During a June 2 Mass for couples celebrating anniversaries, Pope Francis emphasized in his homily that fruitfulness is a characteristic mark of marital unions.
He went on to roundly criticize the complacency and relational inversion that lead married couples intentionally to forego having children for the sake of more glamorous pursuits. A “culture of well-being,” the Holy Father said, produces married couples "who don't want children, who want to be without fruitfulness.”
The Pope’s diagnostics are a sign of the times. A recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reveals that fertility rates in the United States have reached historic lows, with the national fertility rate—which measures the number of expected births the average woman will have in her lifetime—dipping to 1.87, well below the 2.1 rate that demographers say a country must reach in order to maintain current population levels.
This “fertility crisis,” haunting not only America but much of Europe and East Asia as well, undoubtedly belies simple causal explanations. Yet Francis’s broad critique may have captured responsibly enough the complex of dynamics contributing to at least America’s fertility rate (which has been declining since the 1970s and has been below replacement rate since 2007).
Francis did not criticize in his homily those married couples who desire to have children but prudently and justifiably choose not to, often chiefly for financial reasons. He rather was observing a cultural disassociation of marriage and childbearing: Marriage bears no intrinsic connection to childbearing (and thus is a choiceworthy state in life for those pursuing the child-free lifestyle of “well-being”); childbearing, if choiceworthy at all, needn’t be contextualized within the comprehensive union of marriage. (The Pope's remarks centered more so on the former disconnect, but the two are clearly related.)
Recent Gallup numbers confirm this rupture. A May poll of American moral values indicates that having a child outside of marriage garners a record-high affirmation as “generally morally acceptable.” Two-thirds of Americans—also a record high—now view intercourse between unmarried persons as generally morally acceptable. And 90 percent of Americans view birth control as generally morally acceptable, a record high again.
Our nation’s historically low fertility rates are alarming if only because they will usher in a host of social problems, should they persist. To religious believers in the biblical tradition, who believe that conjugal fruitfulness is a sign and image of God’s own creative love and also simultaneously a blessing and the fulfillment of a divine command (“be fruitful and multiply”), these trends are all the more concerning, and bespeak a religious or spiritual crisis as well as an economic or financial one: an anthropological crisis. Attendant to this crisis is another crisis: the marriage crisis.
Recent years have seen a cascade of judicial and legislative affirmations or enshrinements of same-sex unions as marriages. With the pending nationwide arrival of same-sex marriage—the Supreme Court may hand down a decision to this effect as early as June of next year—the intelligibility of the marital landscape in America will have suffered yet another blow in a series of deconstructive, and destructive, capitulations to the sexual desires of adults.
The movement for same-sex marriage is, of course, one the conclusions of which rely upon premises about the structure and nature of marriage (and relatedly of sexual love) that many Americans have already long accepted. In turn, the arrival of same-sex marriage has rendered explicit these tacit beliefs, impelling Americans to confront the inexorable logic of their own visions of marriage. If same-sex marriage is the latest embodiment of what has been called the ‘revisionist view’ of marriage (the view that sees marriage as the closest and most meaningful relationship that two adults share, as one federal judge described it in 2011), its growing cultural acceptance—especially among my Millennial peers, 75 percent of whom now say that they support same-sex marriage recognition—should logically entail an increased endorsement of the rupture mentioned above.
The true societal fallout of endorsing the revisionist view via any particular policy is simple: There exists no longer in America a distinct institution intrinsically related to, and given its nature especially apt for, childbearing (as John Cavadini, for one, has incisively observed). One cannot logically ground the relational norms that guide and facilitate the relational stability necessary for the rearing and raising of children if one rejects the view that marriage is marked by the sexual and otherwise complementarity of spouses. When marriage is understood as an institution accidental to procreation, and when marriage itself is conceived of as simply the ‘most loving’ relationship one enjoys, any cultural script or support for couples wishing to live out stable, procreative unions is due to erode.
And children suffer because of it. A rapidly growing body of social evidence corroborates that the erasure of these unions correlates to decreases in children’s wellness. This makes sense, given that under this view children (and thus their well-being) are fungible to the marital union. Now, many married couples don’t even bother having children, preferring to pursue their own satisfactions rather than open their union to family life. The result? America, and many other first-world countries, are mathematically en route to self-selected self-extinction.
Those concerned with America’s fertility rates ought to recognize the anthropological, not simply financial, crisis that lies behind them, and the marriage crisis rooted in this anthropological one. Recent alarming numbers reflect the need to attend more perspicuously to both. The leaders of the American Church will do just that in October at the Extraordinary Synod, but one need not wait until autumn to ask the question: What can I do to counteract these trends?
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on the “fertility crisis” suggested by recently released data, designed to explore the topic in 1000 words or less. The entire series may be found here.