As well as reading Anne Applebaum’s history of the early stages of the Cold War, which I mentioned in a recent blog, I have also been reading “Going Solo” by an American professor called Eric Klinenberg. Applebaum’s book concerned the suffering endured by the peoples of Eastern Europe under Communism; Klinenberg’s book describes a different kind of sadness (though he wouldn’t quite describe it like this): that endured by many people in the western world today. This is the sadness that comes from loneliness, the result of living in an atomised, individualistic society where old style communities have broken down, religious belief has dwindled and the population is aging rapidly.
Klinenberg provides two statistics that are worth pondering. In the US in 1950, 22% of adults were single; now the figure is more than 50%. Again, in 1950 only 1 in 10 Americans over 65 lived alone; today the figure is 1 in 3. The author does recognise there are social and demographic problems here; but his solution is not to challenge the status quo itself but to adapt public policies to give people a softer landing i.e. to plan for new forms of suburban living that allow for single units; to re-think care homes and community care for the elderly so they are not left neglected and so on. Instead of “Dinks” – double income no kids” – we now have “Sinks” – single income no kids; that pattern, the author argues, is here to stay because people now have the wealth and the freedom to choose this lifestyle; they like it this way.
All this is deeply depressing to anyone who thinks hard about what a healthy society is all about: marriage as the cornerstone of society, with flourishing stable families and sufficient children to keep the population at replacement level and provide care for the old and sick within the extended family unit. As I type this, and bearing in mind Klinenberg’s statistics, it seems already past history – and pie in the sky to want to reverse the modern trend. But is it possible to change the demographic in the affluent West of which the US, the society Klinenberg examines, provides the model?
Here the Catholic Church should have something to offer. The Church has always championed marriage and openness to life, frowned on cohabitation and taught that a contraceptive mentality runs contrary to God’s plan for marriage. Yet except in rare cases – couples practising natural family fertility, families who home-school, traditionalist families, families who are part of the new movements in the church, such as Opus Dei – most Catholic marriages today, in size and outlook, reflect their agnostic neighbours.
Defending marriage and explaining why Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae is a wise document and also consistent traditional Catholic teaching is not something our bishops have been vocal about in recent decades – to the detriment of society as well as families. But you cannot have a healthy society without the bedrock of strong family life. Klinenberg’s book reflects on the fallout from neglecting this principle.
An article by Clare Horsfall in the Family Edge section of the blog site MercatorNet.com for 3rd April 2013, entitled “The truth about big families”, provides a light-hearted (but also serious) rebuttal of the current situation, both here and in the US. Among the ten reasons she gives for stating why big families are a good thing, she lists economics: babies come cheap (and although she doesn’t say this, a large family under one roof is more ecologically sensible than many smaller individual units).
Although there are sacrifices with large families, they are outweighed by the rewards; the love that is generated in such families increases the capacity to love all round; parents will not have a lonely old age and children, surrounded by siblings, will be less lonely themselves (and less indulged by hothouse or helicopter parenting.) Why don’t our bishops regard this as the most important thing to tell lay Catholics? That the common good as well as individual good depends on stable, faithful marriage and that openness to life and that generously welcoming more rather fewer children would confront, in the most natural way possible, all the trends and demographics that Klinenberg’s book analyses?
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