The Catholic Thing
Goldman on Dying Civilizations Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Thursday, 19 April 2012

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I have a pop quiz for all of you, likely the minority, who fully appreciate that virtually the entire developed world is threatened by severe population implosion even as many still prattle on about overpopulation (and costs to the “system” that could be averted by preventing births).

To take just one example, there are only forty-two grandchildren in Greece today for every one hundred grandparents. Apparently it does take a whole village to raise a child, but at these rates such villages won’t be thriving – or even around much longer.

Which country is presently experiencing the most rapid rate of fertility decline ever recorded in world history? I’d love to draw out the suspense, but will cut to the chase: Iran. A lot must be going on beneath the surface when the total fertility rate in this Muslim country has fallen to a very European-like 1.5 children per woman.

Back in 1970, Iranian women had seven children on average. That steep a decline – over five children per woman – in just a short couple decades is as if a mighty cold front blasted demographic winter down into the tropics.

This is but one eye opener in David P. Goldman’s thought provoking new book: How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too). Islamic countries, like the West and Japan, are choosing decline, as many other peoples and civilizations have done in times past.

St. Augustine felt that “in order to discover the character of any people, we only have to observe what they love,” his explanation for the fall of Rome or, indeed, for any nation. Goldman offers approvingly: “peoples fail because they love the wrong things.”

He argues that Iran, aware of its decline, is like a “wounded beast” – dangerous and unstable. Facing the prospect of demise or extinction, it may be more inclined to lash out, sensing it doesn’t really have anything to lose.

But Goldman’s analysis is more than a deft admixture of statistics and geopolitical considerations. In ways that open new horizons of thought, even for those already sympathetic to his arguments, he gets to the heart of the matter: the spiritual undercurrents of population implosion.

The arrangements of our various secularized cultures, despite their comforts, fail to meet our most fundamental human need: “When men and women lose the sacred, they lose the desire to live.” This is because our lives absolutely require meaning that transcends death.

Perhaps that’s one reason why he calls population implosion not only “the underreported story of our time,” but “the elephant in the room.” It’s harder to talk about the deepest things even if they are also our deepest needs.

Goldman attributes population decline today to a “Loss of Faith,” which he calls the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (the others being War, Plague, Famine, Death): “As traditional societies give way to modernity, faith and fertility vanish together.”

Epidemic levels of suicide among Native American peoples from the Inuit in Canada to the Guarani in South America are another sad manifestation of this deep dislocation.  

The Iranian collapse is not so different in kind, he argues, than that which occurred recently among ethnic pocket populations once identified as strongholds of the Catholic faith.

           David P. Goldman

Quebec’s fertility rates, long notably higher than those in the rest of Canada, plummeted by two-thirds in less than a generation as it transitioned into modernity. By 1982, more than 42 percent of men and women there had sterilized themselves.

The fertility rate in Poland – “the nation whose faith and heroism won the Cold War” – has now hit an astounding low of 1.25. Spain went from having the highest fertility rate in Western Europe, by far, in the 1970s, to having the lowest, in a mere twenty years.

His point is that religion tied too closely to ethnicity – to blood and soil and notions of special elect status with God – has led to great conflicts and tends to be more fragile in the face of modernity, especially compared to religion based on individual conscience. This forms a large part of his discussion not only about Muslim culture – “tribalism elevated to a universal principal” – but also notable differences between Europe and America, despite their common Christian heritage.               

America’s fertility rate – right around replacement level – is not so much an indicator of great health as it is a grace period. We are still growing and capable of maintenance, whereas Europe and Japan are approaching “a point of no return.” By 2050, there will only be half as many prospective mothers in Japan as there are today.

Earlier this year, a report revealed that more than half of all children born to American women under age thirty today are born outside marriage. The precise long-term demographic implications of this deep rift in human equilibrium may be debated. But ultimately all of human life’s “dignity and balance depend,” John Paul II argued in 1980 remarks that would come to form his Theology of the Body, “at every moment of history and at every point of geographical longitude and latitude, on who she (woman) will be for him (man), and he for her.”

Perhaps the late Cardinal Dulles, whom Goldman quotes, was right to worry that the Christian residue in America may not be strong enough to resist the forces of secularization that have overtaken Europe.

Lacking connections to the past and confidence in the future, individuals trapped in a dying culture “dull their senses with alcohol and drugs,” and out of existential despondency “embrace death through infertility, concupiscence and war.”  

The wages of sin, St. Paul wrote, are death. The flip side seems to contain a truism of its own: knowledge of death, without faith in the gift of eternal life, drives people and cultures to greater sin.

What we need most today, where sin and stress, despair and decay abound, is faith in the knowledge that grace abounds even more.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, winner of a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. His latest report, The Catholic Church & The Global AIDS Crisis is now available from the Catholic Truth Society, publisher to the Holy See in the U.K.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Gian, April 19, 2012
I am not sure if this article correctly reproduces Goldman's point. Examples are given of Catholic Spain and Poland but the Catholicism is not tied to blood or soil or any special elect status. It is precisely the Judaism that claims a special divine election.

Is Goldman's point being that Jews are truly elect and others can only pretend at being elect and thus ultimately fail and sink into despondence?.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Grump, April 19, 2012
Aren't 7 billion+ people in the world enough? As long as births exceed deaths, the human species will survive, if not prosper.
written by Manfred, April 19, 2012
This is a great article! Having visited Europe on occasion I wonder why Islam's decline is cited. Muslims seemed very numerous in France and Germany. As for causes of Catholic decline in numbers, I suspect that Catholicism's de facto embrace of contraception over the last fifty years played a tremendous role in encouraging the laity to become lax. The textboks used in parochial high schools still exist and evidence the Church's ENCOURAGEMENT of careers over family. It is only recently that the American hierarchy is beginning to return the Church to Its moorings. The fact that the SSPX has signalled its willingness to accept the Pope's offer to become "normalized" will play a positive role as the traditional orders oppose contraception.
written by Titus, April 19, 2012
"Examples are given of Catholic Spain and Poland but the Catholicism is not tied to blood or soil or any special elect status."

Gian seems to have missed some of the underlying historical context. The Faith in places like Spain and Poland has no more had a formal prerequisite of blood or lineage than it has in any other place. But as a matter of practice, the Faith has played an integral role in the cultural identities of, inter alia, Poles and Spaniards: the struggle to preserve the Faith has been inextricably tied up in these peoples' struggles to preserve their nations. The unfortunate result is that as their efforts to preserve their culture have proved (at least partially) unsuccessful in the face of modernity, the sinking ship is taking the Faith down with it. The phenomenon is more clearly visible in Orthodox countries, where the absence of the unifying force of Rome left the local Church even more overshadowed by the culture and the state.

Certainly the Poles and the Spaniards should not be ashamed of their cultures or their Faith or the efforts they have made in the past to defend either. But as Mr. Hanley observes, the net effect has not been without repercussions.
written by Dave, April 19, 2012
Faith and fecundity, or despondence and death: these are the two choices. "I have set two choices before you: choose life, that you may live." In choosing life for ourselves, we choose life for our cultures as well; in choosing death for ourselves, in choosing not to engender new life, we also make a statement that life, in this culture, is not worth living and it cannot be changed. Hanley's take on Goldman is not that religion should be tied to blood and soil -- Mr. Hanley rather reports Goldman's view that too much of a good thing is not so good; but the solution is not to reject the good thing altogether. Traditionally Catholic societies that have bought the consumerist message are dying, populated by people who are indifferent to their fate after life and the fate of their societies once they die. Conversion of heart leads not just to personal renewal but to renewal of the culture. I think, Gian, these are the points that Goldman is making.
written by will manley, April 19, 2012
I agree with today's essay. We are in a state of decline because religion is in a state of decline. I don't think the reason is very complicated. A yearning for the sacred has been replaced by a yearning for material goods. Technology has given us choices and temptations that we have never had before. As a result the emphasis today is on instant gratification. We want the latest gadgets and we want them now. Religion takes time and effort and the satisfactions often don't materialize for years or decades or even until after death. Raising children is also all consuming. It requires hard work and sacrifice and the satisfactions are often slight. These are dark days because we have too many distractions leading us away from our inherent sense of the sacred. It's really not very complicated at all. We are experiencing the labor pains before the end times. Buckle your spiritual seat belt and hang on for a harrowing ride. Things will only get worse.
written by Chris in Maryland, April 19, 2012
Here's one an account of how the truth about population is getting suffocated. I attended graduate school in the early 1990's on JFK Street in Cambridge, MA. One of our textbooks on environment and natural resource economics had a chapter on "sustainability of animal populations," and prominently featured was a large chart of the population recruitment curve for animals, which, of course, applies to humans. The standard bell-shaped curve was marked with the points on the curve for stable and unstable equilibriums (i.e. "sustainable" and "unsustainable" populations). It was quite clear that the reported birth rates in most countries, developed and undeveloped, were fast approaching or already below the "unstable" equilibrium point on the left half of the curve - i.e., past "the point of no return."

This is what most of us simply don't know about "population control," i.e., it's the "Frankenstein's monster" problem...beyond a certain point, you can't control it...the population collapses to extinction.

Why don't more people know about this, we ask ourselves? After all, we're smart, we've been educated, we follow current events...right? Here's a glimpse into the answer: the next edition of the text book we used edited out the entire topic.
written by Randall, April 19, 2012
I am an American living in Poland. It's true, the Faith in the land that gave us John Paul the Great is in some decline. The Catholic Faith is still more vigorous here than in western Europe, but the trend seems to be toward the situation in that side of Europe. I teach English here and nearly all of my students either have only one sibling or are only children. A family of 3 children is rare.

I think the Church here got complacent and thought it could live off of Karol Wojtyla's legacy. Scandals have reared their ugly head in the Church and much of the Polish media have began attacking the Her.

Many of my teenage students are either indifferent or outright hostile to the Church. Those who are believers are on the defensive and tend to keep a low profile.

I am open about my Catholic faith and try at all times to maintain the highest professionalism. I pray to God that I am a good witness for my students.

Blessed John Paul, pray for us!
written by Gian, April 20, 2012
"His point is that religion tied too closely to ethnicity – to blood and soil and notions of special elect status with God – has led to great conflicts and tends to be more fragile in the face of modernity, especially compared to religion based on individual conscience."

Why does this not apply to Israel which seems to be the strongest example of all the criteria.
1) Religion based upon blood
2) Notion of special election
3) Not based upon conscience.

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