While people debate whether the United States has been a “Christian nation,” no one has ever claimed it has been a Catholic one. If the United States wants to address a serious threat to its long-term prosperity and social stability, it’s going to have to think (and live) like a Catholic one.
The problem is our accelerating demographic decline. Without “thinking like a Catholic,” America’s future doesn’t look as good as it used to.
Thinking like a Catholic means no longer talking exclusively in terms of “freedom” and “rights,” as American politics does. That way of thinking will not produce the practical actions needed to retard or reverse our demographic decline. It will almost certainly accelerate it.
It means asking questions about human dignity, human flourishing, and the common good, the subjects of Catholic Social Teaching, not of American liberalism. It means taking seriously the need for solidarity — the belief that “We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences.” American politics has never done this very well, and especially not now.
The results of the 2020 census are in and the results and the news isn’t great: The 2010s “saw the second-lowest population growth in the nation’s history,” running only slightly ahead of the 1930s, which were shaped by the Great Depression.
This time around, instead of a traumatic economic event, the slowdown was largely the result of declining fertility rates. Until the mid-2000s, the United States defied the trend among industrialized countries towards lower fertility rates. While America’s fertility rates haven’t consistently been at “replacement level” since the 1970s, they were close enough.
“Close enough,” coupled with high immigration rates, made our population grow much faster than its peers, many of whom are facing imminent population declines. This bit of American exceptionalism has ended. Our fertility rate is now roughly the same as Denmark’s, whose demographic anxieties led to a public service campaign that urged its citizens to “Do it For Denmark.”
Despite what five decades of “population bomb” propaganda might have taught you, this is a bad thing. Prosperity and economic growth depend on a sufficiently-large working age population roughly between the ages of 25 and 64.
These are the people who produce and consume the goods and services that drive modern economies. In addition, they pay the taxes that fund the social services (Social Security, Medicare, and others) that provide for nonworking citizens, especially the elderly and the disabled.
This last part is especially important. A lower fertility rate means an aging society with fewer working age people to provide for a larger group of retirees. In the U.S., the ratio of workers to Social Security recipients was projected to drop from 2.8 workers per recipient in 2017 to 2.2 by 2035.
Similarly, the percentage of Americans 65 and older is expected to grow from 16.5 percent to 22 percent by 2050. That 22 percent is roughly the same as contemporary Japan’s — whose aging population is treated as a dire cautionary tale.
What do we do about it? The answer is both “higher fertility rates,” and the economic support they require, and “more immigration,” and the economic support that requires.
While “family friendly” policies can increase fertility rates at the margins, there’s no contemporary example of a nation going from below-replacement-level fertility rates to above-replacement-level. The most these policies can do is make you less dependent on immigration.
And this is where Americans need to think like Catholics.
And not like the usual alternatives in American politics. Many progressives regard promoting increased fertility rates as an attack on women’s bodily autonomy, even though most Americans, including American women, would like to have more children than they already have. Other progressives insist that having fewer children, “especially in the developed world [is] basically a prerequisite to fighting climate change,” and achieving other environmental goals.
Cultural conservatives support increased fertility rates, they usually ignore or even deny the role played by economic factors in the decisions about how many children people have. They want women to have more children, but not if it costs them anything. In practice, they agree with their progressive enemies.
On immigration the two tend to divide. Progressives favor increased immigration. In the past decade or so, cultural conservatives have gone from supporting immigration but emphasizing the need to curb illegal immigration, to proposals to sharply curb legal immigration.
If our only options are those dictated by contemporary American politics, we are well and truly screwed. You might want to think about starting a business like the ones in Japan that clean up apartments after elderly people are discovered dead.
Thankfully, those are not the only options. Catholic Social Teaching offers a way out of the demographic and political dead end our impoverished politics have led us into, provided that we’re willing to listen.
Catholicism is pro-childbirth. At a recent meeting on the “General States of Birth,” Pope Francis addressed the anti-natalism that puts mothers and expectant mothers on the defensive. “It is society that should be ashamed, not the woman. … Because a society that does not welcome life stops living.” It’s a message Francis has delivered throughout his pontificate, declaring the decision to not have children a “selfish” act of a “greedy generation.”
Francis isn’t content with simply hectoring the reproductively recalcitrant. At the same meeting, he spoke about the need to “take care of families . . . who are beset by worries that risk paralyzing their life plans.” Both business and government have vital roles to play in supporting families. Employers must be willing to pay workers enough to support their families, including “distributing a portion of profits to workers.”
As he wrote in Evangelium Gaudium, politicians and businessmen must work “to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” He tells them to turn to God for their plans. “I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society.”
Everything Francis has said on the subject is consistent with more than a century of Catholic Social Teaching from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum through Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. Leo wrote, for example, that “wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.” Benedict reminded “everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity.”
As for immigration, no organization on Earth is more pro-immigration and pro-immigrant than the Catholic Church. For instance, the American bishops wrote in their Welcoming the Stranger Among Us that “the call to solidarity is also a call to promote the effective recognition of the rights of immigrants.”
They were building on what St. Pope John Paul II said in 1985, that “when there are just reasons in favor for it,” every human being “must be permitted to migrate to other countries and to take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular state does not deprive him of membership to the human family, nor of citizenship in the universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.”
Here’s another Catholic distinctive: It’s not just about us. Being pro-immigrant also includes taking into consideration the conditions that cause people to leave their home countries, which are often the result of exploitation by richer societies. It includes reflecting on what we and our country can do to make it safe for those who want to stay in their home country. Being pro-immigrant also requires taking care of workers so that newcomers aren’t viewed as an economic threat.
Is there any chance that Americans will listen to what Catholic Social Teaching has to say on how to preserve their future? The Magic 8 Ball’s answer is “Don’t count on it.” After all, if even the public defenders of Catholic orthodoxy don’t embrace the Church’s entire counsel on the matter, why should we expect non-Catholic Americans to?
In What’s Wrong With the World, G.K. Chesterton wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” He wrote that a century ago. It is still the case today — even when the alternative is stagnation and decline.
Roberto Rivera has written for First Things, Touchstone, and Sojourners. He worked with the late Charles Colson as a principal writer for two decades. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his son, David. His previous article was Depression, Lent, and Easter.
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