Many believe that the College of Cardinals chose Joseph Ratzinger as Pope in a final effort to rescue Europe from the secularism, hedonism, and anti-procreationism that threaten to obliterate it over the next few decades. Cardinal Ratzinger even chose the name of St. Benedict, the Father of Europe, as his papal name. Unless Pope Benedict XVI succeeds in this task, which is an unlikely eventuality, the next Pope will probably come from another continent and focus his energies elsewhere than on the fast-dying Old World.
In the meantime, Pope Benedict has had much to say about the decadence of the wellspring of Western Christendom. I believe that low birthrates will become a more and more prominent part of the debate over Europe’s future (or lack thereof), and an ever-more-acknowledged piece of evidence damning the post-modern secularist project. On a few occasions in public fora, the Pope has highlighted collapsing birthrates and explored their meaning. Most recently and perhaps most extensively, he did so during his annual Christmas speech to the Roman Curia on December 22.
The speech, given in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican, recapped notable events of the year, including the Pope’s trip to Spain. “The visit to Valencia, Spain, was under the banner of the theme of marriage and the family,” said His Holiness. “It was beautiful to listen, before the people assembled from all continents, to the testimonies of couples—blessed by a numerous throng of children—who introduced themselves to us and spoke of their respective journeys in the Sacrament of Marriage and in their large families. They did not hide the fact that they have also had difficult days, that they have had to pass through periods of crisis. Yet, precisely through the effort of supporting one another day by day, precisely through accepting one another ever anew in the crucible of daily trials, living and suffering to the full their initial ‘yes,’ precisely on this Gospel path of ‘losing oneself,’ they had matured, rediscovered themselves and become happy.”
Benedict used the recollection of this experience to muse upon the nature of Europe’s demographic crisis. Even the inflated statistics of the United Nations Population Fund put Europe’s total fertility rate at a fatal 1.4 and assert that Europe’s population is already shrinking.
“Before these families with their children, before these families in which the generations hold hands and the future is present, the problem of Europe, which it seems no longer wants to have children, penetrated my soul. To foreigners this Europe seems to be tired, indeed, it seems to be wishing to take its leave of history,” the Pope said, referencing the suicidal impulse of that apostate continent. “Why are things like this?
This is the great question. The answers are undoubtedly very complex. . . . In mentioning these difficulties, perhaps the reasons also become clearer why for many the risk of having children appears too great. A child needs loving attention. This means that we must give children some of our time, the time of our life. But precisely this “raw material” of life—time—seems to be ever scarcer. The time we have available barely suffices for our own lives; how could we surrender it, give it to someone else? To have time and to give time—this is for us a very concrete way to learn to give oneself, to lose oneself in order to find oneself.”
In modern societies, organized around production—economic production, not the production of the next generation of human beings—and infected with the feminism that has led to two-income households as a necessity for middle-class lifestyles, people haven’t the time for children. Could many more deeply critical observations of modern life be made than this?
In addition, the Pope noted, adults no longer have a clear idea of how to raise children. “In addition to this problem comes the difficult calculation: What rules should we apply to ensure that the child follows the right path and in so doing, how should we respect his or her freedom?” he said. “The problem has also become very difficult because we are no longer sure of the norms to transmit; because we no longer know what the correct use of freedom is, what is the correct way to live, what is morally correct and what instead is inadmissible. The modern spirit has lost its bearings, and this lack of bearings prevents us from being indicators of the right way to others.”
The Pope explained that the situation is even worse than this. “Indeed, the problem goes even deeper,” he said. “Contemporary man is insecure about the future. Is it permissible to send someone into this uncertain future? In short, is it a good thing to be a person? This deep lack of self assurance—plus the wish to have one’s whole life for oneself—is perhaps the deepest reason why the risk of having children appears to many to be almost unsustainable.”
When doubt whether it is “a good thing to be a person” becomes widespread in a civilization, what can save it but a profound spiritual renewal? Given the risible self-destruction of Europe’s moribund Protestant churches, can any force other than the Catholic Church provide this renewal for Europe? Or perhaps Europe’s fast-growing, high-fertility Muslim population will provide its own spiritual reformation for the continent.
“In fact, we can transmit life in a responsible way only if we are able to pass on something more than mere biological life, and that is, a meaning that prevails even in the crises of history to come and a certainty in the hope that is stronger than the clouds that obscure the future,” continued Benedict. “Unless we learn anew the foundations of life—unless we discover in a new way the certainty of faith—it will be less and less possible for us to entrust to others the gift of life and the task of an unknown future. Connected with that, finally, is also the problem of definitive decisions: Can man bind himself forever? Can he say a ‘yes’ for his whole life? Yes, he can. He was created for this. In this very way, human freedom is brought about and thus the sacred context of marriage is also created and enlarged, becoming a family and building the future.” The Pope went on to criticize the conditional yeses blessed by the state in civil unions for unmarried couples and to deplore the anti-human nature of same-sex “marriage.”
Those in favor of sodomy have no respect for the human body, he said. “Such theories hold that man—that is, his intellect and his desire—would decide autonomously what he is or what he is not. In this, corporeity is scorned, with the consequence that the human being, in seeking to be emancipated from his body—from the ‘biological sphere’—ends by destroying himself,” asserted Benedict. Looking at the undisputed trends in the Western world, how can anyone disagree?
The Pope has made other, less extensive public references to declining birthrates as well. To a group of Canadian bishops on their ad limina visit May 20, he said, “Central to the cultural soul of the nation is Christ’s immeasurable gift of faith which has been received and celebrated over the centuries with deep rejoicing by the peoples of your land. Like many countries, however, Canada is today suffering from the pervasive effects of secularism. The attempt to promote a vision of humanity apart from God’s transcendent order and indifferent to Christ’s beckoning light, removes from the reach of ordinary men and women the experience of genuine hope. One of the more dramatic symptoms of this mentality, clearly evident in your own region, is the plummeting birthrate. This disturbing testimony to uncertainty and fear, even if not always conscious, is in stark contrast with the definitive experience of true love which by its nature is marked by trust, seeks the good of the beloved, and looks to the eternal.”
On Aug. 31, 2005, during a Wednesday public audience, the Pope said, “The Psalmist extols in particular ‘the sons of youth’: The father who has had sons in his youth will not only see them in their full vigor, but they will be his support in old age. He will be able, therefore, to face the future confidently, like a warrior, armed with a quiver of those victorious pointed ‘arrows’ that are his sons. The purpose of this image, taken from the culture of the time, is to celebrate the safety, stability and strength found in a large family, such as is presented anew in the subsequent Psalm 128, in which the portrait of a happy family is sketched.
The last picture shows a father surrounded by his sons, who is welcomed with respect at the city gates, the seat of public life. Begetting is thus a gift that brings life and well-being to society. We are aware of this in our days in the face of nations that are deprived, by the demographic loss, of the freshness and energy of a future embodied by children.”
Birthrates are low not only in Europe and Canada, but in most of the rest of the Christian world including Latin American nations and the United States. Our societies are aging rapidly. This disaster is so grave, and its metaphysical roots so deep in the souls of Christian men and women, that we can hope that the Pope will write an encyclical solely about this crisis. Such an encyclical will raise this issue to the level of importance and awareness that it deserves, and perhaps prompt a solution before it is too late. And aren’t the low birthrates of every Western nation proof of the wisdom of the Church’s teachings on secularism, marriage, feminism, contraception, and abortion?
Islamic jihad and “global warming” are often presented as the most dangerous threats to the Western world today, yet they pale in comparison to the demographic crisis since, of course, without people, nothing else matters. We can await such a papal document with hope.