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Low Birth Rates

Perhaps most Christians can be assumed confidently to know that God’s instruction to the human race was to be fruitful, multiply and fill the Earth.[1] It is common knowledge that in the twentieth century the governments of the world, with the acquiescence of their populations, decided that (even if God still existed) compliance with His instruction had gone far enough, and made it their policy to encourage defiance of it and to provide people with every known means for that purpose. It is symptomatic of ‘choice’ in belief and behaviour, by which Satan successfully tempted Eve.[2] Christians are as likely as any other section of mankind to approve of that policy, and the Catholic Church seems to be alone in opposing the direction which the world has taken. Such opposition seems, however, to be heard very rarely, and undermined indirectly or by candid declarations that the Church has ‘got it wrong’. (Probably many Catholics have ‘got it wrong’ also in believing that ‘natural v. artificial’ is the essence of the matter; even natural is gravely sinful unless adopted for sufficiently-serious reasons – see “NFP: Trojan Horse in the Catholic Bedroom?”[3])            

Not long after his election as Pope, Francis signalled his opinion that God’s law on conception-prevention, reiterated in “Humanae Vitae,” had been given too high a position in the hierarchy of subjects, and said that he had not spoken much about it. He implied that it is not among “the essentials,…the necessary things. … [T]he proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing.”[4] An over-all impression since he became Pope is one of equivocation, suggesting lack of support for “Humanae Vitae” and/or lack of willingness to advocate it.

Nevertheless, and surprisingly, he has professed alarm about declining birth-rates. The Population Research Institute (U.S.A.) has been warning of it for a long time, but of course the Institute is very much a voice crying in the ‘developed’ world’s anti-natal wilderness. Fewer workers to support a growing number of dependent non-workers leads to ideas of ‘filling the gap’ by, for example, maximising the number of employed people (including the introduction of deterrents for not working), increasing taxes and/or borrowing, raising the retirement-age, letting in more immigrants, and even (advocated occasionally) euthanasia.

Italy is among the countries affected by a shrinking population. In Italy in 2022, there were 392,598 births but 713,499 deaths. In a 2022 message to an Italian group entitled “States General of Natality” (known also as the Foundation for Birth), the Pope described low birth-rates as a little-noticed social emergency,[5] and he envisaged “businesses, banks, associations, unions, sportsmen, actors, writers, politicians, all together” to counteract it, with “concrete policies” at institutional, media, cultural, economic and social levels to “think about how to start hoping for life again.”[6]  

His alarm was based on a belief that “[t]he beauty of a family with many children risks becoming a utopia,” and that childlessness is a disappointment to many young people. He said that they water down “their greatest aspirations” and “stop hoping on a bigger scale” and instead “lower the bar of their desire, and content themselves with mediocre substitutes, such as business, the car, travel, jealously guarding their free time.”[7]

We can wonder sceptically about how high is parenthood, or marriage as the framework for it, in their list of priorities. Two hypotheses seem more likely:  (i) that what the Pope called “mediocre substitutes” are examples of “their greatest aspirations,” and (ii) that they “lower the bar of their desire” by willing adoption of sinful behaviour which modern Western ‘culture’ encourages.[8]

In a speech at a conference of the “States General of Natality” a year later, the Pope returned to the subject of low birth-rates. According to a translation,[9] he spoke broadly. Few births, he said, means a dearth of hope (references to hope occupied twenty per cent of the speech), which has economic and social consequences in costly housing; a choice between a career and motherhood; trusting in self-reliance, to the detriment of life in common; situational precariousness and interior fragility; adoption of “mediocre substitutes” (the ones which he specified in his 2022 message mentioned above) for the “dream” of a family. Taking his own advice to be hopeful, he said that “Here it’s good to see that the worlds of politics, business, banking, sport, shows, journalism come together to think how to pass from the demographic winter to the spring. About how to be born again, not only physically but interiorly, to come out into the light every day and to illuminate the morrow with hope. … [F]eel called to the great task to regenerate hope, to initiate processes that stimulate and give life…  may they bring us many children.”[10]

The credibility of the encouragement which he derived from the composition of his audience is likely to be based mainly on our perception of the world to which we have become accustomed, and on the criteria by which we judge it. A guide to what Pope Francis can expect was provided immediately in a speech to the same audience by the Italian Prime Minister,[11] who ‘signalled’ an intention to implement policies conducive to the Pope’s wish but treated low birth-rates as a problem primarily for economic reasons.[12] Her corrective action-plan, also, was primarily economic, with a supportive invocation of vague factors such as “optimism, enthusiasm,” and “positivity.” Economic strategy is only one way by which to pursue the desirable implications of her comments that

  • “We had been warned…that a time would come when we would have to fight to show that ‘leaves are green in summer’ or that ‘two plus two is four’. Today, courage is needed to claim and support things that are crucial for the growth of our society;”[13] and
  • because for decades, the dominant culture had down-graded parenthood, and the time had come to reverse the trend, “[w]e [meaning, presumably, the Government which she leads] want to start again with respect for the dignity, uniqueness and sacredness of every single human being.”[14] (The meanings of these words have become disputed and very confused and distorted, which is a formidable obstacle to ‘reversal of the trend’.)

     [She said also,[15] rather bizarrely, that

  • “we do not want an ‘ethical State’. On the contrary, we want a State that supports, not manages, people” (Every State has to ‘manage’ people for the purpose of achieving compliance with the State’s adopted ethics; no State can exist without a code of ethics.);
  • “We must certainly build the preconditions required for everyone to have the best, but what that ‘best’ is also depends on people’s own willpower” (What is ‘best’ depends also on their beliefs, which vary; the State has to decide on how much, if any, tolerance should be shown to behaviour resulting from beliefs which are wayward.); and
  • “unleashing the energy people have to offer is key to overcoming the crises of our times” (Energy is a tool. Its effects should be evaluated by reference to the purpose for which it is used.) ]

Is it realistic to be optimistic that the low birth-rates in the ‘developed’ world will be raised to conform to God’s prescription in Genesis 1? Pope Francis said[16] that optimism is not the same as hope. He made comments about what hope does, but did not say clearly what it is; the nearest he came was, “hope is…a concrete virtue, an attitude of life.  And it has to do with concrete options.” He implied, no less opaquely, that optimism is “an illusion or an emotion one feels.” In the ‘hope’ of accuracy and clarity, here are suggestions: hope is a matter of desire; optimism is a matter of expectation.[17]

Based on those suggestions, here is a personal conclusion: Selfish objectives in life and economic circumstances do, no doubt, influence people’s decisions about whether to procreate, but the Pope and the Prime Minister left glaring gaps in their comments: economic “concrete policies” intended to encourage more births will be handicapped by contraception and abortion. (Both the need to remove them and the unlikelihood of that being done are evident in countries such as Italy[18] and Ireland.[19]) I do not expect that removal of those handicaps will be among the purposes of the broad coalition mentioned by Pope Francis. Probably nor does he.  

[1] Gen. 1:28.

[2] Gen. 3.

[3] by Jay Boyd; 2013, self-published through Amazon.

[4] Interview in August 2013 for various Jesuit magazines.

[5] https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/may/documents/20220512-stati-generali-natalita.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Paragraph 2.6 of the 2021 “Growing Up in Ireland” study (Report 9) suggested that 23 per cent of 20-year-olds who are “in a relationship” hope for engagement or marriage to their current partners within five years (hope for parenthood was not evidenced); paragraph 2.6.3 contains information relevant to the above-mentioned hypothesis (ii). See https://www.growingup.gov.ie/pubs/The-Lives-of-20-Year-Olds.pdf

[9] https://zenit.org/2023/05/12/pope-francis-on-the-lack-of-babies-concerns-and-hopes-in-a-great-address-in-favour-of-women-and-young-people/?eti=9781&mc_cid=d4d8d75b40&mc_eid=8f0b7fa420

[10] Ibid.

[11] https://www.governo.it/en/articolo/president-meloni-s-address-third-edition-states-general-natality/22625

[12] (as did articles, prompted by the Pope’s comments, by Joseph Kelly on 12th May 2023 in The Catholic Network and by Gus Carter on 14th May 2023 in “The Spectator”)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Op. cit., end-note 9.

[17] The “Oxford Dictionary of English,” 2nd edition, revised, 2005; O.U.P., defines hope and optimism interchangeably.

[18] https://www.justlanded.com/english/Italy/Italy-Guide/Health/Sexual-health-in-Italy

[19] https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/9c7a3-budget-2022-minister-donnelly-announces-21billion-the-biggest-ever-investment-in-irelands-health-and-social-care-services/    and    https://www.gov.ie/en/press-release/b5906-minister-for-health-launches-free-contraception-scheme-for-women-aged-17-25/

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