How the Catholic Church Doomed a U.S. Population Policy

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 24 October 2017
Church and State

(Credit: Yavuz Sariyildiz /

This chapter from our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s seminal book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (1996) reveals the Vatican’s role in the decline of U.S. political will to deal with overpopulation. The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

Chapter 5: What Happened to the Momentum?

November 26, 1975 marked the end of the peak of American political will to deal with the overpopulation problem. This was the day that President Ford approved NSDM 314, committing the U.S. to a bold policy of population growth control. The peak lasted less than six years and then the momentum plummeted and our commitment has since diminished every year. In this Chapter, I will provide the details of what happened to the momentum. In the next Chapter, I will discuss why this happened and in Chapters 7 and 8, some additional details of how this was accomplished are provided.

As noted in the Introduction, when Mr. Nixon received the report, Population and the American Future, from Mr. Rockefeller in May 1972, the President publicly rejected it—just six months before he faced reelection. In his book, Catholic Bishops in American Politics, Timothy A. Byrnes, assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York, states, “Hoping to attract Catholics to his reelection campaign, Nixon publicly disavowed the prochoice findings of his own presidential commission on population in 1972. He communicated that disavowal in an equally public letter to Cardinal Terence Cooke [of New York], a leading spokesman for the bishops’ opposition to abortion…. The Catholic vote was especially important to Nixon and his publicists in 1972. They referred to Catholic support of the Republican ticket in order to refute the notion that Nixon had formed his new coalition by cynically appealing to the baser motives of Southern whites. They relied on Catholic participation in the new majority, in other words, as proof that the ‘social issue’ was much more than repackaged racial prejudice. As one of these publicists, Patrick Buchanan, put it: ‘Though his critics were crying “Southern Strategy,” the President’s politics and policy decisions were not going unnoticed in the Catholic and ethnic communities of the North, East, and Midwest.’”[13]

Nixon was convinced that if he were to win in 1972, he must carry Southern whites and northern Catholics. He looked to the Catholic bishops for their support. Byrnes goes on to say, “Regardless of what it is based on, however, a perception that the bishops can influence votes has been enough to make candidates sensitive to the bishops …” And as the saying goes, in politics perceptions often create their own realities. He continues, “The bishops have more than just access to Catholic voters, of course. They also have virtually unparalleled institutional resources at their disposal. ‘If you are a bishop,’ Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign manager said to me, ‘you’ve got some pretty substantial organizational capabilities…. You’ve got a lot of people, you’ve got money, places to meet…. You’ve got a lot of things that any good politician would like to have at his disposal.’ You also have the ability, if you are the Catholic hierarchy collectively, to create or fortify movements in support of your preferred policy positions.”[14]

Byrnes argues that: the bishops are able to bring virtually unrivaled resources to any cause or effort they decide to support; the bishops committed those resources to the fight against abortion in the 1970s; in the process they played a key role in the creation and maintenance of a large social movement. This movement was the so-called Religious New Right movement. This movement was still in its infancy at the time of Nixon’s reelection bid in 1972 but the bishops were highly organized, single minded and prepared to deal. In his letter to Cardinal Cooke, Nixon made it clear that he too was prepared to deal. Nixon was reelected with the bishops’ support.

During the year that followed the presentation of the Rockefeller Commission Report, it became clear that there would be no further response to the Commission’s recommendations. In May 1973 a group of pioneer population activists acknowledged this inaction and asked Ambassador Adolph Schmidt to speak with his friend, Commission Chairman John D. Rockefeller 3rd. They met in June 1973 at the Century Club in New York City. Schmidt noted his own disappointment and that of his colleagues because no program had been mounted as a result of the Commission’s recommendations. What had gone wrong? Rockefeller responded: “The greatest difficulty has been the very active opposition by the Roman Catholic Church through its various agencies in the United States.”[15]

In 1992, one Rockefeller Commission member, Congressman James Scheuer (D.-NY), spoke out publicly for the first time on what had happened: “Our exuberance was short-lived. Then-President Richard Nixon promptly ignored our final report. The reasons were obvious—the fear of attacks from the far right and from the Roman Catholic Church because of our positions on family planning and abortion. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that this obstruction was but the first of many similar actions to come from high places.”[16]

None of the Commission’s more than three score and ten recommendations was ever implemented. It is most disturbing that the American people were kept in the dark about this undemocratic and un-American intervention by the Vatican. It was not considered newsworthy simply because the press chose not to make it so. Why? Chapters 15 and 16 address this vitally important question. I believe both Catholic and non-Catholic Americans would have strongly rejected such interference in the American democratic process had they been aware of it. The quality of life for all Americans has been diminished by this unconstitutional manipulation of American policy, undertaken for the purposes of protecting papal interests.

Nixon Again Moves Boldly

Richard Nixon at the Vatican meeting with Pope Paul VI, Sept. 29, 1970.
Pope Paul VI with President Nixon, at the Vatican, in 1970. (Credit: Wikimedia / Public Domain)

Yet, as I noted earlier, President Nixon’s assessment of the gravity of the overpopulation problem and his desire to deal with it were evidently unaltered by the intense Catholic hierarchy opposition he encountered in the wake of the Rockefeller Commission Report. On April 24, 1974, Mr. Nixon ordered that the NSSM 200 study be undertaken.

I can only speculate, but one may assume that President Nixon knew he would encounter the same implacable Vatican opposition to this report as to the one by the Rockefeller Commission. However, with his re-election safely behind him, perhaps he felt that if a definitive study of the national and global security implications of overpopulation showed that the very security of the United States were seriously threatened, it would generate public demand for action to curb U.S. and world population growth. This might serve to overcome the continued opposition mounted by the Vatican. Why else would he have asked for this study, given his painful experience with the Catholic Church after the Rockefeller Commission?

No doubt the Vatican was appalled to learn about NSSM 200. Only seven years before, the Vatican had created the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), in part to counteract federal level threats to papal security interests. According to Byrnes, the primary activity of the Conference, to this day, has been its antiabortion effort.[17] (These issues will be discussed in other chapters.) The bishops correctly understood that NSSM 200 meant federally promoted and federally funded abortion for the U.S. and the world.

Nixon Resigns From the Presidency

What role the bishops played in the removal of President Nixon from office, if any, has not been examined. Nixon was not aware of the Watergate break-in before it occurred. He was removed from office because of his role in the cover-up—and he lied to the American people about this role. Apparently he was willing to do anything to be President of the United States—including colluding with the bishops to undermine U.S. and global security by killing the Rockefeller Commission Report.

On August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford succeeded to the presidency. The report on NSSM 200 was completed on December 10, 1974 and circulated to the designated Secretaries and Agency heads for review and comment. Revisions of the study continued until July 1975. On November 26, 1975, NSSM 200 was made public policy in his NSDM 314.

NSSM 200 Promptly Derailed

NSSM 200 forthrightly opposes the Vatican on population strategy, family planning and abortion. It specifically notes that the only institutional opposition to population growth control is the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church.[18] NSSM 200 acknowledged that only in countries where family planning and abortion are widely used had population growth rates fallen significantly.[19] The implications of NSSM 200 are obvious: its implementation would have meant extensive family planning and abortion efforts worldwide. The Vatican moved swiftly to block implementation of NSSM 200 policies already approved by President Ford. The result was that the new and concerted government activities needed to implement NSSM 200 never materialized. In the next chapter, I will explain why the Vatican felt it had to block implementation of the study’s recommendations.

Byrnes discusses at some length the presidential election of 1976 and the remarkable role the Catholic bishops played in that election. The pivotal role that the candidates perceived the bishops would play made it possible for the bishops to kill the NSSM 200 initiative. According to Byrnes, “Catholics were seen as swing voters, and they were actively courted by both candidates. As a part of that courting process, each of the candidates also sought to establish a positive and, if possible, supportive relationship with the Catholic bishops. Jimmy Carter was concerned that the cultural gap between a ‘born again’ Southern Baptist candidate and northern ethnic voters would create a ‘Catholic problem’ for his campaign. In the hope of ameliorating such a problem, Carter went out of his way to assure Catholics at every opportunity that he was personally sensitive to their particular concerns. He also worked diligently throughout the campaign to establish a positive relationship with the Catholic hierarchy…. Carter ‘needed desperately to win the northern blue collar vote,’ recalled one of his top aides. ‘The bishops could affect that vote at the margin, and it is at the margin, after all, that elections are won and lost.’

(Image by marla66 from Pixabay)

“Ford had even more compelling reasons for seeking a friendly relationship with the Catholic hierarchy. Resigned to losing the South to his Georgian opponent, Ford’s only chance for victory was to carry the heavily Catholic states of the Northeast and upper Midwest…. The fact that Ford and Carter both believed that the bishops influenced the Catholic vote meant that the candidates were sensitive to the bishops’ views and attentive to the bishops’ statements and actions. The candidates’ shared perception drew the bishops into the center of a closely fought national election campaign and granted the bishops an opportunity to advance their moral agenda in the public arena of presidential politics.”[20] (As will be seen in Chapters 6 and 7, the term “moral agenda” is improperly used here.)

Carter and Ford and their campaigns had extensive interactions with the Catholic bishops as both the candidates and the bishops bargained for political advantage and concessions. According to Byrnes, “The key figure in these backchannel communications between the Catholic Conference and Carter’s campaign was Bishop James Rausch. Rausch was, in effect, chief of staff of the entire NCCB/United States Catholic Conference bureaucracy.”[21] Rausch took the initiative. One of Rausch’s Democratic Party contacts was Thomas Farmer, a Washington lawyer. Farmer arranged a meeting between Bishop Rausch and Andrew Young, then a close aide to Carter.[21]

Byrnes continues, “According to Farmer, Rausch’s initial meeting with Young was followed by a personal phone call from Carter in which the candidate expressed his desire to resolve his differences with the Catholic hierarchy…. Discussions concerning Carter’s relationship with the bishops proceeded on several different levels over the next few weeks. Farmer, for example, traveled to Atlanta for a meeting with Carter’s top advisors; Rausch sent an aide from the Catholic Conference to observe one of Carter’s strategy sessions in Plains, Georgia; and Rausch personally met with the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Walter Mondale (another old friend) to discuss their mutual interests in defusing further criticism of Carter’s views by the NCCB leadership. In the end, Rausch, Farmer, and their interlocutors in Carter’s campaign decided … to arrange a personal meeting between Carter and the leaders of the bishops’ conference. At such a meeting, they decided, a whole range of issues could be discussed …”[22]

The meeting between Carter and the NCCB’s executive committee, headed by Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin,[23] took place on August 31, 1976 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Many issues were discussed and deals struck. One of those deals has been described by Dr. R.T. Ravenholt, who directed the global population program of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Department of State from 1966 to 1979. On March 4, 1991, he addressed the Washington State Chapter of Zero Population Growth (ZPG) on Pronatalist Zealotry and Population Pressure Conflicts: How Catholics Seized Control of U.S. Family Planning Programs,[24] and described one of the outcomes of this meeting.

Ravenholt told the ZPG group,

Following a meeting of Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and his campaign staff with fifteen Catholic leaders … on which occasion they pressed to deemphasize federal support for family planning in exchange for a modicum of Catholic support for his Presidential race, President-elect Carter proceeded to put the two federal agencies with family planning programs under Catholic control.

Joseph Califano became Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and the first one to whom President-elect Carter offered the U.S. AID Administrator position was Father Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame University. When Father Hesburgh declined the role of AID administrator, the appointment was given to John J. Gilligan, a Notre Dame graduate and a former governor of Ohio.

Also, a long-time Catholic adversary of AID’s family planning program, John H. Sullivan, moved from Congressman Clement Zablocki’s office into AID during the Presidential transition and was given a key role in selecting Carter’s political appointees. During previous years, Congressman Zablocki and Jack Sullivan had persistently worked to curb AID’s high powered family planning program. In 1973, Jack Sullivan and allied zealots helped Senator Jesse Helms develop the Helms amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act. Since then, this amendment has prevented AID from providing assistance for the termination of unwanted pregnancies.

Among the Carter political appointees selected by Jack Sullivan was Sander Levin, newly defeated Democratic candidate for Governor of Michigan. Not a Catholic but an opportunistic lawyer without previous family planning experience, Levin immediately upon entry to AID proceeded to maul and discombobulate AID’s population program, as desired by his political superiors. He became the Assistant Administrator with direct responsibility for disorganizing and dispersing Office of Population personnel and for the removal of GS-18 Ravenholt. This was accomplished after several years…. Since then, AID’s dismembered and otherwise crippled family planning program has been sustained to the extent possible by dedicated staff and likewise dedicated Members of Congress and other supporters. It has continued many operations, though certainly not all, despite continued harassment from the … anti-birth control zealots.

… with the help of Jimmy Carter and his political appointees, religious zealots finally managed to degrade AID’s population program.

Even during 1976, after NSDM 314 had been signed by President Ford and before the election, Catholic activists worked diligently to undermine population growth control efforts within the administration, according to Ravenholt. He offers examples in his Report.

During this period, Ford, as noted earlier, was intent on winning the support of the Catholic Bishops. According to Byrnes, “Ford to be sure was no right-to-lifer…. However, once Ford had acquiesced in an abortion plank written by the right wing of his party, he was able to sharply distinguish himself from his opponent…. At a Catholic Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, for example, Ford drew a standing ovation from a predominantly Catholic right-to-life crowd by declaring his concern over an increasing ‘irreverence for life’ in American society. More to the point for our purposes, the prolife Republican platform also allowed Ford to associate himself with the anti-abortion-centered agenda that had been firmly identified with Joseph Bernardin and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Acting on this opportunity, Ford invited Bernardin and the other members of the executive committee to meet with him at the White House…. Ford, like Carter, assured the bishops that he shared their moral opposition to abortion. However, unlike Carter, Ford also expressed support for the so-called local option amendment that would reverse Roe v. Wade and return responsibility for abortion to the individual state legislatures.”[25]

Despite the intensive efforts by both candidates, the bishops did not explicitly endorse either candidate for president in 1976. Clearly, the bishops were there to take credit when Carter won, as described by Ravenholt. Had Ford won, no doubt they would have taken credit too, as the stage was set for them to do so. After his forthright endorsement of the NSSM 200 recommendations, Ford showed no great enthusiasm for their bold and rapid implementation. Certainly, boldness and speed were called for in view of the threat overpopulation posed to U.S. and global security—as described so vividly in the NSSM 200 study. Like Presidents Nixon and Carter, Ford gave a higher immediate priority to being elected president than to protecting the security of the United States.

As in the case of the Rockefeller Commission Report, none of the recommendations of NSSM 200 was ever implemented. A grave threat to U.S. and global security had been identified in a definitive study by the most powerful departments in our government—departments that represent virtually all of our intelligence gathering capability. President Ford’s approval of the policy recommendations of NSSM 200 in his Decision Memorandum 314 represented the high point of American political will to deal with the population problem. Then it plummeted.

Every year since 1975 has witnessed a diminishing commitment of the United States to both domestic and world population growth control. The Vatican and the Catholic bishops can take full credit for the destruction of American political will to deal with this threat. Why have they behaved in this manner? Is it really a question of morality?

[13] Byrnes TA. Catholic Bishops in American Politics. Lawrenceville, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991. p. 66.

[14] Ibid. p. 4.

[15] Schmidt AW. Personal Communication. August 28, 1992.

[16] Scheuer J. “A disappointing outcome: United States and World Population Trends since the Rockefeller Commission.” The Social Contract 1992; Summer:203-206.

[17] Byrnes, p. 143.

[18] National Security Council, (See page 492 in Appendix 2)

[19] Ibid., (See page 549 in Appendix 2)

[20] Byrnes, p. 70.

[21] Ibid., p. 73.

[22] Ibid., p. 74.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ravenholt RT. “Pronatalist Zealotry and Population Pressure Conflicts: How Catholics Seized Control of U.S. Family Planning Programs.” Center for Research on Population and Security, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709. May 1991, 27 pp.

[25] Byrnes, p. 76.

Dr. Stephen Mumford is the founder and President of the North Carolina-based Center for Research on Population and Security. He has his doctorate in Public Health. His principal research interest has been the relationship between world population growth and national and global security. He has been called to provide expert testimony before the U.S. Congress on the implications of world population growth.

Dr. Mumford has decades of international experience in fertility research where he is widely published, and has addressed conferences worldwide on new contraceptive technologies and the stresses to the security of families, societies and nations that are created by continued uncontrolled population growth. Using church policy documents and writings of the Vatican elite, he has introduced research showing the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as the principal power behind efforts to block the availability of contraceptive services worldwide.

In addition to his books on biomedical and social aspects of family planning, as well as scientific articles in more than a score of journals, Dr. Mumford’s major works include American Democracy and the Vatican: Population Growth and National Security (Amherst, New York: Humanist Press, 1984), The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1986), and The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1996).

The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH
Paperback Publisher: Center for Research on Population and Security (October 1996)
Kindle Publisher: Church and State Press (February 6, 2015)
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