease, accompanied by the disintegration of governments, social services, ecological devastation, and ethnic conflicts.

Many people consider our well being in terms of momentary economic progress and are blind to the hidden costs in terms of ecological depletion. The rule is that we cannot aim at unlimited growth in a limited world, be that growth economic or demographic. I list here just a few points to illustrate this statement.

There is no more land to be discovered on the earth to increase grain production. The use of fertilizers to increase yield is either unavailable as in most of the third world countries, or it has been stabilized by the law of diminishing returns as in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. Grain production per person is now declining proportionally with population increase. Grain consumption per person in India today is less than 200 kg per year.

The available fresh water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural use is on the decline. Some major rivers, such as the Colorado in the United States, the Yellow river in China, and the Nile in the Middle East, rarely reach the sea. “Water tables are falling on every continent including in major food producing regions. Among those where aquifers are depleted are the U.S. southern Great Plains, the North China Plain, which produces nearly 40 percent of China’s grain; and most of India.” (Brown, Gardner, Halweil) Most of this water is used for irrigation but as scarcity becomes more pronounced industry wins the battle for economic reasons. (Water used to grow $200 worth of agricultural products expands industrial output by $14.000, a ratio of 70 to 1.)

Biodiversity is on a rapid decline. The major cause of this depletion is habitat loss as the natural world around us yields to human development. Examples are the gradual destruction of tropical rain forests by settlers and miners; the destruction of coastal wetlands by developers; the disappearance of coral reefs by encroachment and pollution, the second highest concentration of biodiversity after the rain forests; the vast disruption of ecosystems on a global scale by greenhouse gas emissions.

And one could go on and cite the overfishing of the oceans, the disappearance of forests, the enormous problems of waste disposal contaminating the soil and the ground water; the gradual rising of sea level as global warming melts the polar ice. These are primarily ecological issues and to disregard them in the name of economic progress implies to spiral into a process of blind self-destruct. Such attitude is totally contrary to love and respect for life.

What are the solutions to all these difficult issues?

In a pamphlet, published by the World Watch Institute in 1987, Lester Brown and Pamela Shaw proposed six steps to an ecologically sustainable society. The six steps were the following. Stabilize world population. Protect arable land. Reforest the earth. Recycle resources. Conserve non renewable energy. Develop renewable energy. These six steps constitute an excellent agenda to move us towards ecological stability. On the other hand, every one of these steps will falter if we do not neutralize the power of two demons: greed and ideology. The former can be summed up well by the Tragedy of the Commons mentality, the latter by the mentality of stasis, opposing in principle the much needed changes.

Forster Lloyd’s scenario of the Tragedy of the Commons comes to life in our times. (Two Lectures on the Checks to Population, Oxford, 1833, Reading 13.) The scenario well represents our present economy, which is passionately devoted to unlimited growth in a limited world, and refuses to consider the hidden ecological costs. Partly ignorance but mostly greed are the internal forces driving this destructive engine.

More subtle are the effects of the stasis mentality. Consider the first step on the road toward sustainability: stabilize world population. To achieve this very first step, we need some efficient means of reproductive restraint well adapted to the cultural needs in various parts of the world. For many centuries, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we had to reproduce at our full biological potential in order to survive in a world of high death rates. Consequently, and I say this as a hypothesis, everything sexual had to be geared toward reproduction rendering all other aspects of our sexuality, such as the deep relationship of a sharing and friendship between wife and husband, and the need to find an outlet for the tensions of passion and love, became subordinated to the primary procreative end. This idea is clearly expressed in the words of “Humanae Vitae” saying that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” (§11) It is not the shared lives of husband and wife that should be looked upon as fruitful, but every biological act of intercourse between them must be open to the production of children. I do not believe that in our present circumstances we can satisfy the requirements of love and respect for life under such directives. The demographic equation, which states that the difference between birthrate and death rate determines the growth rate of a population in any given year, is very strict indeed. If we do not balance birth with death, death will do it for us. And that would certainly be against the principle of love and respect for life.

Another logical idea is the realization that the demographic imbalance of low death rates is the result of our direct intervention through medical science. If the problem has been caused by direct intervention, the remedy for the problem should be sought in direct intervention as well. We cannot just “leave it to nature.” This is an indication in favor of making use of contraceptive technology, another product of medical science. The only other alternative would be to stop harvesting the benefits of modern medicine, an alternative that once again goes against the principle of love and respect for life.

On the other hand, speaking still hypothetically, it is well possible that the inseparable fusion of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality in marriage is more a “social-cultural” than a “biological-natural” phenomenon. Karl Rahner warns us: “We can certainly expect far-reaching and painful adjustments in this regard. Very often moral discussions have approached certain de facto conditions of human life as if they were essential. Although not intrinsic elements of human nature, they had been historically stable up to the present. Now this stability is threatened because it is drawn into the general changes wrought by man as he actively guides his own development.” (Karl Rahner S.J.: “Experiment: Man.” Theology Digest, February 1968, page 63.)

There is a great similarity between the solution of the creation versus evolution controversy and the solution of the population dilemma. First we are to define clearly the core issues as distinct from the descriptive cultural elements, which represented the practical means the core issues were safeguarded and served in the past. The next step is to translate the meaning of the core issues into the language of our time by finding the best ways of expression suitable for our present situation. The core issue is, of course, our love and respect for life. It seems to me that this fundamental principle, love and respect for life, has four areas of expression today. First, there is the need for intimate relationship, because it is not good for us to be alone, (Genesis 2:18.) Next, there is the need for responsible procreation, which respects both, the balance of nature, and the need to provide for the children. In practical terms this means to have no more than two or three children per couple. It also means the ability to provide a safe and stable environment of love and care for the children by two parents, as long as needed. Then, there is the need for responsible stewardship toward the living earth, which is our life support. And finally, there is the need for justice in the distribution of resources among all peoples.

The challenge to express these four basic needs of our love and respect for life today is enormous and complex. It requires knowledge, and courage, and creativity. To gain wisdom for this enterprise, let us contemplate the way of nature. What is the secret of life’s success on earth? This is it: One takes what is given and changes it according to the needs of the time, and so gives it to the next generation. In this adaptive sequence, there is respect for tradition, but at the same time there is also the creative courage to change. That is the way of the biosphere surviving successfully through millions of years.

And He said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old.” Matt. 13:52

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