Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: D. Roman Catholic Perspectives

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Roman Catholic teaching on population is a complex blend of theological beliefs, ethical norms, and empirical judgments. The distinctive characteristic of Roman Catholic doctrine is the sustained and significant place its teaching on contraception has held in its population position. Indeed, the detailed discussion of contraception in Catholic moral theology at times conveys the impression that this one issue constitutes the whole Catholic position on population ethics.

It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish two related but not identical moral questions in Catholic theological ethics: the morality of contraception and the teaching on population policy. John Noonan's classic work on contraception identifies moments in the history of the tradition when demographic trends affected the official teaching of the church, but it points out that these instances do not stand out as major determinants in the development of Catholic doctrine on contraception (Noonan). Noonan's analysis illustrates the complexity of the Catholic response to falling birthrates in the late Roman Empire, in the medieval period, and again in the nineteenth century. During those periods the Catholic position criticized the idea of restraining population growth but did not assert that procreation of children should be fostered without regard to other values. The balancing factors in the Catholic position are the linking of procreation to education and the high status accorded virginity in Catholic life.

It is possible, therefore, to trace a relationship between contraception and population policy throughout Catholic teaching; yet until the twentieth century, the dominant idea is the prohibition of contraceptive and other birth-limiting practices, with the population issue treated as a minor theme. Even in Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), which Noonan describes as "a small summa on Christian marriage" (p. 426), the population issue receives only indirect reference. A systematic treatment of the morality of population policy as a distinct issue in its own right is not evident in Catholic thought until the time of Pius XII (Hollenbach). Beginning with Pius XII's address to the Italian Association of Catholic Midwives in 1951 and continuing through the teachings of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, Vatican II, the Synod of Bishops (1971), and John Paul II, one can find an articulated ethical doctrine on population policy. The ethical teaching responds to two dimensions of the contemporary population debate: first, intensification of the debate about the relationship of population and resources; second, the move by governments and international institutions to design policies to affect demographic trends.

It is possible to distinguish in the Catholic teaching two species of moral analysis: One focuses on the context of population policy; the other, on the content of the procreative act. David Hollenbach distinguishes these two dimensions as the public and private aspects of Catholic teaching.

Population Policy

The public dimension is found generally in the social teaching of the church; the principal documents relating to population policy are Gaudium et Spes (1965) (Gremillion), Populorum Progressio (Paul VI, 1967), and the interventions of the Holy See on the occasions of international conferences about population, resources, and the environment. These documents manifest a social, structural analysis of the population issue, seeking to place demographic variables within a broadly defined socioeconomic context. The tenor and style of analysis is exemplified in Paul VI's message for the 1974 U.N. Population Year. The Pope's message argues for a broadly based approach to demographic problems with the category of social justice used as a principal theme (Paul VI, 1974a). This perspective is reaffirmed in the Holy See's intervention at the 1984 U.N. Population Conference (Schotte).

The main presupposition of all these statements is that the population problem is one strand of a larger fabric involving questions of political, economic, and social structure at the national and international levels. While acknowledging the existence of a population problem, this view asserts that it is morally wrong and practically ineffective to isolate population as a single factor, seeking to reduce population growth without simultaneously making those political and economic changes that will achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources within nations and among nations (Rich; Paul VI, 1974a, 1974b).

The ethical categories used in analyzing the social aspect of the population problem are drawn from Catholic social teaching developed principally in the papal documents from 1891 to 1991 (Calvez and Perrin; Gremillion; Pavan; O'Brien and Shannon). The foundation of the argument is that the human person, endowed with the gifts of reason and free will, possesses a unique dignity or status in the world. The person, in Christian thought, is regarded as the pinnacle of God's creative action; the uniqueness of the person is argued in Catholic thought in both philosophical and theological terms. The dignity of the person is the source of a spectrum of rights and duties articulated as claims upon and responsibilities toward other persons and society as a whole. The distinguishing mark of the Catholic theory of rights, setting it apart from a classical, liberal argument, is the assertion of the social nature of the person. Society and state are necessary and natural institutions that are presupposed and required for full human development.

The strong social orientation of Catholic political philosophy holds that the way in which society, state, and subordinate social institutions are designed and structured is a moral question of the first order. Society and state are not self-justifying; they exist for the purpose of achieving the common good, defined as the protection and promotion of the rights and duties of each person in the society (Gremillion).

The central category used in evaluating the organization of social structures and institutions is social justice. This concept has roots in medieval Catholic teaching, but it has been developed and refined in the social encyclicals Quadragesimo Anno (1931) (O'Brien and Shannon) and Mater et Magistra (John XXIII, 1961), as well as in the third synodal document, "Justice in the World" (1971), and in the social teaching of John Paul II (O'Brien and Shannon). As social justice is used in these documents, it measures the role of key social institutions in procuring a fair distribution of wealth and resources nationally and internationally. In Pacem in Terris, the normative framework for assessing social institutions is expanded beyond justice to include truth, freedom, and charity (John XXIII, 1963).

The articulation of these categories in Catholic social teaching manifests two stages of development, both pertinent to a population ethic. The social teaching of the period from 1891 through the 1930s focuses on the nation as the unit of analysis; social justice principally means justice within the nation.

Beginning with Pius XII and continuing through John Paul II, the scope of analysis is broadened to focus on the international community. This move from assessing justice within the nation to justice among nations can be charted in the emergence of key concepts. John XXIII (1961) is the first to discuss the international common good as a standard for measuring national policies. The implication of this idea is that an adequate assessment of a state's policy must be calculated in terms of its impact on other states and peoples as well as upon its own citizens. For transnational questions like population and food policy, such a category of analysis opens a whole new set of questions. A similar expansion of a traditional category is found in "Justice in the World" in its discussion of international social justice (Gremillion). The concept explicitly addresses the structures through which states relate to each other in political and economic affairs. John Paul II develops the notion of solidarity as the ethical category that can direct the increasing interdependence of world politics and economics (O'Brien and Shannon).

At both the national and international levels, the categories of common good, social justice, and freedom of choice for individuals and families in society are used to define the population question. Among social institutions, the family, based on the covenant of marriage, holds a unique place in Catholic thought (Hollenbach). It is regarded as the basic cell or unit of society and the Catholic Church. In the social hierarchy, reaching from the person through the state to the international community, no other association, save the Catholic Church itself, is accorded such status. The demands of the common good and the requirements of social justice are articulated in terms of providing the family and its members with those conditions of life that satisfy basic human needs, protect personal dignity, and allow human development through the exercise of rights and responsibilities in society.

High on the list of inviolable rights is that of marrying and having a family (Hollenbach). To protect this right and other such rights for each person, Catholic social teaching establishes two parameters: Positively, it calls upon the society to guarantee a basic minimum of material welfare, and negatively, it prohibits the state from any significant interference in the exercise of these rights. To summarize the public dimension of Catholic teaching, it accords primary attention to the context of the population question, focusing on the requirements of social justice that should be met as the first step in dealing with the relationship of resources and people. These requirements in specific form include questions of international trade, development assistance, agricultural reform, foreign-investment policies, consumption patterns, and the structure of social relationships within nations. In addition to these contextual issues in the population debate, Catholic teaching also includes a private dimension as regards the content of the procreative relationship.

The Teaching on Contraception

In contrast to the public teaching that focuses on societal structures, the tradition concerning private matters focuses upon the nature of the conjugal relationship and specifically upon the morality of the conjugal act. The principal issue involves analyzing permissible means of preventing contraception. The private aspect of the tradition is rooted in the extensive Catholic teaching on contraception, which has developed in very complex and detailed fashion since the second century (Noonan).

The modern expression of the private issues of the tradition is found in Pius XI's Casti Connubii (1930), Pius XII's Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives(1954), Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968), and John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio (1982). The principal private issues in the tradition include the morality of abortion, contraception, and sterilization; in the official teaching, all are rejected as means of preventing conception of birth. The only sanctioned means of limiting conception is some form of natural family planning, that is, one that excludes contraceptives. In contrast to the discussion among theologians on the public tradition, there is a very significant division between the official teaching on contraception and an analysis of contraception by theologians (Hoyt; Curran). While official teaching forbids all forms of contraception, many prominent theologians hold for the legitimacy of contraceptive techniques and the use of sterilization under specified conditions.

Population Policy and the Teaching on Contraception

The private dimension of the tradition on population policy has public implications; it seeks to prevent any public policy that would either constrain or induce individuals to procure an abortion or to use contraceptives or would prevent them from choosing to have children. There are themes of coherence and consistency between the public and private aspects of the Catholic tradition: Both are concerned with the procreative process as a sacred dimension of human relationships; both seek to preserve maximum freedom for the couple to determine when to exercise procreative rights; both stress that society and the state exist to serve their members, and the relationship of the state to citizens is articulated in terms of social justice and personal freedom.

Having acknowledged these elements of continuity, it is equally important to illustrate the tension that prevails between the public and private dimensions of Catholic teaching on population policy. The tension can be analyzed by examining two principal texts: Populorum Progressio, representing the public dimension, and Humanae Vitae, representing the private one (Paul VI, 1967, 1968). These texts, in turn, must be assessed in light of the teaching of John Paul II on population policy. Paragraph 37 of Populorum Progressio is a carefully articulated and expansive statement of Catholic teaching on population policy (Gremillion). The passage contains the following elements: (1) an acknowledgment that a population problem exists in the world; (2) an affirmation that governments have a right and competency to deal with the problem; (3) a prescription that governmental action must be in accord with the moral law. This specific treatment of population policy is couched in the context of Paul VI's most detailed statement of the need for international reform in the political and economic order. Hence, the paragraph presupposes that the social justice requirements are being addressed, and in that context the paragraph speaks to the question of measures to restrict population growth.

This passage is the clearest statement in Catholic teaching affirming the right of governments to intervene in the population question; left undefined, however, is the permissible scope of governmental intervention. The phrase that renders the policy ambiguous is that public intervention must be "in conformity with the moral law." In this area of public policy, what measures fall within the moral law? One way to clarify and specify the public tradition is to use Humanae Vitae as the guide for interpreting the moral law. The principal argument of the encyclical is that the moral law requires each and every act of intercourse to be open to procreation. A supporting reason offered for this position is that any compromise on this point opens the way to unregulated governmental intrusion into the sacred domain of family life (Gremillion). Presumably, then, the conjunction of Humanae Vitae and Populorum Progressio would limit the scope of governmental intervention to supporting and fostering only that means of population restraint approved in Humanae Vitae.

This is a restrictive reading of the texts; another view would stress the distinction between public and private dimensions of Catholic moral teaching as the key to interpreting Catholic teaching on population policy. This distinction is crucial in recognizing the different ethical norms used in Catholic thought for personal and social morality. A characteristic feature of Catholic social teaching is its sense of the multiple levels of society (Murray). The state is distinguished from society, and voluntary associations are distinguished from the state. Each principal part of the societal fabric is regarded as having a specific, limited role to play.

Two corollaries flow from this carefully delineated perspective on society. First, there is the recognition that personal conceptions of morality cannot be directly translated into requirements of social morality or public policy; to attempt to do so ignores the distinct nature of social and institutional relationships in society and thereby "makes wreckage not only of public policy but also of morality itself" (Murray, p. 286). Second, a recognition of two related but distinct levels of moral discourse—public and private—yields the jurisprudential distinction of moral law and civil law (Murray). While every human action and all human relationships fall under the moral law, only those that have a demonstrable effect on the public order and are open to state regulation without sacrificing other proportionately significant values are to be included under civil law or public policy. Since Catholic theology recognizes distinctions between public and private morality and between civil and moral law, it is possible for Catholic teaching to oppose an action or policy on moral grounds but not be inevitably committed to seek legal or political means to prevent its implementation.

The use of these distinctions between public and private morality and between civil and moral law could yield a more flexible reading of Populorum Progressio. First, such a reading would accent the state's right to intervene in the population question. Second, it would then treat the Humanae Vitae argument as being principally applicable in the area of personal morality and not an adequate framework for examining population policy. Third, it would acknowledge the disputed character of Humanae Vitae in the Catholic community, even as a norm of personal morality. The purpose of bringing to light the opposing Catholic views on papal teaching regarding contraception (as expressed in Humanae Vitae) would simply be to acknowledge that, when such dispute exists within the Catholic community, there is strong reason not to seek to make such a norm a standard of public policy in a pluralistic world. Finally, while not interjecting the specific prescriptions of Humanae Vitae into public debate, such a Catholic stance could still speak to the limits of permissible state intervention on population questions. The criteria for setting limits could be drawn from the human-rights standards of the public ethic in the tradition, including a stance against abortion (on human-rights grounds), protection of the person from coercion regarding procreative practice (particularly regarding sterilization), and a respect for religious and moral pluralism as a guide for governmental action.

This broadly designed "public" approach to population policy, one cast in terms of human rights and social justice, is defensible in terms of principles of Catholic moral theology. It is not, however, the direction Pope John Paul II has set for the church's approach to population questions since his election to the papacy in 1978. His approach has been to tie the public and private dimensions of policy more tightly together, thereby raising the visibility and role of the teaching on contraception in the overall direction of policy. The impact of John Paul's leadership can be found in his own teaching and in the positions the Holy See has taken in international conferences on population-related issues.

Teaching of John Paul II

John Paul's influence can be summarized in terms of four contributions. First, in his encyclical on Catholic moral theology Veritatis Splendor (1993), the pope reaffirmed the structure of moral argument that sustains traditional Catholic teaching, not only on abortion but also on sterilization and contraception. The encyclical did not break new ground on these issues, but the effect of it has been a call for greater restraint on theological dissent from the teaching on contraception and sterilization. The scope of Veritatis Splendor is much broader than specific issues of sexual morality; its influence on population policy lies in its resistance to an interpretation of Catholic teaching that would treat contraception as an internal issue of church discipline but not a position to be espoused in public policy. Prior to the encyclical, the pope's thinking was made clear in the Holy See's intervention at the 1984 U.N. Conference on Population at Mexico City. The Vatican's statement affirmed "that the Catholic Church has always rejected contraception as being morally illicit. That position has not changed but has been reaffirmed with new vigor" (Schotte, p. 207).

Second, the weight given to the private dimension of Catholic teaching does not, however, mean that John Paul II has forsaken the broader public dimensions of the teaching on population policy. Indeed, the second dimension of his contribution to population policy in the church has been to expand and develop the social justice theme espoused by Paul VI and the 1971 Synod of Bishops. John Paul's contribution is found in a series of encyclical letters, from Redemptor Hominis (1979) through Centesimus Annus (1991). In his social teaching, John Paul develops a moral vision rooted in human rights, including both political and economic rights, and shaped by principles of social justice and solidarity. The papal teaching takes the international community as the unit of analysis, and John Paul II argues that a broadly defined notion of human, economic, and social development should be the context for examining population questions. John Paul II substantially extends Paul VI's critique of international institutions and practices in the socioeconomic order. Like his predecessor, John Paul II primarily emphasizes deep and extensive changes in international economic policies as the response to demographic pressures. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he argues that "one must denounce the existence of economic, financial and social mechanisms which … often function almost automatically, thus accentuating the situation of wealth for some and poverty for the rest" (O'Brien and Shannon, p. 404). In the same encyclical, John Paul II cites the need "for a solidarity which will take up interdependence and transfer it to the moral plane" (p. 411). In subsequent teaching, he explicates some of the policy demands of solidarity as they affect international distribution, problems of the Third World debt, and protection of human rights within nations and through the work of international institutions.

Third, a dimension of Catholic teaching which holds a prominent place in the pontificate of John Paul II is the relationship of migration and population. The teaching and the practice of the church both testify to a deep concern for the welfare of migrants and refugees. At the level of the Holy See, in the structure of national episcopal conferences, and in the work of dioceses and religious orders, the pastoral care of migrants and refugees holds a substantial place in the ministry of the church.

This ministry is supported by Catholic teaching on migration. The perspective on the right of the person to emigrate and immigrate is based on Catholic teaching on human rights and on the moral structure of the international order. The right of the person to emigrate places upon the international community, and states within it, the responsibility for developing fair policies regarding immigration. Catholic teaching does not assert an unlimited duty to receive migrants and refugees, but it does not specify particular limits either. The emphasis of the teaching falls on a duty of international solidarity that then must find expression in international and national policies regarding migrants and refugees. In John Paul II's teaching, "the state's task is to ensure that immigrant families do not lack what it ordinarily guarantees its own citizens as well as to protect them from any attempt at marginalization, intolerance or racism …" (John Paul II, 1994, p. 718).

This expansive conception of the duty of states to be open to the movement of populations when they are driven by war, famine, economic necessity, or human-rights violations provides another social instrumentality, along with the teaching on social justice, to complement the Vatican's restrictive policy regarding the limitation of population.

In summary, there is substantial continuity between Paul VI and John Paul II on the public dimensions of population policy. The public argument about human rights and social justice remains the context in which population policy is addressed. Within that context, however, there is a difference in the way John Paul II relates the public and private dimensions of Catholic teaching.

This is the fourth aspect of his teaching, and it does not point toward more active Catholic engagement concerning population issues. Paul VI had acknowledged the objective dimensions of demographic problems, and the duty of governments to address these; John Paul II places the emphasis in a different direction. He also acknowledges that population growth can create "difficulties for development," but his concern is principally about the abuses public agencies commit in pursuit of population policies (O'Brien and Shannon). There is undoubtedly a need for the multiple concerns expressed by the pope himself and by the Holy See in its 1984 intervention at Mexico City. The values and principles stressed in the Holy See's intervention at the Mexico City conference and reiterated in 1994 by Pope John Paul II in preparation for the U.N. Population Conference at Cairo—protection of the rights of the person and the family, resistance to conditioning economic assistance on the basis of population targets, restraints on the role of the state—are necessary for an ethically sound population policy. But there is less positive encouragement or guidance for the state or international agencies to take responsibility for population issues. The principal guidance for public authorities is to reject abortion, sterilization, and contraception in the implementation of population policy. These restrictions are matched with a statement of the duty states have to create conditions within which parents can make responsible choices about family size (e.g., John Paul II, 1994).

Clearly, any Catholic policy will oppose abortion because of the deeply held conviction that a human life is at stake, and it will be deeply suspicious of state intervention in any decisions and choices about procreation that are basic to the dignity and freedom of married couples. The question of whether all forms of contraception would have to be explicitly opposed, save that described in Catholic thought as "natural family planning," is what lay implicit in Paul VI's statement of 1967. John Paul's response is decisively in the direction of treating abortion, sterilization, and contraception in similar fashion; although different in nature, all three are to be opposed in population policy.

The basic lines of Catholic policy, in both its public and private dimensions, have been firmly set for centuries. The policy combines a powerful vision of economic justice and human rights with a comprehensive resistance to most specific measures of population limitation. At the level of implementation, does the policy framework allow for or manifest any differentiation? Two possibilities exist: at the level of pastoral care and the level of principles and rules of conduct.

The pastoral level involves the advice, counsel, and direction provided by the ministers of the church to Catholics as guidance for conscience. The pastoral level also involves the degree of activism that marks Catholic life on population issues at national and local levels of the church. The other possibility for differentiation would involve an attempt to change the basic principles of Catholic teaching in its public or private dimensions.

In his history of the teaching on contraception, John Noonan illustrates the fact that some difference has often marked the church's life between what has been prohibited at the level of principle and how distinctions were made to accommodate the specific conditions in the lives of individuals. In the years since Humanae Vitae (1968) was issued, substantial differences have existed between the principles of the encyclical and the choices individuals have made, often with advice from theologians or pastors. John Paul II has been vigorous in his attempt to close this gap. While pastoral practice undoubtedly affects the population issue, its primary impact is felt not at the level of church policy or involvement in the public debate on population issues but in the lives of individuals.

In terms of the principles of Catholic population policy, it is useful to compare the universal teaching and the role of the church within nations. It is clear that the church ministers in nations with very different approaches to population policy, some close to Catholic principles and others in direct opposition to either the public or private dimensions of Catholic teaching. It is also clear that in the period since the Second Vatican Council, there has been greater possibility in Catholic polity for national episcopal conferences to take initiatives in applying the church's teaching to specific local circumstances. Examples of this include Latin American hierarchies addressing human rights and economic justice, and the hierarchy of the United States engaging the issues of nuclear deterrence and economic policy.

Population policy, however, is not an area where much latitude exists for national or local voices. The Holy See, through its teaching office and its diplomatic engagement, is clearly the primary and predominant voice on population issues. National hierarchies may coexist with governmental programs that differ from Catholic teaching, but they seldom seek to challenge or change the principles of Catholic teaching to meet their local situations. Examples of national teaching that do seem to press for some change in the understanding or application of the teaching (particularly in its private dimensions) are recognized as rare exceptions. Such is the case of the Indonesian bishops who issued a statement in 1968 and then were required to provide clarification of their position in 1972 (Indonesian Bishops, 1972). The normal practice for episcopal conferences is to take the Holy See's principles as the premise of their position and then try to relate these principles to the broader policy debate in their own countries; this has been the policy followed by the U.S. bishops in their 1973 and 1994 statements on the population question (National Conference; U.S. Cardinals).

In the 1984 U.N. Conference on Population in Mexico City and in the preparatory debate leading to the 1994 Cairo conference, John Paul II has forcefully reasserted the papal role as the decisive voice on population issues. His position of tightly integrating the public and private dimensions of the teaching, and seeking to shape global policy in both areas, sets the standard for any other voice in the Catholic Church. No Catholic policy would forsake either the socioeconomic principles of justice or its opposition to abortion as a method of population limitation. The effect of John Paul II's leadership is to reaffirm these dimensions and to dimin ish the likelihood that any distinction will be made in the policy debate between the public and private dimensions of Catholic teaching (John Paul II, 1994).

j. bryan hehir (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abortion; Adoption; Christianity, Bioethics in; Coercion; Embryo and Fetus: Religious Perspectives; Eugenics and Religious Law; Feminism; Fertility Control; Freedom and Free Will; Genetic Testing and Screening; Harm; Infanticide; Informed Consent; Justice; Life; Natural Law; Race and Racism; Rights, Human; Sexism;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


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Gremillion, Joseph, ed. 1976. The Gospel of Peace and Justice: Catholic Social Teaching since Pope John. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. Cites many of the papal messages mentioned in this article.

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Hoyt, Robert G., ed. 1968. The Birth Control Debate. Kansas City, MO: National Catholic Reporter.

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Pius XI. 1930. "Casti Connubii." Acta Apostolicae Sedis 22(13): 539–592.

Pius XII. 1954. "His Holiness Pope Pius XII's Discourse to Members of the Congress of the Italian Association of Catholic Midwives" (October 29, 1951). In Catholic Documents: Containing Recent Pronouncements and Decisions of His Holiness Pope Pius XII. London: Pontifical Court Club by the Salesian Press.

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