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Church grapples with crowded planet


On Oct. 15, the 6 billionth person on Earth was born. That boy or girl represents a doubling of the world’s population, which was only 3 billion in 1960. Although experts differ, there is some consensus that the world’s population will top out at 9 billion in another 30 or 40 years.

Some talk about the “crowded planet.” But Catholics will recognize that the child born on Oct. 15 was created by God as a very special and unique person, chosen to radiate the glory of the Holy Trinity in a way that no other creature could do.

The depressing conditions in which almost one-half of humanity lives, however, have to raise the most troubling questions. Christians must be concerned that there are 78 million newborns each year, or 1.5 million each week — concerned that we bring children into a world in which their full human dignity will be respected.

John Paul has recently raised another sort of population question, this one concerning the number of Christians in Asia. He has called for renewed evangelization efforts to boost the number of Christians on the continent where three-quarters of the human family resides.

The question is, how do these two demographic imperatives go together? Is there a tension between working for justice in an expanding world and working to make converts?

A full 96 percent of the annual population increase occurs in developing countries, including most of those places where overcrowding and resource depletion are already a grave problem.

The population has stabilized in the developed world; Europe, North America and Japan will have a population in 2050 that will be slightly less than in 2000. But Nigeria and Pakistan will double their population in the next 50 years; Ethiopia will nearly triple. In 1960, Europe had twice as many people as Africa; by 2050 there will be three times as many Africans as Europeans.

There have been spectacular improvements since 1960 in the availability of food. China, for example, has increased its corn production by 213 percent, and global life expectancy has risen from 46 to 66 years.

But there is still a grim, dark side for God’s children. Some 841 million are chronically malnourished, and there are 88 “food deficit” countries. Nearly 1 billion people are illiterate, two-thirds of them women; 60 percent of the 4.8 billion people in developing countries lack basic sanitation.

It is another kind of global demographics, however, that most occupies the attention of the Vatican. In 1900 there were 490 million Christians. In 2000 there are 1.6 billion. Catholics in Africa increased from very small numbers in 1900 to 120 million today.

What will the world picture be for Catholics in the year 2100? Could its adherents shrink from the present estimate of 1 billion? Or could the church with its incredible appeal grow to 2 billion or even more? These are questions that obviously galvanize the imagination of the pope.

In his address in India in November, John Paul stated that Christians evangelized Europe in the first 1,000 years of Christianity and spread the gospel to Latin America and Africa in the second millennium. He suggested that Christians in the third millennium will, or at least should, bring the gospel to India and to all of Asia in the third millennium.

But that aspiration is not necessarily what Catholics, especially Asian Catholics, regard as their priority. Catholics want to share the gospel with everyone, as Christ’s words clearly direct. But how should this be done with the 2 billion persons, for example, in India and China?

Some Hindus made it clear on the occasion of the pope’s visit that they do not want Christians to try to “convert” them. Many Muslims in the roughly 40 nations with a Muslim majority might well feel the same way. The danger inherent in an aggressive new program of evangelization is that it might exacerbate tensions among religions, and thus undercut the solidarity they need if they are to work together for justice.

Christians must take as one of their highest priorities the alleviation of hunger and illiteracy in the developing nations. Over 1 billion people on the planet enter the new century unable to read or even to sign their names. Over 35,000 children die needlessly every day.

So one way to approach the population question would be to ask, which set of numbers should command our attention more: the number of Catholics in the world, or the number of starving people? If boosting one gets in the way of cutting the other, is it worth it? How do we choose?

No one pretends the answers are easy or clear. But these challenges come to us directly from God, who created us to live at this critical turning point in the history of the church and of the world.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999