What “Future” without Children?

The “future” has been a hot topic at the Synod on Youth, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Virtually everyone, bishops and lay people alike, works hard to find reasons to believe that, despite the dismaying statistics about young people turning their backs on Christianity and the mostly tepid stance of most of those who have not left, we should not give into pessimism or, worse, the sin of despair. There’s “hope” – they say – for the “future.”

But there’s a telling omission. Yes, adolescents and young adults represent the immediate future. Still, if they don’t start having children in greater numbers than the generation or two before them, “the future” is going to hit a demographic wall. And not all that far in “the future.”

All of this is connected, of course, with a topic that Archbishop Bruno Forte – author in 2014 of the scandalous passage in the mid-term report at the Synod on the Family about “valuing” homosexual relationships – said yesterday has not been discussed explicitly in the first ten days: Humanae Vitae, whose 50thanniversary the Church is not exactly celebrating, but kind-of-sort-of remembering this year.

How can you talk about marriage, family, and sexuality and not mention the most salient tool of destruction wielded against them all: contraception? Most bishops and even the pope himself avoid the subject as much as possible – for the obvious reason that it automatically puts you at odds with one of the deepest beliefs in the modern world: the right to childless sex. And there are few willing to suffer the shunning and criticism that will bring.

There’s a passing mention in one of the French-language circles of the need for stable marriages and openness to life. That’s it.

Paul VI will be canonized on Sunday. Even people who remember him with affection admit that he’s an ambiguous figure. In 1963, when he became pope, the chaos of Vatican II was well under way. He made efforts to curb its worst excesses, but mostly stood by as the forces of disorder wrecked the liturgy, the Creed, religious life, and much of the 2000-year-old tradition.

The only way in which, beyond all doubt, he exhibited heroic virtue was in his refusal to go along with the so-called experts who encouraged him to abandon the Church’s constant teaching about contraception. He rightly predicted that disaster would follow the widespread adoption of a contraceptive mentality – in the family, relations between men and women, and society as a whole.

He took heavy criticism for defending that truth – which has been confirmed beyond all reasonable dispute by subsequent history (and the social science beloved by the Synod organizers). And he held on, despite the fact that it tore the Church apart in many ways. Different factions arose, of course, but many people chose the World over the Faith on contraception and came, as a result, to doubt the whole moral witness of an unbroken moral tradition that went back to the earliest days of the Church.

Those may or may not be adequate grounds for his canonization. But it would be difficult to find any others.

Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP

We’ve been hearing lately that the anniversary of Humanae Vitae provides an opportunity for the Church to “deepen” its understanding that encyclical. Archbishop Forte repeated that when asked about it by a journalist yesterday. But it’s not hard to imagine what that “deepening” would lead to in these troubled days.

As in the recent teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, we’re likely to see an ambiguous formulation that we cannot simply apply universal rules to every situation. Each case is “different,” and we’ll need accompaniment and discernment, to find a way around the teaching that leaves it formally in place, but without real effect on people’s lives.

Or rather, without positive effects. The right to childless sex is also similar to a chemical precursor for “gay sex.” Once you’ve sterilized relations between men and women, you’ve removed the grounds for understanding why same-sex acts clash with both nature and nature’s God.

In the past, the Church – the last bastion of belief in the Deity, reason, and the created order – would have spoken about marriage and family from within the anthropology such truths imply. In the present, and looking to the future, the Church seems to have finally noticed that it forgot to teach the truth about God and man for a half century.

So what now? Well, you can’t start with philosophy, theology, or even the facts of life because most people long ago were taught they weren’t important. Young people, in particular, are distant and deaf to the old music of the Gospel and Creation.

Instead, you speak of accompanying, listening, discerning. For the few people inside the magic circle of the Faith, these all sound promising. But for those outside, those you really need to work to convert, you might as well be a Jehovah’s Witness knocking on a door to distribute the latest issue of The Watchtower. The kindly among them will shoo you away as poor, hapless, eccentric. The not so kindly . . .

I’ve heard Europeans argue that the culture wars that St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI engaged in didn’t work. True, in a way, they righted the Church some and brought back many lost sheep, though not enough to make a difference. Yet.

The day is coming – it may not be near, but it will come – when the world will be forced to choose between something like JPII’s Theology of the Body and extinction – at least in the West. In Islamic nations and other non-Western cultures that have not swallowed the poison pill of contraception, children are still valued. Their populations grow, and they are religious.

The West may be too far gone to avoid demographic suicide. But maybe the Church – in a Synod about the “future” – should at least be reminding people that, without children, the future they’re projecting will be very short indeed. And we won’t like the world we’ll inhabit when it’s over.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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