Climate Change and Church-State Separation

By Edd Doerr | Winter 2013
Americans for Religious Liberty

Typhoon Haiyan smashed through the Philippines in November, killing thousands of people and devastating huge swaths of the country. In October of 2012 Superstorm Sandy slammed the coastal areas of New York and New Jersey, causing loss of life and billions of dollars of damage. Sea levels are rising and threatening coastlines in Florida, Bangladesh, and many other areas around the world. Weather patterns are changing. Climate is changing.

At the U.N. climate change talks in Poland in November Naderev Saño, the chief representative of the (predominantly Catholic) Philippines, said on November 11 that he “would stop eating in solidarity with the storm victims until ‘a meaningful outcome is in sight’” at the talks, according to The New York Times. He added: “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness; the climate crisis is madness. We can stop this madness right here in Warsaw.”

Okay, so what has all this to do with church-state separation? Let’s connect the dots.

The science is clear. Climate change and global warming are real, all too real. Climate change involves atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup, environmental degradation, resource depletion, fresh water shortages, waste accumulation, soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, and increasing sociopolitical disorganization, strife and violence.

Fueling all this is human overpopulation. World population now exceeds seven billion, three times what it was in the early 1950s, when scientists like Julian Huxley were calling attention to the problem. This even bothered conservatives like President Richard Nixon, who ordered a serious study of the matter by key government agencies. After Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford saw the completion of the report, the National Security Study Memorandum 200 report, and endorsed it in late 1975. Then, curiously, the NSSM 200 report was “classified” and buried until shortly before the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo. In time for the conference, population scientist Stephen Mumford published the report in a 1994 book. World population had doubled since the report was finished and is still growing.

NSSM 200 analyzed the population problem in fine detail and recommended universal access to contraception and decriminalization of abortion. All this was emphasized by Norwegian prime minister and physician Gro Harlem Bruntland at the 1994 U.N. Cairo conference. But too little has been done over these past four decades. Why not? In large measure because of political pressure and activity from conservative religious leaders of various traditions. Note that I said religious “leaders,” who do not really speak for most of their “flocks” (for want of a better word). For more complete information on all this, VOR Nos. 49 and 50, accessible on our web site,

Americans of all persuasions need to bring pressure to bear on the political process. But there is one person who could make a huge difference right now: Pope Francis.

Francis has so far shown himself to be more in touch with the real world than his three predecessors, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and more in tune with the reformist spirit of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. He could back the Catholic Church away from Paul VI’s 1968 condemnation of contraception (Paul ignored the advice of his own commission on this matter.) and what many experts regard as the church’s ahistorical, unbiblical, unscientific and misogynist opposition to women’s rights of conscience on abortion. Secondly, he could abandon the Holy See’s (Vatican’s) unique position as the only religious body in the world to enjoy nonmember state permanent observer status at the U.N., which it has used for decades to impede international progress on women’s rights of conscience and religious liberty on reproductive matters, often in cooperation with representatives of Islamic countries. Most “first world” Catholics and non-Catholics support women’s reproductive freedom of conscience.

Readers will note that we referred in our second paragraph to the Philippine representative to the climate conference in Warsaw. That was intentional, because the Philippines was one of few countries that followed the Vatican’s lead in opposing the 1994 U.N. Cairo conference’s Programme of Action on population and church officials there strenuously opposed the legislation passed by the Philippine congress in December 2012 to provide government funding for contraception and to allow sexuality education in public schools. Strong majorities of Philippine Catholics and legislators favor the reforms. (See VOR issue122, page 10.)

It goes without saying that dealing with overpopulation needs to be accompanied by serious worldwide efforts to curb waste, increase energy efficiency, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and advance the rights and welfare of women and children. Conservative religious leaders should be pushed to respect all persons’ rights of conscience and religious freedom and to support the principle of separation of church and state. The clock is ticking.

Reprinted by permission from the Winter 2013 issue of Voice of Reason.

Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.


What happened to American political will to deal with the overpopulation problem?
Infallibility and the Population Problem
NSSM 200, the Vatican, and the World Population Explosion
The Vatican’s Role in the World Population Crisis: The Untold Story

Professor Milton Siegel, who for 24 years was the Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization, speaks to Dr. Stephen Mumford in 1992 to reveal that although there was a consensus that overpopulation was a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future, the Vatican successfully fought off the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

Population growth as an issue has been given short shrift for several decades. Robert Engelman, president of Worldwatch Institute, outlines the reasons in this clip from an interview filmed for the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. To order the film or find a screening near you, visit

The Holy See at the United Nations: Church or State? from Catholics for Choice on Vimeo

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