Maybe it is a sign or a consequence of aging, but I find myself becoming increasingly pessimistic about the future. Not my personal future, but the future of our culture. By nature I tend to be a bit of a Pollyanna, so I tend to look on the sunny side; and by creed I am a Christian, so I know the end of the story — and it is spectacularly good. But recently, true pessimism has set in; a pessimism that I believe is, sadly, very realistic.
Actually, I have real reason to be optimistic. Among other reasons, I have been blessed to be teaching in a seminary for the last 11 years, and I see the marvelous quality of the young men who are being ordained for the priesthood. At the seminary and elsewhere, I am privileged to see the zeal and devotion of laypeople who sacrificially serve the Church in so many ways. And, now, somehow the Holy Spirit is identifying the most amazing men for appointment as bishops.
So, why am I pessimistic, if the news within the Church is so good? Because the culture is so very, very bad on so many fronts. I won’t list all of them, but if you aren’t pessimistic about the economy, you are devoid of a capacity for pessimism. Generations will likely suffer for the greed and mismanagement of this generation.
But that is not the chief source of my pessimism. I don’t mean to underestimate the misery and struggle that poverty and financial insecurity bring, but we all know adversity can be character-building. Those who grew up in the Great Depression certainly suffered in many ways, but I would gladly trade some of my prosperity for the better characters they developed. For some of us, some financial struggle might be just what we need to increase our discipline and improve our priorities.
Nor is my pessimism rooted largely in concern that some hostile forces want to take over the world and impose their oppressive ways upon us. It is not rooted in the fact that modern science seems determined to advance the culture of death rather than a culture of life. Human trafficking, the adoption of children by homosexuals — all these do shake me to the core of my being.
Those are horrifying scenarios — but what really worries me is the moral “debt” that we have acquired. We have watched the unwed pregnancy rate rise for decades, to the point that it is now around 42%. Forty-two percent of our children are born out of wedlock — 42%. That is a much scarier figure than the national-debt figure. It is not possible to pay off that debt; the costs just keep growing from generation to generation. All the children born out of wedlock are disadvantaged in serious ways; the problems they have will lead to many of them becoming parents of children born out of wedlock — and the spiral downward escalates. The problems reverberate in many ways: increased crime, increased divorce, etc. Why aren’t the airwaves aflutter with talk-show hosts wringing their hands and consulting innumerable experts about what to do about this current national disaster that will impact generations and generations?
It is probably just as well that we aren’t witnessing such national brainstorming. Because the brain just doesn’t seem to engage when the topic is sex. Our country seems altogether incapable of comprehending that having sex outside of marriage is the source of countless troubles: heartbreak, prolonged immaturity, myriad forms of dysfunctionality, abortion, mothers struggling to support children on next to nothing, fathers adrift without their families, children not receiving the parenting they need and deserve. For the last many decades, the purveyors of nonsense have argued that what is needed is more and better contraceptives. What we need is self-control and responsibility — qualities hard to inculcate in the young when their parents are devoid of these very qualities.
In the first days of her new network, Oprah featured two 30-year-old women who lamented that they were still virgins. Sadly, they thought losing their virginity would somehow be conducive to happiness. Their unhappiness, though, was clearly not caused by a lack of sex, but by twisted childhoods: One was sexually abused; the other’s mother died young, and her father swiftly took up with other women to satisfy his sexual “needs.” These women were not sex-deprived, but relationship-deprived. Like much of our culture, they believed that having sex would bring them the relationships that they want. Perhaps that is the most-believed falsehood of our times: that sex will bring us the relationships, the happiness we want. Instead, it brings us unplanned pregnancies that end in abortion or children born out of wedlock.
We need strong, well-grounded individuals to face the problems of the future. For instance, we need holy and sensible (if not brilliant) statesmen; holy, deep and visionary authors and artists and musicians; holy and dedicated parents. We are greatly reducing the chances of our having enough of such individuals — unless we manage our lives in such a way as to help children develop the strength of character they will need. If they are unformed, they will become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
On a natural plane, I think some of our current troubles are irresolvable; we are going to continue to spiral downward. We haven’t hit bottom yet, but I suspect we can see it from here. Yet, even if/when we hit bottom, despair will never be the right response. Pessimism is, I think, a realistic response to a very dismal future. Despair is a sin.
But God, of course, has not left us without a solution. He has given us a supernatural remedy: the curative powers of his Son. God has given us a source of light and hope to sustain us in the darkest of days; the fact that the Church is getting stronger fortifies that hope and extends that light. There was never a time when it was right to be a half-hearted Christian. We have to soak ourselves in the graces available and to put those graces to work in attempting to reform a culture that, on a natural plane, may be irreformable. We must have confidence that, with God, all things are possible.
Janet Smith, Ph.D., is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.