Francis, Climate Change, Overpopulation

Edd Doerr

Pope Francis is to be commended for his new encyclical “Laudato Si,” issued May 24. It lines up with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity. It calls for cutbacks in fossil fuel use and for richer nations to help poorer ones. It was met with negative reactions from conservatives and Republican presidential aspirants, though it is expected to advance efforts to deal with climate change.

The encyclical was disappointing, however, because it reiterated the Vatican’s irrational, patriarchalist, and damaging ban on contraception and abortion: it is a ban widely ignored and opposed by Catholics worldwide but intimidating to many politicians in the United States and elsewhere. While Francis said in January that Catholics do not need to “breed like rabbits,” he refused to back down on the Church’s contraception ban. Interestingly, when he visited the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines in January, public opinion there strongly supported the country’s Supreme Court, which had recently approved a national law providing free contraceptive care for women, which the Filipino Church hierarchy had bitterly opposed.

Here is how I put it in the influential National Catholic Reporter in February:

Many of us are hoping that Francis will do the one thing that he and he alone can do about climate change: rescind Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical, promulgated in defiance of the vast majority of his own advisers. Since 1968, there have been 1.5 billion abortions worldwide, 50 million in the U.S. alone. Vacating Humanae Vitae would seriously lower the abortion rate, save women’s lives and contribute to reducing overpopulation and such concomitants of climate change as resource depletion, environmental degradation, deforestation, soil erosion and nutrient loss, biodiversity shrinkage, rising sea levels (40 percent of the world population lives in coastal areas), and increasing sociopolitical instability and violence.

It cannot be overemphasized that the Vatican’s opposition to contraception and abortion is based on a mistaken seventeenth-century “hominization” theory that departed from traditional Catholic theology and is unsupported by either modern science or the Bible. For details, see philosophers Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete’s 2000 book, A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion(University of Illinois Press).

Climate change and overpopulation are the most serious threats facing our planet—as scientists have been warning for over fifty years—and time is running out.

Voucher Wars

First, the good news: on June 29, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the school-voucher plan adopted by affluent, conservative Douglas County, just south of Denver. The court held that the plan clearly violated Article IX, Section 3 of the state constitution, which bars any tax aid to faith-based schools or other sectarian institutions. The ruling lines up nicely with public opinion, as Colorado voters rejected vouchers twice in referenda in 1992 and 1998 by landslide margins.

Now for the bad news. In May, Montana’s legislature passed a tax-credit voucher law without the governor’s signature, ignoring Article X, Section 6 of the state constitution, which bars even indirect tax aid to “sectarian schools.” About 5 percent of Montana’s students attend nonpublic schools.

Nevada’s Republican-dominated legislature in June passed the country’s most sweeping tax-credit (“Educational Savings Account”) voucher plan, thumbing its nose at the state constitution’s clear intent. The plan even pays for homeschooling. Nevada and Montana legislators obviously pay little attention to public opinion. If these two states allowed the people to vote on these issues, they would go down in flames. Western-state voters rejected tax aid for private schools in multiple referenda by an average margin of 65 percent to 35 percent.

These examples only scratch the surface of what is shaping up as an unusually fraught year for voucher proposals.

‘Saint’ Junípero Serra?

When he visits the United States in September, Pope Francis is expected to “canonize” (elevate to “sainthood”) Junípero Serra, who founded a chain of Spanish missions in California between 1769 and 1782. It’s perfectly okay for a religious organization to honor anyone it pleases, but there is a problem when government gets involved. Each state is allowed two statues in the Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, and one of California’s is of Serra. Many Native Americans and others, on hearing of the impending canonization, expressed dismay, pointing out that Serra’s missions seriously mistreated California Indians. As Carol Pogash reported in the New York Timeson January 22, “Indian historians and authors blame Father Serra for the suppression of their culture and the premature deaths at the missions of thousands of their ancestors.”

“Some of Serra’s sharpest critics,” Religion News Service reporter David Gibson wrote in the National Catholic Reporter in February, “say he was part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans, raped their women, and destroyed their culture by forcing them to abandon their traditional language, diet, dress, and other customs and rights.”

At California’s behest, the statue of Serra was placed in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 1931, along with one of Thomas Starr King (1824–1864), the Unitarian minister, writer, and orator who worked tirelessly to keep California in the Union during our Civil War. Lincoln credited Starr King with being the most important activist in that effort. Starr King was also the founder of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the predecessor of the Red Cross. A number of schools, streets, and mountains in California are named after him.

In 2009, Starr King’s statue was replaced by one of Ronald Reagan. Many Californians now would like to replace Serra’s statue. It would only be fitting to replace it with the original one of Starr King, a real American hero. Serra, after all, died before the U.S. Constitution was written and can hardly be regarded as a champion of the best American values.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


“While Francis said in January that Catholics do not need to ‘breed like rabbits,’ he refused to back down on the Church’s contraception ban.”

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