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“Childless Europe,”Humanae Vitae, and Familiaris Consortio

childless.jpgThe Sunday, June 29, 2008 edition of The New York Times Magazine featured a very interesting and provocative essay by Richard Sharto entitled “Childless Europe: What happens to a continent when it stops making babies?” I believe that its publication, coming a few days before the beginning of July, 2008, a month marking the 40th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Humanae Vitae was providential.

Sharto’s essay

“Lowest low fertility” and its significance

Sharto notes that during the 1990’s  there was a downturn in population across the Continent and behind it a sharply falling birthrate. After pointing out that “The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the ‘replacement rate’—the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level,” he focuses attention on a study done in 2002 by Hans-Peter Kohler, José Antonio Ortega, and Francesco Billari,(1) showing that for the first time on record, birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. “At that rate,” according to the authors, “a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-the-cliff effect from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Kohler and his colleagues invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon: ‘lowest low fertility’” (p. 36).

Europe’s fertility “faultline” and its significance

Surprisingly, when women were asked in a 2006 survey how many children they would like to have, the average result was 2.36—well above the replacement level and far above the rate anywhere in Europe. But if that is so why did the birthrate in southern Europe fall to 1.3? We now come to what I find the most significant aspect of Sharto’s paper, the section in which he comments on the reasons why the birthrate in Spain, Italy, and Greece has fallen so dramatically. He notes that although “The accepted demographic wisdom had been that as women enter the job market, a society’s fertility rate drops…the numbers don’t bear this out” (p. 39). Statistics show that European countries “with greater gender equality have a greater social commitment to day care and other institutional support for working women, which gives those women the possibility of having a second or third child” (ibid).

He illustrates this by contrasting population tendencies in countries with extensive welfare state systems, generous maternity and paternity leaves, day care centers for working women with children, etc. such as those operative in Scandinavian countries (p. 40f). (2)  For example, Norway has a generous program to encourage working women to have children, whereas “Italian society prefers women to stay at home after they become mothers and the government reinforces this. There is little state-financed child care etc.” This, plus the fact that Italian couples today delay marriage until they are in their thirties or older, like to live with the parents of one or the other spouse during the years right after marriage, and have their first child when the mother is in her late 30s or early 40s, results in few births. Sharto then quotes a Norwegian born demographer Arnstein Aassve:  “‘You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible’” (p. 40).  “Flexibility” means that even without the services provided by welfare states such as Norway and other Scandinavian countries, working women are having more babies than stay-at-home wives if working hours are flexible and husbands are more involved in child care and home management.

Sharto makes it evident that he, and the demographers whom he cites, are in no way opposed to contraception. Quite the opposite, he clearly regards contraception not only as something good but necessary if women are to have proper control over their own lives.

Above I said I thought the most significant finding Sharto reports is that women tend to have more babies if their societies are either “generous or flexible.” I will take this up now in considering the relevance of Familiaris Consortio

Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio

Humanae Vitae is clearly relevant to the problem of childlessness in Europe (and elsewhere, including the U.S.). “Responsible persons,” Pope Paul said, “will immediately see the truth of the Church’s teaching if they consider consequences that will follow from the methods of contraception and the reasons given for its use.” He noted that it would be easy for many to justify actions leading to marital infidelity or a weakening in the discipline of morals, that not much experience is needed to understand human weakness and see how human persons, especially the young, are susceptible to temptation and need encouragement to keep the moral law. He also said: “it is to be feared that husbands who become accustomed to contraception will lose respect for their wives” and that “dangerous power will be put into the hands of rulers who care little for the moral law” (no. 17, par. 1).

The Pope was immediately attacked, especially by dissenting Catholic theologians, for speaking like this, but contemporary studies clearly show the devastating effect that divorce, “new reproductive technologies,” fatherless families, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and similar phenomena spawned by the sexual revolution made possible by the widespread practice of contraception has had on children in America.(3)

The US is not alone here. The Scandinavian countries are not, as Sharto would have readers believe, wonderful paradises where women choose to have a relatively high percentage (for this age) of babies because of the incentives offered by the governments of those nations. Stanley Kurtz, in an article entitled “Death of Marriage in Scandinavia,” published by The Boston Globe on March 10, 2004, paints a much different picture. He cites demographic studies showing that a majority of children in Sweden and Norway are now born out of wedlock and that more that 60 percent of children in Denmark result from such unions. As unmarried parents break up—and they do so at three times the rate of married couples—their children are put at risk. Acceptance of same-sex marriages in Scandinavia reinforces the view that marriage is unrelated to parenthood. “Clearly,” he writes, “in a place where de facto gay marriage has gained almost complete acceptance, marriage itself has almost completely disappeared.” Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, thinks that the Scandinavian scene shows us the danger of accepting same-sex marriage. But this would never even have been considered had not acceptance of contraception severed the bond between the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act, a key truth articulated by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. (4)

John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio is very relevant. Paragraphs 23 and 25 of this great apostolic exhortation in my opinion can be related to Sharto’s point that women tend to want and have more babies if the societies in which they live are “flexible” and if their husbands become more involved in the care of children.

In paragraph 23 Pope John Paul II wrote: “There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women’s access to public functions. [Nonetheless] the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role…[and] these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human” (emphasis added). Emphasis was added because I think that many women, who have acquired valuable skills through want, if possible, to exercise those skills and abilities as wives and mothers and at the same time to have more children and care properly for those already born. Moreover, in the large cities of the U.S. (and elsewhere), the cost of living is so great that both husband and wife almost have to work, especially if they wish to send their children to good Catholic schools.

In paragraph 25, he then declared: “efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance. As experience teaches, the absence of a father causes psychological and moral imbalance and notable difficulties in family relationships.”

Continuing, he said: “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education…by work which…promotes family unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

Here we find a great challenge to husbands and fathers. They are married to their wives, not their jobs, and they have a great responsibility to help their wives, should they have skills they wish to continue exercising in the world of work along with the great desire to carry out their maternal duties, realize this desire. This can be facilitated, moreover, by the flexibility that many forms of employment offer today, such as working at home on the internet etc.

This, I think, is the way Sharto’s essay was providential.


(1)  Since Sharto did not provide the title and source or this study or details regarding its authors, I do so here. The study in question was entitled. “The Emergence of Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe During the 1990s,” Population and Development Review 28(4) (2002), 641-680; and its authors were Hans-Peter Kohler, a German teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, José Antonio Ortega of the University of Salamanca in Spain, and Francesco Billari of the Università Bocconi in Italy. I accessed this information from http://www.ssc.upenn.edu/~hpkohler/pubs.htm on June 30, 2008.

(2)  Arnstein Aassve, born in Norway, received his doctorate in economics at the University of Bristol in  the UK and is now Chief Research Officer, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, UK. See http://www.cas.uio.no/research/0607family/aassve.php.

(3)  Among such studies are the following: Robert T. Michael, “Why Did the U.S. Divorce Rate Double Within a Decade?” in Research in Population (1988) 361-399; W. Bradford Wilcox, “Social Science and the Vindication of Catholic Moral Teaching,” in The Church, Marriage, & the  Family: Proceedings from the 27th Annual Convention of the Fellowship of  Catholic Scholars, September 24-26, 2004, Pittsburgh, PA, ed. Kenneth Whitehead (South Bend: St. Augustine’s  Press, 2007), pp. 330-340.  “The Facts of Life & Marriage: Social Science & the Vindication of Christian Moral Teaching,” Touchstone (February, 2005); and many studies carried out by the Institute for American Values (see its website http://americanvaues.org); Elizabeth Marquart, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (New York: Crown, 2005).

(4)  I downloaded Kurtz’ article from the following website on July 2, 2008: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/03/10/death_of_marriage_in_scandinavia/