Ever since the Garden of Eden, we have been told to be fruitful and multiply. Affirmation of this commandment is now coming from the strangest places.
The quirky futurist Elon Musk recently issued a dire warning. “Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view … The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse. Not explosion. Collapse.”
The New York Times normally devotes considerable ink to the supposed problem of overpopulation, but is now sounding the alarm about declining fertility in a fascinating article headlined “The End of Babies”. Demographers agree that global fertility rates will fall below replacement levels by 2070, a dramatic prediction with devastating implications.
What, then, is to be done? A simple and beautiful place to start is to contemplate the wisdom of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.”
Moving from the inspirational to the practical, how can such a profound attitude change be achieved? Government incentives tend to be ineffective. Europeans are offered generous paid family leave, childcare subsidies, even payments for having children, yet these efforts to encourage a new baby boom have been a bust.
We might rein in the West’s obsessive cultural imperialism towards developing countries. Population control zealots at the United Nations, stuck in the 1970s myth of “the Population Bomb”, are now focused on preventing births in the too-fertile continent of Africa via the recent Nairobi conference on population. In England, well-intentioned Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan have popularised the “two maximum” ideal number of children to save an overburdened planet. They seem unaware that that mindset is so last century.
We might also seek ways to inspire young people to marry. Harvard’s Dr Arthur Brooks has pro-marriage messaging that is rather romantic for an economist, encouraging “entrepreneurship in love” – take risks in dating, then close the deal. Marriage postponed means children postponed, often until the biological clock is barely ticking. Proposed workarounds like IVF and egg freezing are expensive and often ineffective, but also dehumanising and lead us into quandaries of a science fiction nature. Pope Francis drives this point home in Laudato Si’: mess with the natural order, and nature gets messy.
The next challenge is to reconnect marriage and children; reconnect love and life. Newlyweds today often seem somewhat startled at the mention of babies, as if children are a separate endeavour to be considered after many other milestones are met. Jack Ma, the visionary co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba (double the size of Amazon), tells employees: “Marriage is not for the purpose of accumulating wealth, not for buying a house, not for buying a car, but for having a baby together … Have more children!”
Yet young people are steeped in a materialistic culture focused on self-fulfillment. Babies are often seen as unwelcome burdens, marital buzzkill, career inhibitors, travel suppressors. The Church has an opportunity to offer a far more inspiring view through the marriage preparation courses that engaged couples are required to take.
I’ve taught in these Pre-Cana programmes for years, and there is surprising receptivity to the Church’s vision for marriage and family. It is often the first time couples hear that children don’t need to be planned like a business plan. Sometimes the best things in life are surprises. Joys are multiplied in large families, and the sorrows are shared with more loving hearts. Studies show that having sisters and brothers makes you a better person (middle children – known for being peacemakers – are an endangered species). You will never regret the children you have, but it is common to regret the children you never had. It is good to say yes to God when He wants to give you a gift. God actually has a plan for your family that is better than the one your human mind can manufacture.
As Pre-Cana couples often lack imagination on these matters, an effective analogy is that life before children is akin to life before colour television. People thought black-and-white TV was just great when that was all they knew. That is, until they experienced the vividness of life in high-definition colour.
Young couples also need assurance that the Church’s approach to spacing children, when really necessary, actually works. Natural family planning is not your grandmother’s rhythm method, and studies show effectiveness rates of 98 per cent, similar to the pill. Pointing to the side effects of hormonal contraceptives gets the attention of the women in the crowd (none of whom appreciate the increased moodiness and weight gain) and resonates with an environmentally conscious generation. Why buy hormone-free organic chicken while simultaneously ingesting hormones the World Health Organization classifies as Group 1 carcinogens?
This is a multi-faceted problem, but it is not rocket science. On a macro level, policymakers ought to stop promoting harmful, ideologically driven policy. On a personal level, we ought to share the compelling beauty of the Church’s time-tested wisdom of the Garden of Eden: that it is good to marry and be co-creators with God.
Maureen Malloy Ferguson is a Senior Fellow for The Catholic Association
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