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Having Children: Anatomy of a Cultural Strategy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 04, 2010

The West’s demographic winter may finally be striking fear where fear should be struck. While news of falling birth rates has plagued Europe for a long time, there seems to be a growing interest in actually doing something about the problem. And now, for the first time, the birth rate in the United States has fallen below the replacement level. All of this is finally generating a buzz. If you’re a young Catholic looking for an effective long-term strategy to reclaim Western culture, having a large family should be on your short list.

I don’t mean to imply that raising a family should not be on your short list for other more important reasons. But as your own personal culture project, raising a good family is very close to the pinnacle of sound Catholic strategy. Moreover, at this particular moment the social stigma so often associated with large families may be receding. This is not only because Europeans and Americans are becoming acquainted with large families again through Islamic immigrants in Europe and Hispanic immigrants in the United States. That in itself could reinforce the stigma in the minds of some. But there is also growing concern (at last!) about a childless future.

A Prison Culture

In the last sixty days alone, a number of news stories bear this out. In April the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics announced that the birth rate in the United States dropped two percent between 2007 and 2008, falling below replacement level for the first time. While alarm bells are not sounding yet, commentators have certainly noticed the similarity to the European experience.

Two recent examples of that experience are instructive. In Germany, where the latest statistics show that birth rates dropped by 3.6% in 2009 to a record low which is far below replacement level, concerned groups begin to call for government policies to promote population growth. At the same time, we find the government of the Italian province of Lombardy offering support to women who are considering abortion because of financial pressures. Said the president of the region: “No woman will abort in Lombardy because of economic difficulties.” These are not the first voices to be raised in Europe, but the chorus is growing. Margaret Sanger, call your office.

There is a slowly-growing recognition that Something Must Be Done. For the time being, that something will likely be increased incentives for somebody else to have children, but this is not all bad. At a broad cultural level, at least, there is always an economic calculus at work in determining family size. Just as farm families in the late 19th century West had at least a short-term economic interest in having lots of children, urban families in the late 20th century had an economic interest in reducing family size. Most people calculate in terms of the problems and challenges of their own lives (not those likely to afflict the next generation), and there are more than enough people for whom an economic shift for or against childbirth will make a significant difference.

But the situation today represents a sort of prisoner’s dilemma. People in the West are beginning to see that, from an overall social and cultural perspective, having more children is important or even essential to a prosperous future, yet each individual family understands that it cannot trust other families to act for the common good. Therefore, for one family to commit to more children is for it to bet a disproportionate immediate hardship against a long-term social gain which it cannot ensure on its own. The classic result of the prisoner’s dilemma is that each prisoner takes the easy way out because cooperative action is perceived to be impossible. But political action to pay others to have kids mitigates the “prisoner” status of those with political influence. This is only game theory, but it does tend to explain and confirm a developing trend. It also leads to an interesting insight into Christian life.

The Catholic Decision

Catholics, while certainly not immune to economic pressures, are liberated from them to a significant degree by the priorities of their Faith. Good Catholics want to have children because they place an extremely high value on openness to natural and supernatural life. As Catholicism seeps into one’s bones, it also produces an instinctive desire to share and multiply love, in imitation of the wonderful fecundity of God Himself. Such attitudes dramatically undermine game theory. Catholics simply refuse—or at least ought to refuse—to see themselves as prisoners. Catholics also know that if you want to beat the game, this is the only way to play.

Such considerations engender the perennial Catholic decision for life, and so this moment in the history of the West presents a great opportunity. Good Catholic families now have sufficient experience with the post-1960’s secular society to understand what it takes to be successful at passing on their Faith to the next generation (a point to which I’ll return in a moment). At the same time, we are entering a period in which—while certainly not without its hardships—significant family size can be “explained” to the world as a deliberate positive and hopeful contribution to the future, that is, to the common good. We may still be a long way from winning the battle against the sterile and abortive life decisions of others, but we are entering an era in which the many will at least see some wisdom in subsidizing the few to have children. Therefore, we may not be far from acceptance of larger families as an alternative lifestyle.

Every little bit helps. It is true that some may prefer to perceive large families as commodities produced by inferiors, in a sort of common labor for which the wealthy are willing to pay—much like buying one’s way out of military service or relying on personal servants for domestic chores. But the common denominator in these things suggests that our so-called “cultural elites” will soon perceive an element of self-interest in continuing the messy and often frustrating task of producing the next generation. “Let others make the necessary deposits in the bank of life,” they may say, “for surely it is we who will reap the interest.” But in that case, good Catholics ought to laugh all the way to the bank. The future belongs to those who reproduce. They may be meek, but they will inherit the earth.

The Cultural Imperative

I said I would return to the idea that serious Catholics now know what it takes to be successful at passing on their Faith. It was not always so. When the enormous wave of public secularism washed over Western culture in the middle of the twentieth century (curling and crashing in the 1960’s and still continuing to run up the beach), vast numbers of Catholic families were unprepared to adopt the kind of counter-cultural lifestyle that was necessary to ensure their children would keep the Faith. These families took their faith for granted at home and either relied heavily on public schools and conventional universities or failed to realize that Catholic educational institutions had also been drowned in the secular wave. The result was that enormous numbers of Catholic families failed miserably in what turned out to be an anemic effort to raise committed Catholic children.

The members of many of these families have been washed away. Other families have been adversely affected by the failure of Catholic ecclesiastical leadership (bishops, priests, theologians) to lead an effective resistance to the secularizing trends of the larger culture (many actually embraced these trends). Still others saw a loss of Faith in an occasional child despite their best efforts, because the influence of the surrounding culture became increasingly pernicious and children, after all, always possess their own wills. But Catholic families who take their Faith very seriously have since learned a great deal about how to raise counter-cultural children, about how to strengthen themselves and their children interiorly so as to become ever-better Catholics by deliberately living values which oppose most of what surrounds them.

Among the life-techniques developed have been a clear communication of parental values at every level and in every activity (personal responsibility, prayer, study, entertainment, etc.), careful association with other like-minded families for peer support, formation of new and robust Catholic schools deeply committed to Christ and His Church, development of widespread home-schooling, prudent selection among the various opportunities for higher education, extensive time together as a family, a constant example of personal self-control and sacrifice for Christian principles from the father and mother, and frequent family prayer. Parents who form a positive Catholic culture in their own homes and extend it through their decisions about life outside the home are very successful in raising a new generation—most often a new generation delightfully outnumbering themselves—of young men and women who will also refuse to think of themselves as prisoners. As a result, they will gain enormous spiritual and cultural ground.

This is the first cultural imperative for all Catholics who are called to marriage. It is not simply a matter of having more children; it is a matter of raising more children who will become deeply Catholic adults in their own right.

Spirit and Life

I would never want to suggest that anyone should set about having children primarily as a strategic maneuver to retake or reform the larger culture. Children are never to be instrumentalized, and any attempt to instrumentalize our own children will ensure that they flee from whatever beliefs they have been instrumentalized to serve. Some families who are overly strict about one-size-fits-all conformity fall into this trap. Successful parents have children because they love God (and each other) in Christ. Love always seeks to extend its blessings to others. Indeed, those who cannot have children will seek to extend the blessings of love in other ways. But for those called to marriage who are able to have children, the most important expression of love, rooted in their very vocations, is found in procreation. Once again, this models the infinitely fruitful generosity—the inexhaustible self-giving—of God Himself.

We must keep in mind here the Christian’s utter refusal—no, his utter inability—to conceive of himself as a prisoner. Were he not truly Christian, he would act like a prisoner in declining the adventure of life outside a dead culture. But if he refuses thus to be culturally incarcerated, he will have no possible reason to turn and make his children prisoners of any cultural objective, no matter how laudable. In fact, the whole Catholic cultural idea consists in recognizing that sin in every form is our prison and that Christ alone frees, just as Christ alone saves. Once we learn to live a continual interior act of subordination to Christ, we are prisoners no more. It is this same interior act of subordination to Christ alone that we wish for our children. But what possibilities for human culture then!

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: New Sister - Jun. 05, 2010 5:17 PM ET USA

    There is something about couples who are "infertile by choice" (well put, btw!) that makes me nervous. I have to wonder if they're really “married” in Sacrament (a lot of "marriages" could well be invalid due to this) and if I can trust people who would deliberately close themselves off to such a tremendous gift from God.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jun. 04, 2010 11:57 PM ET USA

    Part of it starts with the culture not mocking a couple out with their two kids as "breeders". Like everything that really matters, it's not economics or politics, but culture. There may be some self-conscious shame in the "Culture of Death", but there's nothing but pride in the "Culture of Infertility by Choice".

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jun. 04, 2010 7:13 PM ET USA

    I was bad. :-) I got a bit frustrated, and I started out a post on the Wall Street Journal web site on an article concerning abortion: Let’s get this out on the table. IS BARRENNESS A BLESSING? SELECTING YOURSELF OUT OF THE POPULATION: COOL? Interestingly, the discussion went rather well.

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