VATICAN CITY — As once-Catholic nations in Europe trend toward dangerously low birthrates, mainstream media and international organizations there continue to advocate population control.

The birthrates in Italy, Spain, France, and most other European nations have fallen well below the minimal replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, creating an ever-aging population and the specter of extinct nations.

In separate interviews recently, two Vatican officials discussed the phenomenon and its relationship to life issues. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, identified propaganda and policies as factors in the trend toward underpopulation but emphasized that individual moral responsibility is at the root of the problem.

“Under the guise of the overpopulation myth, which our dicastery and the Holy Father have never stopped denouncing from the very beginning, population control was the main vehicle for the dissemination of various ideologies often against marriage, family and life,” said Cardinal López.

He said that international groups, such as International Planned Parenthood Federation, are trying to impose their anti-life ideas on the Third World. European governments, too, have put downward pressure on birthrates through public policies, he said.

“Also, the creation of a welfare state in Europe has aggravated the problem by imposing high taxes and perverse incentives,” Cardinal López said. “Young people are faced with high taxes and a high rate of unemployment, which also contributes to delaying the time of marriage and to limiting the size of the family.”

And now, there is a continent-wide battle over same-sex “marriage.”

“Anti-Christian and atheist ideologies, backed by funds coming from powerful political organizations and lobbies, impose themselves, especially upon the Catholic ancestral tradition,” the cardinal said. “Instead of contributing to the formation of the soul — character, as Plato had earlier understood it in The Republic — the post-modern state has done just the opposite: It is attempting to remove the spiritual roots of the peoples.”

Longing for Children

Prominent anti-life groups are also opposed to the Church, said Cardinal López.

“Starting with anti-religious campaigns masterminded and funded by the contributions of international organizations to discredit Catholics and especially the Church, the purpose has been to sow distrust of the Church using the media to spread, in subliminal ways, that the Church is not necessary in order to follow Jesus Christ,” he said. Eventually, he said, they want to succeed in “eradicating among the people the idea even of God.”

Despite this propagandizing, many people still want larger families than they have, and Cardinal López suggested that governmental obstacles sometimes prevent couples from having them. “The desire to have children is deep-seated in the couple but the possibility of fulfilling this desire is often hampered by inadequate social and political measures,” he said.

For his part, Bishop Sgreccia said government policies were more important than what international organizations decide in terms of influencing societies on life and family issues, but not as important as the individual decisions that ordinary people make.

Asked if people adopt anti-life attitudes due to propaganda or to the simple prevalence of modern technology, Bishop Sgreccia replied, “People don’t ‘adopt anti-life attitudes’; they just use what becomes available, and appears convenient to them, especially when public authorities do not oppose these means or technologies.”

He said that the anti-life and pro-population control decisions of the United Nations and other international organizations do not affect people directly, but have a deleterious trickle-down effect.

“Their decisions, in the end, do reach people, when local governments sign proposed treaties and conventions,” Bishop Sgreccia said. “This is why we have to be attentive about all what is proposed or done in the U.N., the UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund), UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the European Union or the Council of Europe.”

As highly fertile Muslim immigrants continue to flood into what was once called Christendom, the connection between low birthrates and high immigration levels should be becoming more evident, but Bishop Sgreccia said that this hasn’t yet entered the public awareness.

“The reality of below-replacement fertility has started to show up in the media very recently, when the question of paying pensions to retired people has become worrisome,” he said. “However, people in Europe seem to be still less concerned with the ‘demographic winter’ into which they already entered, than, let’s say, with the question of immigration, although this last issue is very much linked to the first.”

Not Too Late

Both Church leaders argued that while birthrates in Europe have fallen to dangerously low levels, it is not too late for these societies to recover.

Cardinal López said that France has taken some small steps in the right direction. “It has been found that stimulating economic policies in favor of the family has had the most positive effect.”

Said Bishop Sgreccia, “What we see right now, for example, in France — spontaneously rising birthrates for several years — shows that a reversal of these negative trends is possible. … The recent meeting of the Pope with European youth shows that this youth has still energies and spiritual longings. But governments should act quickly in favor of families before it gets too late.”

Both men said the natural, Catholic attitude of rejoicing in family and children is the ultimate source of salvation for the Catholic nations of Europe. A leading Italian pro-life activist agreed.

Italy today is a country that needs a New Evangelization,” said Silvio Dalla Valle, executive director of the Italian pro-life group Voglio Vivere (I Want to Live) and also a director of the magazine Radici Cristiane (Christian Roots).

Warned Dalla Valle, “Without that, the future is bleak.”

Joseph A. D’Agostino

writes from Washington.