Pro-natalism: The role of the Vatican

Those of us who care about overpopulation need to pay far more attention to the powerful pro-natalists who are coaching or instructing people to have more children. Religion is obviously a big factor, although not the only one, and there has been much coverage of evangelical Christians. Much less has been written about the Catholic Church, apart from some leading theologians and organisations within the church such as the US-based Catholics for Choice. Yet it is possible to argue that the most influential pro-natalists on the planet, in recent history and the present day, are the Catholic Church hierarchy.

By Barbara Rogers

Given its importance, the role of the Catholic Church in limiting access to contraception has been written about relatively little. Perhaps it is because their ban on modern contraception and abortion has been a factor for as long as we can remember. For an important outline of the hierarchy’s position, see the TOP blog by Patricia Andresz-Derer. My own research has been about Church efforts to impose contraception bans on members and non-members alike, through their influence on governments and especially in international organisations.

My own explanation for the Church’s opposition to contraception is that childless men of the clergy – who are not permitted to have their own families or children – have been attempting to impose their opinions about women and babies in a form of coercive control over women’s bodies and fertility.  This is now the road to promotion for priests within the hierarchy, which requires them to adopt the most conservative view on this subject. Even the current Pope, Francis, although a particularly kind and forgiving figure, is personally committed to the view that terminating a pregnancy is “homicide” although he has also said that it could be forgiven.

One of the biggest social changes in the last century has been the rapid decline in family size, mainly within the wealthier countries, as family planning became increasingly available and effective. Catholic families stood out as the exception, with so many of the faithful obeying the instruction to avoid any “unnatural” contraceptives. As soon as these became freely available, however, Catholics started to use them with many priests turning a blind eye, some even encouraging the use of modern contraceptives, as in Costa Rica. Family planning (FP) use now is almost the same as in the general population. The demographic changes in strongly Catholic countries like Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal are witness to this, with birth rates falling to surprisingly low levels. And perhaps surprisingly, in Sub-Saharan Africa fertility rates are similar among Catholics and others.

The Vatican’s response to their inability to instruct their own members has been to go secular: fix national and international policies and legislation to ban FP programmes. There are around one billion Catholics in the world, and 7.8 billion of us overall, so this was going to have a massive impact.

The Catholic commentator Stephen D. Mumford has described how the Vatican works in practice, and its international lobbying. A political element exists alongside the religious one, and in a case like this it is the political Catholics, who may not be particularly religious, who win out. He also outlines their use of Protestant or secular leaders and politicians as a front for their agenda in the US so that it does not appear to be a Catholic campaign.

The delegation of the Holy See at the fifty-ninth session of the General Assembly. Photo: UN Photo/Ky Chung

Mumford attributes the American Evangelical church’s sudden obsession with abortion, beginning in the 1970s, to Catholic influencers rallied by the US government’s emerging position favouring population stabilisation. The resulting “pro-life” movement built political support for the “Mexico City Policy”, which made funding for FP globally a political football in the American abortion debate. That policy was part of a coup overturning the US position on global population, and the personnel representing it, immediately prior to the 1984 UN Population Conference in Mexico City. When developing country leaders were increasingly convinced of the economic burden of population growth, the new US position declared that “population growth is, of itself, a neutral phenomenon”. [1] As Mumford suggests, the “pro-life” issue is best read as a cover for pro-natalism since it often includes the promotion of large families. [2]

The importance of “pro-life” themes is confirmed by David Yallop in his book In God’s Name about the sudden death of the reforming Pope John Paul I. Yallop’s book describes both the corruption and the goodness that co-exist within the Vatican, and the bitter fights over money and birth control. [3]

Alongside fundamentalists of other religions, many Catholic organisations spread misinformation far and wide to try and stop people using modern methods (the rhythm method is approved, perhaps because it often fails). This includes being vigorous advocates of “pro-life” organisations. Their most effective weapons against people’s choices are largely hidden from view, however: their ultra-conservative bishops and cardinals who may use election contributions to influence the politicians, their “diplomatic corps” who have accreditation in 184 countries as well as the UN and its specialised agencies, which set international policy and sometimes handle very large international programmes.

The Catholic Church and its various organisations also have huge social and health programmes in low- and middle-income countries, as outlined in Robert Calderisi’s book Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development. [4] World Health Organisation (WHO) figures show that Catholic hospitals and clinics provide up to 50% of all health facilities in some countries, especially in Africa. These may also be government-funded, but Catholic organisations sometimes control the accreditation of other providers’ health facilities. In addition, the Catholic church has many schools in Africa, but its teachings and mission there have hardly been studied.

The Vatican is not remotely a State (as defined by the Montevideo Convention) and yet it has a quasi-membership in the UN which goes above and beyond any of the genuine member-States. There is no documentation about how they achieved this, but it must have been at the height of the Cold War when the Secretary General would not have taken any significant action without the agreement of either the United States or the Soviet Union. Presumably a conservative American delegation forced through this highly irregular move.

The Vatican, known there as the Holy See, has been given an office at the UN headquarters, which no government has. It receives an advance copy of every document produced there. This also gives it easy access to the Delegates’ Lounge and other meeting spaces for lobbying purposes, where almost all the non-governmental organisations are excluded. I have observed the anxiety among staff at the Secretariat to rush new documents to the Holy See office in case they make an official complaint. Indeed, a well-placed source has told me that UN and agency officials are extremely nervous of saying or doing anything to challenge the Holy See position within the organisation because they are seen as having forced people out as a result.

The Holy See also has speaking rights and a vote at all the specialised conferences, especially those relating to overall human rights, women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and FP. It uses this access shamelessly to block the necessary consensus on any topic it opposes, which goes beyond “reproductive rights”. Participants and observers in international debates on women’s rights have found the Holy See opposing the very mention of “rights” for women, on the basis that they may imply sexual and reproductive rights. The rights that activists are pushing for include protection from domestic violence, forced marriage, child marriage, genital mutilation, rape and sexual abuse, and even murder. The Holy See has also become adept at organising small coalitions of conservative countries (including ultra-Islamic states and the US under Trump) to vote against any progressive motions on women’s rights.

African women queuing to access family planning services. Photo: Lindsay Mgbor/DFID

The Catholic-led coalitions have managed to prevent any of the specialised organisations of the UN, including the Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the children’s agency (UNICEF) and the WHO, from providing FP services from their own funds. The former Assistant Director General of the WHO, Milton P. Siegel, has revealed how the WHO was stopped from its early plans to incorporate FP in its health programmes by just three delegations (Belgium, Ireland and Italy) and since then has done very little to promote a choice agenda. The only UN agency which is doing this is the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) whose budget is a small fraction of theirs – and part of this has been diverted by having to work on population censuses around the world.

At the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, the Holy See’s tactic was to give up operating through government delegations, instead claiming a right to speak and lobby on the floor. They stopped the conference for six days, and then fiercely opposed many proposals. Women’s representatives were forced to observe this, with no right to speak until the Chair announced they could come and lobby the delegations. Since Cairo, attempts to advance the agenda for FP in review conferences have made no progress because of the unanimity rule which allows the Holy See and a few others to block resolutions. One advance has been inclusion of “universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for FP, information and education” as part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Target 3.7), but moves to implement this have been met with obstruction within the UN. Sadly, slowing population growth is not a goal of the SDGs.

This all matters because the UN and its agencies are major actors for development policy and practice around the world. We need to challenge the Holy See’s anomalous position in the UN. The policy-making assemblies of the specialised agencies should also be asked to review the situation. A General Assembly (GA) resolution instructing the agencies to include FP in all relevant programmes would only require a simple majority, and could make all the difference since these agencies are accountable to the GA.

Meanwhile the very limited funds available for FP services in lower-income countries could be greatly increased by allowing climate change funding. Hopefully, after COP26, we will see extra support for FP programmes; it is now understood to be under consideration in the UK Government and could be adopted by other donors.

Another move that would sidestep the pro-natalists is to emphasise family planning as an element in basic needs, especially for women. To approach this as a matter of “sexual and reproductive rights” or “SRHR” plays into the hands of conservative delegations that will oppose any extension of human rights generally, and women’s rights in particular. I kno w this is controversial, but several leading FP organisations already emphasise needs, and the link with basic health, rather than the SRHR case.

For women, the need for autonomy necessitates access to contraception and safety from sexual abuse and forced marriage. For children, it includes the need to be wanted, loved and sufficiently provided for, which invokes a duty to educate prospective parents on responsible procreation. For youth, livelihood opportunities are scarce in rapidly growing populations, and excessive pressure on environmental resources further erodes their prospects. These should be further considerations for prospective parents. We should also be speaking the language of universal basic health care (UHC), which is based on medical need.

Referring in particular to Catholic health and education work, liberal Catholic theologian Christine Gudorf, has commented:

“There are certainly days when I believe that the institution is so deeply corrupted that it should be destroyed… (but) there are parts of the world where the only place you will be medically treated is by a Catholic. It does enormous good and enormous evil.”

To point this out is not any more anti-Catholic or anti-religious than to campaign against child abuse by priests, or publicise the deaths of small children in Catholic orphanages. Ultimately the men of the Vatican should relent on their prohibitions against choice and let the faithful decide. The moral guidance which the Church exerts in other spheres of life should not shy from advocating small families. Let the Church do enormous good and let us stop the enormous evil. Within the Church, members should be aware of the squandering of church resources on pro-natalist work, rather than on humanitarian support for people struggling with poverty.

Meanwhile, our own movement needs to think seriously about a united position on these issues, and how to work together. For instance, we need to create alliances with the women’s movement and environmental organisations. Should we argue for population numbers to be the focus when some oppose making that connection? Should we link this with immigration into high-income countries? How about a common approach between the “SRHR” advocates and the “FP” ones? Like it or not, language matters – especially at the UN, where it is the wording that makes all the difference. Let us have a real debate about this, and how we can all move forward.


Barbara Rogers has worked at the United Nations in New York as a lobbyist, petitioner and employee. She is now an independent commentator on women’s issues and has just released a new book, “Children by Choice? Double standards, population and the planet”, which reviews these issues in more detail. It is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon.


  1. Finkle, J.L. & Crane, B.B. (1986) Ideology and Politics of Mexico City: The United States at the 1984 International Conference on Population. Population and Development review 11(1):1-28.
  2. Church and State website, Stephen D. Mumford.
  3. David Yallop, In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul 1 (Jonathan Cape, 2013)
  4. Robert Calderisi. Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development. (Yale University Press, 2013)
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13 thoughts on “Pro-natalism: The role of the Vatican

  1. Excellent point.
    I have to say China probably did more to mitigate climate change than any other government with it’s “one child policy” I think that policy was misguided but without it I wonder what they’re population would be. Now they are dismantling that policy and I am sure part is the nationalism issue

    While we are watching to world discuss climate change it is very telling that they never discuss population as a driver. The cheapest thing we could do to decrease future CO2 emissions is to make sure contraception is free throughout the world.

    1. I must point out that China, with its one child policy, has a higher total fertility rate than Italy, the country within which the Vatican is located.
      Just to show how complex things are and how the will of those who have the power isn’t the only thing that determines reality.

      1. Chinese one child policy was not absolute. It is true that you could not have more than one child if you were a civil servant. But it did not apply for a number of “ethnic minorities”. And my former student said that China is not “counting the number of kids” for those moving back to China after a time abroad! I dined with a Chinese businessman member of the communistic party (not easy in China) who had four kids. How come I asked? Well there are some extra cost for school and such things as it is not subsidised by state for me, but that is marginal was the reply. And I never heard that the Government killed access babies. Now I understand that China wants higher fertility as the age distribution will be very few young to support many old. But the people is not so anxious to get two kids even when it is promoted. Guess it will be a problem to sustain the population to a level where it is in balance with the Earth but I do not suggest we should worry about that before 2060, and later if “net zero” emissions have not been reached 2050.

    2. It has been suggested that the “one child” policy was imposed on a situation in China where people were increasingly using family planning to reduce the number of their children, which would have led to similar reductions in numbers. Unfortunately the cruelties of the policy have discredited FP, especially in parts of Asia. Coercion is wrong and often counter-productive.

    3. China’s fertility decline mostly happened under a program of voluntary family planning promotion, starting around 1970. The one-child policy only came in in 1979-80, and the fertility decline actually slowed down. So I don’t think any of their birth reduction can be attributed to coercive measures. Without the one-child policy, their population might be even lower today.

  2. In the world of money and power, he (or she) who can muster the biggest, most loyal, most powerful population always wins. Don’t agree? Study world history. I have. Capitalism and its big corporations demand more and more consumers, workers, and cannon fodder. The Church is just one of many organizations designed to out number the competition and take the field. Our real problem is, you are correct, Pronatalism. So, the solution is, sad to say, anti-natalism. Oh, you say, that will never float, although we all know that when women are allowed education, higher education, and are paid accordingly, they have smaller families or none at all. Just ask the Chinese government, attempting to bribe their massively overpopulated citizenry to pick-up the pace and have 2 or 3 children, when they previously had the “one-child” policy. In my book, free on the net at, I have put forward the medical evidence for “population density stress is killing us now!” Only wouldbe parents facing the reality of global climate collapse and the skyrocketing healthcare costs for our exploding “diseases of civilization” can make that all important decision FOR THE SAKE OF AN UNBORN CHILD to not continue the march of humanity and the biosphere into extinction. Too many humans (irrespective of religion, national origin, etc., etc.) are using too many natural resources and producing too much pollution, GHG’s, and the ever more obvious to all, climate catastrophe. Do we really want to bring another innocent life into this dying world, when that as yet unconceived child may very well grow-up to hate us? Stress R Us

  3. The Catholic Church is a human institution. We are all sinners. The Vatican is heritage of an imperial church that is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Religious patriarchy is a cultural deformation of the Christian faith. However, God is not dead, so we should try to let go of what is bad, and keep what is good, because we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

    1. I agree. All religious institutions are composed of falible human beings. Various interest groups tend to take over at times. The Vatican is not the only patriarchal institution but it is a very powerful one. Let’s value the good and hope for more of it.

  4. I have just heard that there will be a major fringe event on FP and climate change at COP26 in Glasgow, next Monday (8th Nov). Speakers will include
    • Mr Simon Sawadogo, Minister for Environment, Green Economy and Climate Change, Burkina Faso
    • Mr Flemming Møller Mortensen, Minister for Development Cooperation and Minister for Nordic Cooperation, Denmark
    • Dr. Natalia Kanem, Executive Director, UNFPA
    • Mr Jan Wahlberg, Ambassador for Climate Change, Finland
    • Ms. Luísa Celma Caetano Meque, President of the National Institute for Disaster Risk Management and Reduction (INGD), Republic of Mozambique
    • Speakers from YOUNGO Nigeria, UN Youth Advisory Group on Climate: Sudan, CARE International, Project Drawdown and the Margaret Pyke Trust

    To register for online attendance, go to

    1. I asked a question how COP26 approaches the overpopulation matter. And here you give the answer! Yes it will be a 1 hr fringe event (among many), with a little more recognized speakers. But it is much to dull in my opinion. The title is “Removing barriers to health and education: An essential climate adaptation and resilience strategy”, very shy title saying very little! It seems to be a matter among others of girls education and access to family planning tools in some not well developed countries. I agree on the relevance of this. But we are already too many on this Earth!! People in countries with rather good GNP, girl education and access to reproductive health and techniques and where number of kids per woman is lower that required for sustainable population are those where a new-born is predicted to cause more climate gases per capita than in less developed countries. Even those countries should reduce birth rate more than they do for the coming decades to reduce the too high requirement on the resources and climate influence.

  5. Considering that Muslims have more children than Christians on average, the sentence “the most influential pro-natalists on the planet, in recent history and the present day, are the Catholic Church hierarchy” should be re-formulated.

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