The family – the basic building block of society (part two)

demographic decline

In the first part I wrote about the situation of families that do have children. However, have you thought recently about how old the population looks when you go out onto the street? This is not just because people are living longer. Where are the prams, pushchairs and babies? Pope Francis has talked about how we are moving towards a “demographic winter”.

demographic decline

Pope Francis has used this phrase on a number of occasions. Talking specifically about Italy, he has said: “We need to prepare fertile ground for a new spring to blossom and leave this demographic winter behind us” and he continued “Have you ever imagined a world without babies?”

We are not quite there yet. But the situation is really troubling. The countries which we thought were avoiding the worst of the decline in birth rates, such as the UK and France, are now suffering too. Today, the average British family has 1.5 children. And in the countries where we thought things could not get any worse, they are getting worse. In Italy, the average family has 1.2 children. The population of Germany will fall by about 10 million in the next 50 years. I don’t want to be too alarmist, but, in the next 500 years, at current birth rates, some projections suggest that there will only be 16 Italians left!

In 1960, in Italy, there were over six people of working age supporting every person over pension age, by 2050, there will only be 1.3.

In 1960, in Italy, there were over six people of working age supporting every person over pension age, by 2050, there will only be 1.3. This is a looming economic disaster.

This is a looming economic disaster. In the past, families, mutual welfare organisations, savings and insurance provided for the needs of old age. But, in the post-war generation, when populations were much younger, we built systems of so-called social insurance based on the principle that each generation received pensions and care paid for by the taxes of the following working generation. As people are living longer the costs of these systems increase. But, as we have fewer children, there are fewer taxpayers to pay the bills. This is a major reason why there is so much political dissatisfaction around at the moment. People see public services crumbling whilst we pay record levels of taxes. And, of course, in that environment, people feel they cannot afford to have more children so we have a vicious circle.

Japan has a more serious crisis than Italy. The population is already falling there. And there we see social problems caused by the fall in fertility. Among elderly men living alone in Japan, already 15 per cent speak to one person or fewer every fortnight, whilst nearly one-third feel they have no “reliable persons” they can turn to for simple help.

Indeed, to return to Italy, by 2050, roughly 60% of Italians will not have the experience of having a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or cousin. And, of course, their parents will die, and many will have no children. The concept of the family as an anthropological reality, upon which society is built, will simply cease to exist in many countries.

And if you think things can’t get worse than that, consider South Korea. In fact, this is a country where Catholicism is flourishing. The Catholic population is growing and it is growing through conversion, not just migration. But the average number of children families have is just 0.6 – around one child for every two couples. In just 50 years, the population will fall by 30 per cent.

You might ask, what happened the last time the world faced such a situation. The answer to that is that it never has. Of course, the population has plummeted before. We think of Ireland as recently as the nineteenth century or the great plagues. But never have we had a situation where we have run out of young people (of course, I exaggerate to make the point) whilst the number of older people rises.

However, as Christians, we bring a message of hope. We are a people of hope. But we are also, as Christians, called to a specific service by the Lord: we are not called to solve all the world’s problems. Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict before him have been especially good at communicating that message of hope and relating it to our own calling.

So, how do we turn things around? It is interesting that public policy changes do not make much difference to people’s desire to have children. A lot of governments are now pursuing what are often called “pro-natalist” policies. These may be a good thing in their own right, but they do not actually make much difference to the birth rate. An academic at the Catholic University of America, Catherine Pakaluk, has recently published a book on childbearing based on research amongst mothers of more than five children: faith and identity are crucial to their decisions. And so evangelisation, mission and catechesis are key to reviving an appreciation of the importance of the family. In Catholic teaching, the family is the foundation of social life.

Pope Francis summed this up very well in his encyclical Laudato si:

In the family we first learn how to show love and respect for life; we are taught the proper use of things, order and cleanliness, respect for the local ecosystem and care for all creatures. In the family we receive an integral education, which enables us to grow harmoniously in personal maturity. In the family we learn to ask without demanding, to say “thank you” as an expression of genuine gratitude for what we have been given, to control our aggressivity and greed, and to ask forgiveness when we have caused harm. These simple gestures of heartfelt courtesy help to create a culture of shared life and respect for our surroundings.

The family is the social institution in which the most important educative functions take place.

Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio stresses the role of the family in education, especially education in the virtues. He wrote:

it is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself.

But we must not think, in the face of all the pressures, that we need to change the world. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, provided a message of hope which is fitting for almost any situation in which we find ourselves:

There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord.

And Pope Francis reminds us, again in Laudato si that the little things we do matter. He wrote, in relation to our efforts to transform the environment, but it is also relevant to changing the culture in relation to the family: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”

And we need to have hope – we need to trust in God because, as Pope Francis has said, this lack of hope is responsible in part for our treatment of the environment and, we can say, our fatalistic attitudes towards it too, as well as our desire not to have children.

One way in which we change the culture and spread hope is by reaching out and by welcome. Whatever is the family situation of people we encounter, it is important not to be judgemental. In Part One, I mentioned that over one-fifth of children live with just one parent (nearly always the mother) and only a minority live with married parents. In many ways, single mothers are heroes. They have stayed with their child and committed their life to him or her. They chose life in a society in which one in every three conceptions lead to abortion. In a Catholic setting, they may feel that they could be stigmatised. But, as individuals, and as parish groups, it is important to reach out to them and make them feel welcome.

Pope Francis wrote about the family reaching out his letter following the synod on the family Amoris Laetitia: “When a family is welcoming and reaches out to others, especially the poor and the neglected, it is a symbol, witness and participant in the Church’s motherhood.” (324)

This is how the early Church was built. People saw God’s love radiating from our actions and they wanted, if I can put it like this, a piece of the action. It would be good to have changes in government policy. And government policy does affect culture. But, in the long run, it is our influence on culture that will lead to better government policy and a society in which the family once again has its rightful place.

Read: The family – the basic building block of society (part one)

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Author: Philip Booth

Published: 22nd February 2024

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020