In another Acton Commentary this week, Research Director Samuel Gregg looked at Catholic dissenter Fr. Hans Küng, who recently published an “open letter” broadside directed at the Vatican. Küng’s letter includes the now discredited Malthusian warning about global overpopulation (see video above). The letter, writes Samuel Gregg, “shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.”

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Hans Küng’s Malthusian Moment

By Samuel Gregg

In April, the world received yet another global missive from the 82-year-old Swiss theologian, Fr. Hans Küng. Perhaps the world’s most famous Catholic dissenter from Catholic teaching, Fr. Küng’s “open letter” to the world’s Catholic bishops contained his usual critique of the papacy and his now-tediously familiar prescriptions for changing the Catholic Church.

Almost 31 years ago, Rome and Germany’s Catholic bishops stripped Küng of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian because, by Küng’s own admission, he does not believe in some central tenets of the Catholic faith. Some would say Rome’s action was merely an exercise in ensuring truth in advertizing. This has not stopped Küng, however, from continuing to exhort Catholicism to adopt the path followed by many mainline Protestant confessions in the West since the 1960s.

As George Weigel has noted, Küng’s letter is full of misrepresentations and shoddy logic. Moreover, Küng seems oblivious to the sociological fact that those Christian communities which have embraced paths similar to that which he advocates for Catholicism are in a state of terminal collapse. Devoid of doctrinal coherence, they are often led by clerics for whom God’s existence and Christ’s Divinity are open questions, whose conception of morality is as relativistic as your average lefty-secularist, but who purport to know with absolute certainty that the world is headed for a climate change-driven apocalypse.

There was, however, one claim in Küng’s letter worth further scrutiny. This was his assertion that Africa – and, by extension, the developing world – is suffering from an “over-population” problem, and that, by implication, Catholicism’s 2,000 years of unbroken teaching on the subject of contraception is dooming millions to poverty and starvation.

It’s hardly a secret that many people disagree with Catholicism’s position on contraception. But Küng’s claim of an “overpopulation” problem in the developing world shows just how much he remains an unreconstructed creature of the 1960s.

Theories concerning a correlation between rapid population growth, poverty, and strains on existing resources have been around since the time of the economist Thomas Malthus (incidentally, an Anglican cleric).

Since Malthus’ death in 1834, his theories have metastasized. In the 1960s, neo-Malthusian ideas achieved new prominence, thanks to the writings of scientists such as Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted that the world’s population growth would lead to mass starvation for millions, famines sweeping the globe, skyrocketing commodity-prices, and the dawn of an insurmountable scarcity of resources.

None of these predictions came true.

What Ehrlich and others who have imbibed the “overpopulation” Kool-Aid perennially discount is humanity’s entrepreneurial genius. The economist who did the most to highlight this point and discredit Ehrlich’s thesis was the late Julian Simon. In his book, The Ultimate Resource (1981/1996), Simon illustrates that the price-rises associated with increasing scarcity of a desirable resource generate incentives for entrepreneurs to discover more quantities of that resource, more efficient uses of that resource, and, eventually, substitutes for that same resource.

In short, given the right institutional conditions and incentives, humans are remarkably good at creating more than enough wealth to feed, cloth, and house increasing populations far beyond basic subsistence levels with enormous surpluses of capital left over for reinvestment – and all without ruthlessly plundering the natural environment. From this perspective, an increasing population can be seen as beneficial: the more people, the more potential creativity and entrepreneurship.

The problem with neo-Malthusians like Ehrlich and Küng is that they see humans primarily as economic consumers rather than economic creators. This is precisely the mentality that helped facilitate Western Europe’s coming demographic winter – a prospect that has caused Sweden (yes, that’s right, über-progressivist hyper-secularist Sweden) to create all sorts of financial incentives for Swedes to have more children. Somewhat worryingly, the U.S. National Vital Statistics Report for April 2010 shows that America’s birth-rate is now below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman.

In his 2009 social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI – the primary target of Küng’s most recent public venting – spelled out the economic logic of a declining birth-rate. “The decline in births,” the pope wrote, “falling at times beneath the so-called ‘replacement level,’ also puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified labourers, and narrows the ‘brain pool’ upon which nations can draw for their needs” (CV 44).

In this regard, Pope Benedict shows himself as not only more prescient than Hans Küng in terms of helping Catholicism avoid the fate of those Christian communities that have embraced the vacuity and incoherence of liberal Christianity. He’s also a better economist.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

  • Patrick Powers

    As a student of business, economics, and just human nature, I have to ask “Where is Hans Kung’s payoff for his missive? Is there a money, glory or power trail, or is this a gratuituous act of ego? Does the fact that he’s getting old and has less time to tilt against the Roman dragon motivate him?

    I was a student, and a soldier, during the 60′s and with hindsight, I now realize that I wasn’t confident I was smart enough to become a Liberal, but then I avoided a life of crime for the same reason.

  • Enrico Gallina

    I prefer not to enter the debate. Let me just mention that there is another side of the overpopulation problem which has not been addressed by either sides: Political Stability in Africa.
    Overpopulation seems to feed enrolment in guerrillas groups throughout Africa rather than creativity and entrepreneurship, . . . and skyrocketing Islamic Fundamentalism which in the 60′ was barely thinkable .
    Proposal: let’s drop “tediously familiar” debates among Christians and try to start a more frendly brainstorming on these much urgent threats