So Where Have All the Children Gone?

It seems that in a piece I wrote last week deploring the sharp decline in fertility rates across the affluent West, not everyone agreed with my thesis that a world without children is not something we should welcome, and that couples therefore ought to be encouraged to have more of them.   One irate reader had become so incensed that he accused me of “posturing,” on the grounds that because I’m a tenured professor from Steubenville, where the living is easy, and make heaps of money, I can well afford to have children and so feel  “morally superior” to those couples that do not.

Having thus pilloried my position as one of “unusual privilege when it comes to being able to raise and support a large family,” he ended by saying that “I have found that those who are materially secure tend to have little appreciation of what it is like to be materially insecure.”

Sharing his reaction with my wife, we practically fell down on the floor laughing, since the one constant in our life together has been the complete absence of material security.  In fact, we live so far from the land of plenty that I’m often forced to write articles to help pay the bills.  And just as soon as I finish writing this one, I shall go and share the joke with my colleagues at the University, who will be similarly amused to learn how lucky we are to be making all these big bucks in a place like Steubenville where, my critic tells me, the cost of living “is so exceptionally cheap.”

The whole episode has put me in mind of where I was exactly five years ago this week when, in search of cash, I flew all the way to Utah to give a retreat to a Cistercian community of monks.  As wrenching as it was to be gone so long, we sorely needed the money, and the stipend they offered was truly generous.  So there I was that bitterly cold week in January, high up in the mountains, beset by snow and ice, the occasional moose and, of course, the longing to be home with my wife and kids.

Indeed, I spoke to fewer than twenty souls, the youngest of whom was nearly seventy.  It had been more than twenty years, the Abbot ruefully admitted, since anyone had showed up to try his vocation.  He did not stay long, however, the rigors of monastic life having driven him clean off the mountain.  Meanwhile, my chief worry that week was whether the monks would actually survive long enough to justify my getting paid to give the retreat.

They all managed to pull through, of course, although I’ve since learned that the Abbey itself will not long survive, due to a lack of fresh blood with which to infuse an otherwise dying order.  And why is that?  Because, as I tried to say in the earlier piece on the looming demographic disaster that awaits us, the future belongs to the fertile.  It belongs to those who show up.  And whether it’s a monastery where no one seems willing to show up in order to risk everything for God, or a marriage bed whose mentality of not wanting life bespeaks the refusal to be generous, without at least some openness to life—the defining theme, no less, of love, of eros—there can only be death.  What else follows upon the extinction of love if not death?  A  triumphant thantos is the fate that falls upon those who make no provision for the future.

On at least two fronts, then, the marital and the monastic, the signs unmistakably point to a state of complete demographic demise.   Unless steps are taken to arrest and reverse the trend, it will ineluctably usher in a winter without end.

Well, now, that certainly is an icebreaker.  Is it true?  Surely the signs are not so difficult to read. It should not require, I am saying, the subtleties of rocket science to decipher the data.  People are simply not having as many children as they once did and, that being the case, the numbers available for choosing the religious life when they finally grow up have diminished as well.  Families flush with children have always been sources of vocational life.  And while the figures have not yet reached the levels of devastation we find elsewhere—among the Europeans, say, who appear quite cheerfully to be committing race suicide—nevertheless, when growing numbers of U.S. households are reportedly without children, that is hardly grounds for complacence.  If couples need a reason to procreate, why has it become so elusive a matter nowadays to find one?

What, after all, does sex signify?  Babies.  Yes, there is much else besides, and the culture is so awash with it that soon not even monastic outposts will escape drowning.  But the sexual act must also include an openness to receive life, to venture out into the unknown, the future, into the very arms of the mystery of God. Whose very name means life:  I AM WHO AM! thunders the God of Israel.  Is this not the mode of being that is most purely Catholic?  First you have nature, then grace.  The one to penetrate, the other to perfect.  What on earth would there be for grace to do if, God help us, there were no natures around for grace to baptize?  Or if the weight of nature’s resistance were such that nothing could reach into the very marrow of its life in order to transfigure it all unto glory?  “Grace,” declares the poet Hopkins, “rides time like a river.”  It does not merely skim the surface of the material world, the sphere of sex; no, it bores deep down into the life of men and women, all the way to their hidden and Christ-centered lives.  Only then, says Fr. Hopkins, may Christ “play in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

What I want to say is this, which is true even when we fail to uphold its lofty standard:  That neither the Christian God, nor the pagan goddess Venus, whose symbolism includes the springs of life and renewal—of fertility and birth—will be satisfied by any false or prophylactic homage.  And that when we see so many couples in flight from life—from the whole meaning and thrust of eros—refusing even to have babies for fear of the attendant grief and challenge of trying to raise them, it is the sexual itself that has given secret shape to their neuroses.  That to say no to life, to the little children we will not suffer to come unto us, is tantamount to  saying no to sex, since the full meaning of the latter necessarily implies an openness to having them.  Where else should they come from?  Petri dishes?

In point of fact, for us to allow any disconnect between the pleasures of intercourse and the purpose and meaning of the act, is to mount an assault no less upon Venus than upon God.  It is to outrage both the mythos on which the whole ancient world depended, and the Logos of the true God on whom that world would later come to depend for its deliverance.  Venus, too, must be given her due.  Daughter of Jupiter (Zeus) and the earth goddess Dione, she represents the fruitfulness of the union between the rain-giving sky and the fecundity of earth.  Thus her claim to being the universal figure for the feminine, the woman whose whole being cries out for love and life.  Why else draw her as emerging miraculously from the sea, as the artist Botticelli famously did, standing her atop a scallop-shell, the Greek and Latin names for which (kteis, concha) point to the whole  mystery of female reproduction.

If the world will not accept this truth, this ancient and binding axiom on which so much depends, then (as I tried to point out in my piece) it probably does not deserve to survive.  A fairly moot point, as it happens, since the consequence of the world’s failure to recognize the exigencies of eros will deplete the planet of people in any case.  The life force having spent itself, a bored and weary race will simply collapse beneath the weight of its own ennui. 

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Birth of Venus” was paint by Sandro Botticelli in 1486. 

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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