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Goldman on Dying Civilizations

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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

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.



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