Americans are having fewer children than ever before. According to new data released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), for the fourth year in a row the number of children born in the United States has fallen. Last year, 3,788,235 babies were born in the U.S. – a drop of 2% from the previous year, and the lowest number in 32 years.
Behind the drop in total births, however, is an even more dramatic and troubling statistic. The overall fertility rate (i.e. the number of children born per woman) has fallen to its lowest level ever, at just 1.72. As a general rule, for a population to replace itself, the average birth rate needs to be 2.1 children born per woman.
Up to a point, birth rates tend to reflect the health of the economy. The healthier an economy, the more confident parents are that they can provide for their children, and the more likely they are to have children. At least, that’s the theory. Demographers had previously linked the downturn in the birthrate over the past decade to the effects of the 2008 recession. However, even though the economy has since recovered, birth rates continue to fall – something that has taken population experts by surprise.
“I keep expecting to see the birthrates go up, and then they don’t,” demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy told the Associated Press. Johnson noted that if the fertility rate had remained at the same level as it was before the recession, some additional 5.7 million babies would have been born. “That’s a lot of empty kindergarten rooms,” he noted.
Many mainstream media outlets seemed puzzled about how to frame the latest numbers. On the one hand, many clearly felt compelled to try to put a bright face on the data, suggesting that the reduction in birth rate is a consequence of the greater “reproductive freedom” (i.e. access to contraception and abortion) enjoyed by women. However, underneath the façade of celebration, many news reports also contained a pervasive note of concern. As well they might.
One doesn’t need to be pro-life to recognize that a nation without children is a nation without a future. With an aging population, increasing pressure will be placed on an ever-dwindling work force to keep the economy going, to pay the taxes that support social security, health care for the needy and other social programs, and to provide care for aging parents and grandparents. Furthermore, the smaller number of young people carrying this heavier social and economic burden will be the same people we need to produce children for the next generation.
Where There is God, There is Fruitfulness
However, as one demographer pointed out, America’s increasingly bleak demographic statistics are, in fact, nothing unusual. Quite the contrary. “This is an important change,” Dr. Johnson-Hanks told the New York Times about the latest CDC numbers, “but it is not one that is making us extraordinary. It is making us more like other rich countries. It is making us more normal, in a sense. This is what Canada looks like; this is what Western Europe looks like.”
I suppose Dr. Johnson-Hanks meant this observation to be comforting. But the fact is, on the data he’s absolutely right: this is the new “normal” all across the developed world. In many European countries, the number of deaths has long exceeded the number of births, and many countries have birth rates far, far below that of the U.S.
While some politicians and economists are starting to wake up to the dire economic outlook created by shrinking populations, my own concern is the spiritual crisis that precipitated the demographic one. Indeed, this is where I think the demographers go wrong. The reason the U.S. birth rate isn’t rebounding goes far deeper than the lingering effects of a brief recession: at root it’s not an economic problem, it’s a heart problem…and a theological problem.
In a 2017 homily, Pope Francis addressed this issue head on. “Fill the earth, be fruitful! It is God’s first commandment,” the Holy Father noted, adding that where “there is God, there is fruitfulness.” “[S]ome countries come to mind,” he said, “that have chosen the path of infertility and suffer from that bad disease that is ‘demographic winter’. We know them…. They don’t make children.”
To have such countries “empty of children” is “not a blessing” he lamented. Because “fruitfulness is always a blessing of God.” In concluding his homily, the pope asked: “How is my heart? Is it empty? Always empty, or is it open to continuously receive life and give life? To receive and be fruitful? Or will it be a heart preserved as a museum object that has never been open to life and to give life?”
Pope Francis is right. Children are a blessing from God. The fact that couples are no longer interested in having children, and deliberately prevent them from coming into being, is a sign that – as the Holy Father warned – the hearts of many in the developed world have become museum objects. Our hearts are hearts of stone, and not of flesh.
Nowadays, rather than opening their hearts to new life, many couples prefer to jealously guard their love, viewing children as threat to their relationship, personal wellbeing and autonomy. What these couples fail to understand, is that, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, love, by nature, is diffusive. Love is a fire, and like a fire it yearns to spread, and must spread in order to live and be healthy. Many couples soon learn, the hard way, that by stifling the natural creative fecundity of romantic love, they have also stifled the love itself: the result is disillusion and divorce. This is why I say the demographic crisis is a heart problem.
It is also a theological problem, because the ultimate source of love is God, who is Love itself. However, in the developed world we have thrust God out of public and private life. The three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are the surest sign of God’s presence in our hearts. They are also interrelated. Without faith in the living God, hope dies, and love withers. Without theological hope – the steadfast assurance that, in the end, all things work to the good, and that our destiny is perfect happiness – our fears overwhelm us. Many couples now are so crippled by fear, that all they can see are the “risks” involved in having children – the financial burdens, the possible illnesses and suffering, the limits of their own characters. And without the burning fire of a generous love for God – and the inevitable experience of God’s infinite love in return – many couples can only put their trust in human love, only to find human love, apart from Love itself, is petty and fallible. Without the experience of God’s infinite love, many couples simply do not see the point or the attraction of fruitfulness.
The Contraceptive Mentality
This is the great evil of the “contraceptive mentality” that I wrote about a few weeks ago. Contraception is sold as a means of enabling greater expression of erotic love: but even as it frustrates the natural consequences of sexual behavior, so too does it frustrate the love it is supposed to feed. It does this by quietly replacing the self-sacrificial, outward-looking, self-transcendent nature of authentic love, with a cheap and lifeless verisimilitude.
As I pointed out the other week, in an audience with Pope John Paul II in 1979, Father Marx foretold the collapse in the birthrate with the triumph of the contraceptive mentality. “[O]nce contraception is widespread, the rest is predictable,” he said. “[O]nce you have contraception and legalized or widespread abortion, birthrates fall; nations collapse; young people follow their parents in the abuse of sex; and increasing numbers live together without the benefit of marriage.”
This is the logic of the Culture of Death. If where there is God, there is fruitfulness, then we should not be surprised that inverse is also true: that where God is ignored and banished, there is barrenness and sterility. Further, just as love is self-diffusive, so, in a sense, is sterility. And so we now see the great scandal of developed Western countries that long ago embraced the hopelessness of the contraceptive mentality and the Culture of Death feverishly working to spread their self-destructive ideology elsewhere.
Pope St. John Paul II warned about this in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. “In the rich and developed countries there is a disturbing decline or collapse of the birthrate,” he wrote. The opposite is true in poorer countries, where couples have many children. However, he said, the powerful and rich nations of the world now behave in the same way as Pharaoh did towards the Israelites, killing their children out of fear of their ascendency.
The powerful elite, said the late Holy Father, “are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and peace of their own countries. Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person’s inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive program of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy.”
As I have suggested, many people who look at the demographic collapse see only the impending financial repercussions. I see the personal and spiritual repercussions: couples who were called to a great love, but who turned their back on their vocation, to their own personal and spiritual impoverishment; children murdered in abortions and their mothers physically, emotionally, and spiritually scarred; a whole generation of elderly people yearning for the love of children and grandchildren, and living out their final years in loneliness and regret.
In his 1994 Letter to Families, Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the need for families to contribute towards building a “civilization of love.” As Pope Francis observed in his homily, love is inherently fruitful. At this time in history, when so many people are deliberately preaching an anti-Gospel of sterility, we need courageous couples to open their hearts to new life, to recognize the truth that “fruitfulness is always a blessing of God.” In my travels I have met many such families, which evidence an infectious joy that comes of living in God’s love. It is from families such as these that the civilization of love will emerge.
As Pope St. John Paul II explained in the Letter to Families: “The civilization of love evokes joy: joy, among other things, for the fact that a man has come into the world (cf. Jn 16:21), and consequently because spouses have become parents. The civilization of love means ‘rejoicing in the right’ (cf. 1 Cor 13:6). But a civilization inspired by a consumerist, anti-birth mentality is not and cannot ever be a civilization of love.”