With American fertility at an all-time low, popular wisdom suggests that a flagging economy is responsible for the flagging birthrate.

But while material concerns should not be completely factored out of assessments of the West’s declining fertility rate, our society’s tendency to impulsively point in this direction as some sort of all-encompassing explanation may reveal a more essential factor at work, one that operates behind the scenes; not in our collective sub-consciousness, but constitutive of it: the bourgeois mind.

In a 1935 essay, the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson explored the contours of the bourgeois mind, which he described as a particular spiritual temperament that had penetrated every level of modern society. There is a “fundamental disharmony,” Dawson noted, “between bourgeois and Christian culture and between the bourgeois mind and the mind of Christ.” If his assessment rings true, it shouldn’t be at all surprising for us to find that the bourgeois mind is also at odds with fertility, understood as a self-giving openness to new life.

This opposition goes beyond the external and the material to human nature itself. “The essential question,” Dawson tell us, “is not the question of economics, but the question of love.” Following the German social scientist Werner Sombart, Dawson argues that the bourgeois mind corresponds to a “closed” temperament, a disposition that is diametrically opposed to the “erotic life,” understood as a radical openness and characterized by “the man of desire,” such as St. Augustine.

The spirit of the Gospel, Dawson says, is also characteristic of the “open” or erotic type, “which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others.” It views goods as internal, not exhaustible or mutually exclusive, not affected by “scarcity” or “opportunity costs”—the parlance of our day. This erotic temperament is opposed to the “spirit of calculation,” as well as to worldly prudence, self-seeking, and self-satisfaction, all bourgeois qualities that today are easily observable as the “reasons” more and more individuals are choosing to delay or forgo having children.

To be sure, prudence does have a place in such choices, a truth that has been affirmed by Church teaching. But just as the Christian ethos is an ethos of love, questions of fertility must be answered with love; and prudence, in this sense, should help us discern how to love best.

As this realm is closed off to the bourgeois mind, fixated as it is on the quantitative rather than the qualitative, it is closed off from contemporary society, which is defined by bourgeois standards from top to bottom. Understood thusly, the “fertility crisis” in America is not the product of a bad economy, but of bad minds. In order to resolve it fully, we need to do more than change the GDP or the job market; we need to change the way we think.

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.