Contraception and lower birth rates are problems, but there is hope: children 

July 2, 2024

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

A headline in the May 14, 2024, print edition of The Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “There Aren’t Enough Babies, Alarming the Whole World.” The subheading explains: “Birthrates are falling fast across countries, ​with economic, social and geopolitical ​consequences.” The authors of the article, Greg Ip and Janet Adamy, wrote, “The world is at a startling demographic milestone. Sometime soon, the global fertility rate will drop below the point needed to keep population constant. It may have already happened. Fertility is falling almost everywhere, for women across all levels of income, education and labor-force participation. The falling birthrates come with huge implications for the way people live, how economies grow and the standings of the world’s superpowers.”

The global fertility rate, which is a projection of how many babies a woman is expected to have over her lifetime, was 2.5 in 2017. By 2021, it was already down to 2.3, close to what demographers consider the global replacement rate of about 2.2. The replacement rate is the number of babies per woman needed to keep a society’s population size stable over time. Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, an economist specializing in demographics at the University of Pennsylvania, estimates that global fertility fell to between 2.1 and 2.2 last year, which he said would be below global replacement for the first time in human history. In the United States, the total fertility rate fell to 1.62 last year, the lowest on record.

What are the reasons for this decline in global fertility rates? Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland specializing in demographics, is quoted in the article as saying, “If people have a preference for spending time building a career, on leisure, relationships outside the home, that’s more likely to come in conflict with childbearing.”

The article also cites Danielle Vermeer, who “grew up third in a family of four children on Chicago’s North Side, where her neighborhood was filled with Catholics of Italian, Irish and Polish descent and half her close friends had as many siblings as her or more.” She said that, “before setting out to have children, she consulted dozens of other couples and her Catholic church and read at least eight books on the subject, including one by Pope Paul VI. She and her husband settled on two as the right number.”

Herein lies the problem: if couples decide to have two children or less, that is below the replacement rate of 2.2 children per family. Moreover, infertility means that many couples are unable to have children. Thus, we have the fertility rate falling below the replacement rate.

The writing on this subject by Pope Paul VI referenced above was most likely his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae On Human Life — issued 56 years ago on July 25, 1968, in which he upheld the Church’s longstanding teaching that artificial contraception is morally wrong. Asking people to “reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control,” he wrote, “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” The Holy Father’s words have proven to be prophetic as his predictions of the negative consequences of artificial birth control have unfortunately come true.

Sadly, many Catholics have rejected and continue to reject the Church’s teaching about the sinfulness of artificial contraception, saying that they are just following their conscience. However, these are simply self-justifying rationalizations, as a properly formed conscience would never provide a justification for committing a sin. No one could rightfully say, for example, that my conscience told me it was all right to cheat on my spouse, since I do not consider adultery to be a sin.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, an economist at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has said, “We live in a society that it’s just so easy not to have children.” Pakaluk is the author of Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, published this past March 19 by Regnery Gateway. According to an article by Maria Wiering in Our Sunday Visitor on April 4, 2024, Pakaluk’s research, which is based on open conversations with college-educated women who have five or more children, “indicates that religious faith is a major motivator for having children. She said this shows an importance to change people’s hearts about the value of children  — something Christians have historically done as they converted pagan cultures.”

Pope Francis expressed his concern about declining fertility rates at an annual conference in May 2023, in which he connected low rates with lack of hope. The Holy Father said, “The birth of children, in fact, is the main indicator for measuring the hope of a people. If few are born it means there is little hope. And this not only has repercussions from an economic and social point of view but also undermines confidence in the future.” The Pope concluded, “A change in mentality is needed; the family is not part of the problem, but part of its solution.”

May God give us this grace. Amen.