It’s official: European fertility rates are collapsing.
It’s also official: The Western establishment is not interested. Whether in America or Europe, the opinion-making elite couldn’t care less about the demographic meltdown of the modern world.
The total fertility rate for the European Union is a mere 1.47 babies per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman. For some countries, such as Spain and Italy, the total fertility rate is a desperate 1.2. At this rate, the population of these countries will decline almost by half every generation. American fertility rates hover right around the replacement rate. Most observers attribute this to the higher religiosity of America in comparison with other modern countries.
Why do I say that the opinion-making elites couldn’t care less? The reaction to a paper I gave at an Acton Institute conference in Rome tells me that this problem is incomprehensible for many people in politics and the media.
The occasion was a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s magisterial encyclical on economics and society. The principal speaker was Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. I was invited to comment as well.
I attributed the fertility decline to the cradle-to-grave European welfare state. The lethargic culture of public assistance drains the enthusiasm of the young for beginning families. And state financial support displaces the economic function of marriage, for women and men alike.
Women don’t need a husband to support them if they have a child. Husbands are a nuisance, when the government provides money without the inevitable difficulties of dealing with a flawed human being as a partner. Men dislike the feeling of powerlessness inherent in a situation where the state claims a large fraction of one’s earning power, and then gives it back in dribs and drabs. In this environment, children become consumption goods, optional lifestyle appendages to acquire only if one happens to enjoy children.
Most European countries require high wages, short working hours and expensive benefits. These mandates obviously increase the cost of hiring a worker. The productivity of skilled, experienced workers can justify this generous compensation package. But the young are less employable. In the 25 countries of the European Union, the unemployment rate for those under 25 hovers just below 20%. This contributes to delayed marriage and child-bearing. Across the European continent, the political classes show no signs of dealing with this problem.
The reactions from the audience in Rome reflected this reluctance.
As reported by The Tablet, a United Kingdom-based newspaper that describes itself as “The International Catholic Weekly,” Britain’s Ambassador to the Vatican Francis Campbell took issue with my analysis. As I recall the encounter, Campbell disagreed in equal parts with my assessment that the fertility situation was dire, and with my attributing this to the welfare state.
I have no problem with people disputing the welfare state as the cause of the demographic decline. But I do have trouble with people denying that population collapse is in fact a serious problem.
Whatever the ambassador’s position, the editorial writers of The Tablet made it clear that the issue for them was not the welfare state or even demography. Their real issue is birth control and Humanae Vitae.
The Tablet referred favorably to Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe “who bravely admitted in an article in The Tablet that he was open-minded on many of the issues in sexual ethics that Church leaders used to think had been settled once and for all.”
Now, I must confess that I had never heard of Father Radcliffe. But I can surmise his views by The Tablet’s next paragraph, which bemoaned the problem of “creeping infallibility.” The real problem with the controversy over Humane Vitae and artificial contraception, according to the newspaper, is that the teaching was authoritative, but not infallible, and the Church did not know how to handle this subtle distinction.
The way forward, according to The Tablet, is to resume the process of theological development. The editors naturally criticized Cardinal Lopez Trujillo and his “hard line” on sexual issues. And by the way, The Tablet considers the current population decline, which is unprecedented since the Black Death of the mid-14th century, to be an “alleged population crisis.”
The current demographic trends will, if unchanged, result in the bankruptcy of many of the pension systems in the West. Many observers, from across the political spectrum, believe that Muslim immigrants to Europe will fill the demographic void. I fail to see anything progressive or forward looking about ignoring these facts.
So let us put aside, for a moment, the welfare state and its culpability. Let us just conduct the following thought experiment: Suppose the Catholics of Europe and America had embraced Humanae Vitae, instead of wrestling with the papacy for the last 40 years.
Many of the countries now experiencing population decline would instead be at or above replacement levels of fertility. Our publicly funded pension systems would be more solvent than they now are. Europe would be more likely to remain Europe, rather than sliding toward becoming an Islamicized Eurabia.
The modern parts of the modern world desperately need another baby boom. To have one, economic incentives need to change. But we also need to recover a sense of the importance of love to the family, in spite of the modern obsession with birth control.
No amount of money from strangers can substitute for the exuberance of a couple in love, facing the world together, building a family.
That vision is the real way forward.
Jennifer Roback Morse is the founder of Your Coach for the Culture Wars,
a business helping organizations maintain their core values.