A recent study revealing historically low fertility rates in America has induced several attempts to connect this reality with modern cultural pathologies. Apart from the obvious economic factors underlying America's 1.87 fertility rate is, I submit, a spiritual disorientation as well: A spiritual crisis more timeless than timely.

In his 1934 essay "On Hope," Josef Pieper set out to educe (among other things) the connections between the absence of the theological virtue of hope and the disappearance of "great-souled" men and women, whose conviction in a vision of their noble vocational horizon confirmed them in the strength and constancy embodied so visibly in (among other things) the decision to bring new life in to the world.

The characteristic essence of man is his status viatoris, according to Pieper: Man is a creature "on the way," set between nothingness (from which he is fashioned) and the full confirmation of his being, to which he is summoned by him who "created all things that they may be" (Wis 1:14). The pilgrim dimension of man's moral existence, intrinsic to his created nature, calls him forth from the "not yet" of earthly life ever toward attainment of the eternal "now" of existential fulfillment.

Hope, Pieper argues, is the supernatural (theological) virtue, imparted through grace, made known in and through divine revelation, and crowning and fulfilling man's natural aspirations, that firmly roots man in his vision of the distant "now" of beatitude. The man of hope, who confirms his own existence through every good choice and fastens his will toward nothingness in every sinful action, derives strength to choose the former and shun the latter from the very promise of his beatific enjoyment. This promise is made, revealed, and rendered possible by Jesus Christ, in whom alone hope can take root and bear fruit (1 Thes 4:13).

What happens, then, when an individual or people loses sight of this promise, and consequently 'forgets' him whose assurance is the only promissory evidence one requires? "The orientation toward nothingness is not the proper movement of natural being, which is always directed toward a good," Pieper writes. "[It] comes into existence precisely through the rejection of this proper movement."

Perhaps the word "amnesia" captures this phenomenon more acutely than "rejection." But in any event, the question remains: How can man live with hope when he has 'forgotten' the promise precisely in and through which he boldly greets the future with "great-souledness"?

An interview between Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari raised this exact question last October. The Holy Father reportedly observed then that:

The young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don't even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing ... We must restore hope to young people.

Ours is a culture that lacks hope, that is characterized by a sort of interior despair, the antithesis of hope: a disorientation of the pilgrim character of man's earthly sojourn. In despair, man denies his status viatoris by swapping his "not yet" with a "not," turning away from the fulfillment for which he was called into existence and anticipating the time when the unrepentant "no" of sin becomes the "never" of damnationwhen hope, because the striving after the promise-object of hope, extinguishes irrevocably.

In turn, Pieper continues, the beginning and root of despair is acedia, slothful sadness, one of the deadly vices that ruptures communion with God. This "sorrow according to the world," which in Paul's words "produces death" (2 Cor 7:10), is a "lack of magnanimity; it lacks courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian," writes Pieper, who continues:

Slothful sadness is one of the determining characteristics of the hidden profile of our age ... the visible mark of secularization. It is the signature of every age that seeks, in its despair, to shake off the obligations of that nobility of being that is conferred by Christianity ...

The fruits of this acedia-induced despair, which crushes magnanimity and therefore reflects the disabling of and further disables hope, are (according to Pieper, who cites Aquinas): uneasy restlessness of mind, as man is either seeking to evade or searching restlessly for the knowledge in which hope takes root and in turn makes ennobling demands of him; loquaciousness; excessive curiosity, "in an irreverent urge to 'pour oneself out from the peak of the mind onto many things'"; interior restlessness; instability of place or purpose; irritable rebellion; and pusillanimity.

Pieper, 80 years ago, saw all of these vices as fruits of "an age that has proclaimed the standard of a 'world of total work.'" Do we not also recognize in them the face of our restless culture?

Francis, for one, may very well see these traits as symptomatic of the flight from marital nobility that he diagnosed on June 2, when he unequivocally criticized couples that forego procreation in preference of other pursuits.

The solution to a culture marked by these enumerated symptoms is, Pieper contends, a "grace-filled impetus of the hope of eternal life," an encounter the Church is tasked with facilitating. Francis too understands the need: "We must restore hope to young people," Scalfari wrote, a point that the Pope emphasized too in his September America interview.

Only the memory of a promise made long ago"in hope were we saved," rejoices Paul (Rom 8:24), "the hope that does not disappoint" (Rom 5:5)can give us strength to choose the good amid a present that crushes us under its strictures. Electing that good, for many people, will liberate them for a more generous 'embrace of the goodness of their being'including an embrace of those new beings who are known even before they are knitted in the womb.

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.