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Discussion 1 to Meditation 862
You’re Kidding, Right?

by: Paul W. Sharkey, PhD, MPH*

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To me, this piece has all the flavor and earmarks of some conspiracy theory claim typified by the presentation of misleading, false and distorted misinformation strung together by a series of non-sequitur links all aimed at reducing a very important and complex issue to a simplistically focused rant motivated by some underlying personal agenda.[1]   It would be bad enough if it were merely fallacious – that its conclusions simply didn’t follow from its premises -- but in this case, it isn’t even internally consistent.[2]  As if the claim  (expressed as its conclusion) that “Thus, the dogma of infallibility lies at the very heart of the overpopulation dilemma” weren’t ludicrous enough on its face, it then goes on to imply that that doctrine and the Catholic Church somehow constitute a serious threat to the American First Amendment Right to Freedom of The Press.   In short, the whole tenor of the piece seems designed to suggest that there is some major and immanent threat to “national and global security” facilitated by some nefarious agent who is preventing the people from knowing the truth.  If the ostensible topic of this piece weren’t overpopulation and the Catholic Church one might think it was about UFOs and government cover-up conspiracies.

 This piece contains so many misrepresentations, fallacies and non-sequiturs that to comment on all of them would require a much longer presentation than the original itself; a task I do not intend to undertake.  A few points, however, should suffice to illustrate its absurdity. 

First, as to the doctrine of infallibility:  One does not need to delve too deeply into the sophisticated details of Catholic theology or Cannon Law to challenge the apparent claims of this piece.[3] In order for its premise to be true, the doctrine, power and authority of the Catholic Church in general and Papal Infallibility in particular would have to somehow extend beyond the Church itself and explicitly apply to the issue of contraception -- neither of which is true.[4]  Neither is it true -- nor does it even make any sense -- to suggest that in Catholic theology “INFALLIBILTY REPLACES SCIENTIFIC TRUTH.”[5]    All of these claims represent either serious misunderstandings -- or even more seriously, flat-out distortions -- of the history and theology of “infallibility.”[6] It is certainly not my purpose to defend this doctrine -- I don’t, I can’t and I wouldn’t -- but even if I were a Catholic (which I definitely am not), the views of not only Fr. Hans Kung  (cited in this piece itself) but also those of none other than Cardinal John Henry Newman should be sufficient to illustrate the simplistically distorted misrepresentation to which this piece puts that doctrine.[7

Second, as to the issue of overpopulation: To suggest that Papal Infallibility is somehow responsible for the “overpopulation dilemma” is to ignore facing the historical facts of human population growth, the biological complexities of population dynamics, social, political and economic values and maybe even – as lawyers are want to say – to “assume facts not in evidence.”[8]    The historical fact of the matter is that the meteoric rise of the human population began at the advent of the industrial revolution fed by the emergence of world market economies dominated by industrialized nations.[9]   In other words, one could just as easily – and perhaps with more justification – blame corporate capitalism for the “overpopulation dilemma” as Papal Infallibility.   Make no mistake; the issue involved here is nothing less than who shall live (and how) and who shouldn’t.   It is ultimately a question of management, not science.  Science may provide important information about factors affecting the human population but the issue of how “best” to manage it comes not from science but from humanly perceived wants, needs, desires and values.   Whether for example the life-style of a modern corporate executive is superior to that of the original life-style of the so-called Native American Indian may be a matter for philosophical debate but it is not a matter of debate as to which best represents minimal environmental impact or ecological sustainability.[10]   Neither is it a matter of debate as to which is associated with the meteoric rise in human population growth.   Please do not misunderstand.  I am not here suggesting any particular “lifestyle” solution to the problem of how best to manage the world’s human population but only to suggest that in the light of all this the claim that somehow “the dogma of infallibility lies at the very heart of the population dilemma” strikes me as patently and simplistically absurd.

Lastly, as to the issue of the Freedom of the Press:  I have always found it paradoxically ironic that those who so often complain that their voices or views are somehow being suppressed are nevertheless able to do so so widely, so often, and so loudly – and in the press! [11] All too often one sees such complaints coming from those whose views or policies are not being accepted as widely or as enthusiastically as they might wish – not that they are unable to express them.   It seems to me that the author of this presentation has had considerable representation in the press to express his views and that “access to the truth” is not so much a problem as is its representation – as at least this particular presentation all too clearly demonstrates. [12]



* Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Professor of Community Health (Health Ethics, Law and Policy), University of Southern Mississippi -- Retired.

  1. Among the things not mentioned in this presentation are an apparent personal history of anti-Catholicism (The Anti-Catholicism of a Population Controller) and the fact that Dr. Stephen D. Mumford, together with Dr. Elton Kessel, is the leading advocate and virtually sole distributor of the controversial quinacrine sterilization method banned by the FDA and the governments of several countries, including India – hardly a Catholic dominated nation or culture. (Americans export chemical sterilzation to the third world & Maternal Mortality, Population Control, and the War in Women's Wombs: A Bioethical Analysis of Quinacrine Sterilizations)
  2. For example, on the one hand the author seems to want to argue that the influence of the Catholic Church in the world and “especially in the United States” is so great as to cause Catholic “bishops and lay Catholics [to march] in lock-step” with the teachings of Humanae Vitae, yet on the other hand he correctly notes at the outset of his talk that “American Catholic women use contraception and abortion at slightly higher rates than non-Catholic women.”   Which is it?  Are they marching lock-step or not?  Is the teaching regarded as infallible or not, especially since the only real consequence of denying an infallible pronouncement is excommunication -- and evidently these women have not been excommunicated.  See note 7 below.
  3.  Papal infallibility
  4.  (1) The doctrine of Papal Infallibility ultimately comes down to who, in the last resort, has the authority to set the rules concerning what beliefs one absolutely most hold in order to continue to be considered a member of the Catholic Church (not be excommunicated).   That’s it; nothing else.  As such its authority only extends and could not extend any further than the Church itself.  To suggest that it somehow has power outside the Church – over those who not only don’t believe in it but who flat out deny it -- seems patently absurd to me.   (2) Though there may be those who would like Humanae Vitae to unambiguously carry the authority of an ex cathedra infallible Papal pronouncement, it just ain’t so.   Virtually all scholars on the subject note that such ex cathedra pronouncements  are extremely rare, perhaps two or three at most in the entire history of the Church, and Humanae Vitae isn’t one of them. (See note 3 above Papal infallibility).
  5. Even Catholic teaching itself on this makes it clear that any doctrine of magisterial infallibility (Papal or otherwise) does not and cannot extend to issues of science or objective fact but only to defining issues of Catholic faith and morals.  Anyone who does not understand this distinction simply doesn’t understand the difference between facts and values, let alone so-called Papal “Infallibility.”
  6. Contrary to the impression given by the author, it is not only the Catholic Church that asserts a theological doctrine of infallibility but also, but in a different form, so do many Protestants -- and with at least as potentially devastating consequences.  For example, only recently a United States Congressman asserted that we needn’t worry about global warming because God promised in the Bible that He would not flood the earth again and that he, the Congressman, believed in the “infallible word of God” as expressed in the Bible. Now there’s at least as scary a basis for the formulation of public policy affecting the future of mankind as any unambiguous historical pronouncement of Papal Infallibility. ('The planet won't be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah,' says politician bidding to chair U.S. energy committee).
  7. Isn’t it interesting that Fr. Hans Kung, whom the author even cites as a critic of Papal Infallibility, has not been ex-communicated or that Cardinal John Henry Newman, also known for his theological concerns about this doctrine, has not only not been ex-communicated but has even recently been beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.   How curious that expressing opposition to such a supposedly world power imposing and despotic doctrine not only does not get one ex-communicated but is evidently not even a bar to sainthood.
  8. There are some who argue that at least some of the concerns expressed about “overpopulation” are based upon a myth perpetrated by certain cultural interests against those of other cultures who, if they grew in numbers, power and influence, would be seen as “security threats” by the former (Note Dr. Mumford’s “Center for Research on Population and Security”).  Simply put, these people argue that human population levels are and will be determined by the natural forces of population dynamics and that it is not population per se that is the problem threatening human extinction but rather a life-style based upon unsustainable consumption and pollution production. ( "The Coming Population Crash": The overpopulation myth, The overpopulation myth, & Overpopulation is a myth
  9. This well known and well documented fact is even mentioned, but curiously not emphasized, at the end of the first video segment included/embedded in the presentation.
  10.   Again, whether and to what extent the future of the human population on this planet is more a function of mere numbers or levels of consumption and pollution is somewhat of an open question.  There can be no doubt, however, that the more industrially developed nations with smaller populations are responsible for more consumption of the world’s resources and pollution of its environment than the more populated but less developed nations.  Nor can there be but little doubt that if the rest of the world’s growing populations adopt a similar life-style of consumption and pollution, that such a life-style is not sustainable even under current population levels, let alone expanding ones.   In short, it is a matter of balancing both population numbers and a sustainable life-style.  This involves some very complex and contentious issues of culture, politics, economics, economic justice, ethics and even issues affecting health and health-care delivery policies impacting decisions of life and death.   It certainly is not simply a matter of the problem of “Papal Infallibility.”
  11. All one need do is Google: “Steven D Mumford” to get a sense of the extent to which Dr. Mumford has been unable to get his name or his cause noticed in the world press.  
  12. I am not here disputing the historical record of the Catholic Church’s attempts to influence governments and other institutions around the world concerning its policies on contraception and abortion.  This is hardly new “news” nor to be unexpected.  Is anyone really surprised?  What else would you expect?  Would anyone really be surprised or shocked for example, to find out that the United States has made attempts to influence other governments and institutions around the world concerning its policies and interests?  Not only powerful institutions but even individuals try to influence others with respect to their own views and policies.  Surprise surprise!   If the author of this presentation thinks that if only the Church didn’t have the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, it would change its policies on contraception and abortion and he could distribute quinacrine throughout the world, he had better think again.  It ain’t that simple!