There are no simple or easy answers to the world's population problem. That, we can be sure, will be underlined once again when the World Population Conference begins its work in Bucharest on Monday.
That there is a problem should not need to be argued. Too many people and not enough food is the classic recipe for bloodshed, violence, and war. True, we have steadily been learning how to grow more food. But of recent years we have had some sharp reminders — reflected in the price of grain and meat — of the extent to which we are dependent on climatic factors outside our control. And increases in food production are always in danger of being outstripped by increases in population.
Clearly we cannot sit back and do nothing. That would be supremely irresponsible — to wait for war, disease and famine to take their toll. At the same time we are dealing with a complex situation which we do not wholly understand. Why some populations show a high birth-rate and others are content with only a small net increase in numbers, or even a slight decline, remains to some extent obscure.
Of course, one factor is improved standards of health. Couples no longer need to produce a large number of children so as to ensure that at least two or three survive into adulthood. But the realisation that circumstances have changed and demand a changed response takes time to establish itself in people's minds and affect their behaviour.
More important — as our bishops pointed out in their measured and compassionate statement on the question earlier this year — there is growing evidence of a link between living standards and human fertility. The better off people arc, the less likely they seem to be to have more children than can reasonably be supported by the resources likely to be available.
That means that the population problem fundamentally boils down to the question of development. If people's living standards are raised above the appalling poverty that is the rule for the majority of human beings, then they will start wanting to limit their families. Only then will the question arise of the means to be used.
This is a case that urgently needs to be made. But -it is one that the Church has made it remarkably difficult for itself to put forward with any conviction. The official condemnation of artificial means of birth control upheld by Pope Paul in 1968 can well imply to those outside our communion that we are quite simply not serious when we talk about responsible parenthood.
It can, moreover, encourage people to ignore what Catholics and other Christians are saying about the unsuitableness of mass campaigns for voluntary sterilisation, the evil of encouraging abortion as a method of birth control, and the dangers of subjecting people to pressure in an area that is above all a matter for responsible personal decision.
But what really undermines the Church's credibility on this subject is the notorious fact that Catholics are deeply divided over the morality of artificial contraception. Many loyally uphold the Pope's teaching. Others remain totally unconvinced by the arguments of Humanae Vitae. Some hierarchies have taken the encyclical at its face value; others have been busy offering interpretations which in effect demote its teaching to the status of an optional pious opinion.
In these circumstances the pretence that the Church is united in condemning all artificial means of birth control is harmful and dangerous. It damages the Church's internal life by encouraging a certain lack of respect for truthfulness and honesty.
What is worse, it makes it far more difficult for the Church to defend and witness to the human and Christian values which could be in danger of erosion if mankind as a whole makes a serious effort to tackle its problem of overpopulation.