Forty years ago, St. John Paul II issued the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Fellowship of the Family), in which he wrote the following: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.”
As many wise men and women have observed before our modern era, and even before the time of St. John Paul II, the human family is the fundamental cell of society. It is the foundation upon which a flourishing society is to be built, and the essential spring from which well-formed human persons flow. And as others have also observed recently, the family is in crisis. If the words of St. John Paul II indeed ring true, then this means that the very future of humanity is at stake.
This might seem a hyperbolic statement to make. But in recent years, population and demographic experts are beginning to agree that America is headed for a demographic disaster. Books such as What to Expect When No One’s Expecting and Empty Planet have helped to bring this fact more into the mainstream light. But the really scary part? Statistics released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reinforce these concerns.
According to the CDC, in 2020, birth rates declined for women in all age groups 15–44, a spread which covers prime child-bearing years for women. This decline continues a 40-year trend and is not a COVID-year anomaly. The birth rate for teenagers aged 15–19 declined by 8% in 2020 to 15.3 births per 1,000 females; rates declined for both younger (aged 15–17) and older (aged 18–19) teenagers. The overall fertility rate in the U.S. is now 1.7 births per woman, which experts say is well below the replacement rate needed to sustain a native population. And there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to decline in the coming decade.
A silent crisis
This marks a 40-year low for the fertility rate in the U.S.; ironic, considering 40 years ago is when St. John Paul II issued Familiaris Consortio. Some had hoped that being locked down last year during the COVID-19 pandemic would bring a baby boom of sorts. This didn’t happen — in fact, it was quite the opposite. There’s been an overall decline in new babies born since the beginning of the pandemic, as the stats from 2020 indicate.
The population implosion is a silent crisis lying in wait, one whose effects might not be immediately apparent right now but will almost certainly become more so in the coming years.
The reasons for this decline are many. For starters, more and more women are pursuing careers or waiting longer to have children, and a natural result of this is a drop in the number of children born. Gone are the days when women would get married in their early 20s and start a family right away; this way of doing things has become the exception, rather than the rule. Certainly, economic factors and financial status do and should play a role in the decision to start a family; however, the pandemic notwithstanding, the U.S. economy has been booming in recent years, and the birth rate has continued to slide despite this.
Another factor in the sliding fertility rate is the rise of single parenthood, and this is especially pertinent in the U.S., where the sexual act is largely removed from procreation and fewer and fewer are choosing to get married. As a recent article from Bloomberg noted, “If a potential mother is facing a fertility decision without another full-time parent on the scene, she is more likely to choose to have fewer children. As population falls, will single-parent families become less common? It is hard to see why. Whether the issue is a lack of marriageable men, unstable family norms or women who simply prefer to go it alone, there is no particular reason to think those factors will disappear in an era of population decline.”
Many of these reasons for the decline of fertility can be traced back to a drastic move away from institutional religion, and specifically Christianity, as a guiding principle of civil law and societal governance — the abandonment of which led to the widespread implementation of artificial contraception and the legalization of abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. None of these policies which have become so embedded in American culture encourage women to even consider having children, and as a consequence, children are widely no longer viewed as a gift for the good of society but rather as a burden to stifle the individual.
’Is that fun?’
Carrie Gress has spent more time than most thinking about why women aren’t having children. She’s also spent a lot of time thinking about how children are a path to the sanctification of not only the individual, but also society as a whole. She’s written several books, among which is the popular Theology of Home series, and she earned her doctorate of philosophy from Catholic University of America. She is also a fellow at the Washington D.C.-based think-thank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Before her academic credentials and reputation as an author and one of the Church’s most gifted minds, however, she is a wife and a mother of five. Gress subverts the well-established myth that women must choose between a successful career or motherhood — one myth among many that has led to the massive decline of the fertility rate in America. Her latest book, The Anti-Mary Exposed, addresses the lie of modern feminism and how it ironically has de-feminized women to the point where doing those things that are deeply feminine — such as having children — is now considered a cultural anomaly.
“At the heart of it is this lie started in the late 60s that husbands and children are an obstacle to our happiness instead of the conduit through which we can become happy or holy,” Gress told the Denver Catholic. “We’ve all been exposed to these ideas that our happiness is really equated with [becoming more] like men and that those other things are an obstacle to it instead of elemental pieces of who we are meant to be as women.”
Gress, like many other Catholic moms, is no stranger to being the subject of weird looks and odd comments from others. She recalled a conversation she once had on an airplane with a fellow passenger.
“We were chatting and he asked me, ‘do you have any kids?’ and I said, ‘yeah, I have four,’ and he just looked at me quizzically, and then he asked, ‘is that fun?’” Gress said. “It was one of those things where I was like, ‘what kind of category is that?’ It’s such a nonsensical question to me. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. It has nothing to do with fun. That’s not what drives me. And yet, I think that is what drives people, is they have a sense of this quality of life that children are going to be an inhibition to.
“I think the real problem is there’s so much more meaning and depth there that our culture doesn’t know how to access, because they just see the obstacle that this is going to be to the lifestyle that they think is important.”
A silver lining
While it is indisputable that less babies are being born, the good news is that there are still certain groups within the greater population who are welcoming children and building families at healthy rates, and the two groups who lead the pack are Christians and Muslims.
A 2017 Pew Research Center report focused on the changing global religious landscape found that Muslims have the highest fertility rate of any religious group — an average of 2.9 children per woman. Christians are a close second, at 2.6 children per woman. The report also estimates that by 2055 to 2060, just 9% of all babies will be born to religiously unaffiliated women, while more than seven-in-ten will be born to either Muslims (36%) or Christians (35%).
On this present trajectory, Muslims are set to outpace the fertility rate of Christians by the first half of the 2030s, Pew reported. And while followers of Christianity still outnumber those of Islam as the world’s dominant religious group today, this could very realistically no longer be the case in 30 years, and especially so in America.
This is a big deal, and much of American Christianity doesn’t even realize it’s happening. As Philip Jenkins, writing for the Gospel Coalition put it back in 2019, “Observers of U.S. religion have shown little concern or interest — which is curious since, worldwide, a move to very low fertility has been an excellent predictor of secularization and the decline of institutional religion. Fertility and faith travel closely together. Present demographic trends in the United States are the best indicator yet of an impending secular shift of historic proportions, even a transition to West European conditions. This is, or should be, one of the most significant and newsworthy developments in modern American religion.”
Given this information, perhaps it should come as no surprise that as American society increasingly rejects Christianity and continues to move rapidly towards the mass secularization of culture, being fruitful and multiplying has lost its appeal. However, there is a silver lining to all of this: Christians, and especially Catholics, are still having children, and they’re having more than the majority of the American population. The tide has not yet turned completely, and Catholic families have a most fertile opportunity to infuse Christ and a Biblical worldview back into American society. After all, as Jenkins also wrote, “What separates the winners and losers in the religious economy, some say, isn’t the soundness of their theology, but their fertility rates.”
Be fruitful and multiply the Church
In a world that largely treats children like a burden, the Church and Christian families can show the world that children are in fact a supernatural gift which help us to strive toward the ideal way of living. Christ himself said that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, our hearts must be like that of a child. It is imperative that the Church play a role in reversing the drop in fertility by prayerfully heeding the Lord’s command to be fruitful and multiply. Even for those families who cannot conceive naturally, there are so many children in the world who need a family to thrive in, or even those children in the wombs of women who choose life but cannot raise the child. Adoption and family foster care is just as essential as natural parenthood in today’s world; both stand as a powerful witness to the Christian way of life, a way set apart from the rest of the world.
“The thing that’s really interesting is just the natural way in which children make us holy and virtuous,” Gress said. “When I was a new mom, I was like, ‘this is so hard.’ And each week it just was the same, there was something else that was so hard. And finally, I realized, ‘wait a minute, it’s supposed to be hard.’ As soon as I realized that, suddenly it was almost easy because I got it. I could understand what was happening, was that my vices were being scoured out of me. I was becoming less self-absorbed, less of a narcissist.”
There are few moments in life that compare to seeing that little flicker of a new baby’s heartbeat on the ultrasound screen. Anybody who is a parent knows this, but even for those who aren’t, the very notion of bringing new life into the world speaks to an intrinsic desire of the human heart. Not only are humans designed to leave a legacy and pass wisdom and knowledge down to the next generation, but it is a fundamental piece of God’s design that the less we live for ourselves, the more purpose we find and the more joyful we are. And it is precisely in the act of parenthood and passing on the faith to children that parents are most sanctified.
“When you get past that second child, suddenly there’s not someone for each child, and that’s when you have to really start digging deeper. You’re outnumbered,” Gress said. “But that’s also where the joy can come in. I remember after my third child was born, I was just exhausted and really just recovering from it. And I just experienced this joy that I knew just had to be from God because it was just so unusual and just it was amazing. It just felt like such a gift.
“Children make us better. Children give us purpose. Children help us see who we are and why we have hips and wombs and arms that can cradle them. They make sense of who we are, biologically and emotionally.”
Returning to those prophetic words by St. John Paul II, it is in the family that children thrive and become well-formed members of humanity. More than that though, it is within the family that the Church is given the divine means to grow and make disciples of all nations. When Christian parents bring children into the world, they are tasked with much more than merely raising them to be functional members of society: the parents must give of themselves and disciple their children so that when they are finally ready to leave the nest and venture out into the world, they, too, can proclaim Christ in all they do.
“You send these people out into the world in a way that you’ve prepared them, and their personalities are expanding and are being fruitful and are giving to others,” Gress explained. “It’s really that cycle of teaching them what self-gift looks like. It all kind of rests on this fulcrum of self-donation, but that’s really how the Church we know has expanded.”
For a modern-day vision of what the American Church could be if Christian families bucked the trend of low fertility and joyfully welcomed and raised more children, look to sub-Saharan Africa. The Church is growing more rapidly there than anywhere else in the world. The African Church exemplifies an immense joy and fervor for the Christian faith, which is certainly one factor for the growth, but it’s because of high fertility among Christians that the number of those who practice Christianity is expected to balloon from 23% to 42% by 2060.
The African people live under circumstances which greatly pale in comparison to the wealth, resources and comfort of the U.S., and yet the families there joyfully welcome children, seemingly without hesitation. The American Church could stand to learn an important lesson from their African brethren, which they appear to understand well: Children are the future of humanity, and as such, children are the future of the Church.