By Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board
Our culture continues to view families as a problem. The declining birth rate of the United States is evidence that people think happiness will be found outside of family life.
Birth rates initially declined in the United States following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Brookings Institute, a slight rebound followed. And that was a momentary bright spot.
Before the onset of the pandemic, there had been a consistent downward trajectory in birth rates over a prolonged period. The year 2019 saw a notable decline, with nearly 600,000 fewer births annually compared to figures from 2007, reflecting a significant 13% decline.
However, despite the momentary rebound post pandemic, birth statistics for 2022 continue to remain lower than those recorded in 2019. In San Francisco, the crisis is being acutely felt. California state demographer Andres Gallardo recently projected that by 2025 more people will die of old age in the city than babies will be born.
Wisdom from the pope
Pope Francis has identified this alarming trend in the West and has been addressing it for years.
In his speech to the European Parliament in 2014, he touched on demographic challenges facing Europe. He noted the low birth rates and aging populations in many European countries, stating, “A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul.”
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope discussed the challenges families face in the modern world, including economic and social pressures that can negatively affect birth rates. He wrote, “The decline in population, due partly to a lack of interest in having children in some places, is also linked to the culture of individualism and material well-being.”
During a press conference on his return flight from World Youth Day in Poland, Pope Francis spoke about the low birth rates in many Western countries. He expressed concern about the demographic imbalance caused by low birth rates and aging populations, stating, “But the great challenge is in the demographic winter of this country, because a country that has no children has no future.”
Earlier this year, speaking to attendees at the third installment of the General States of Births gathering in Rome, which Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also attended, the pope emphasized the pivotal role of birth rates in shaping the destiny of our societies. “Indeed, the birth of children is the main indicator for measuring the hope of a people,” he said. “If few are born, it means that there is little hope.”
As we witness the decline in birth rates across many nations, we are confronted with a stark reality — namely, the potential erosion of our societal fabric. A dwindling population can lead to economic stagnation, strain on social welfare systems and a loss of vibrancy within communities. Moreover, demographic winter threatens to sever the thread of cultural continuity that weaves generations together, passing on traditions, values and wisdom from one era to the next. Increasingly, the family is presented as the problem. But the family is not the problem. The family is the solution.
“We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realize their family dream and are forced to lower the bar of desire, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, traveling, jealously guarding leisure time,” Pope Francis said. As Catholics, we are called to be stewards of life and to bear witness to the beauty and sanctity of marriage and family. Our faith challenges us to embrace a future that is hopeful and teeming with life. By advocating for pronatalist policies, policies which encourage couples to have children, we align ourselves with this sacred mission — a mission that is inextricably linked to the flourishing of our societies and the cultivation of a world that cherishes the gift of life in all its forms.
Work to be done
But advocating for pronatalist policies alone will not stem the tide of our declining birth rates. We have to welcome families in our culture. We have to encourage a workplace culture that values work-life balance and prioritizes family time. We should encourage employers to adopt family-friendly policies that can create an environment where employees feel supported in their roles as parents.
Moreover, we should work to shift cultural attitudes toward larger families, challenging stereotypes that may discourage people from having more children. By highlighting the joys and rewards of parenthood, we can counter negative narratives.
More, not fewer, families and children is the solution. The question is: Are we willing to do what it takes to make that possible?
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Father Patrick Briscoe, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young.