Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Reluctant Prophet: Its empty pews and childless streets

Since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of our corrupt nature, and which therefore are not calculated to attract the multitude, they [preachers who court human respect] carefully avoid them, and treat themes, in which, the place accepted, there is nothing sacred…They seem to have only one aim, to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as "having itching ears"… they strike the ears and gain their hearers' admiration, but give them no lesson to carry home.

Pope Benedict XV, On Preaching the Word, 1917

It is becoming more apparent that there is a relationship between empty pews and childless streets. When the Church is reluctant to preach the fullness of the Gospel or when she omits from public discourse those doctrines which find little favor in society, the incentive for people to amend their lives fades. Without specifying sins from the pulpit- especially the sin of contraception and the consequent aversion to having children –people not only miss the opportunity to repent from immoral and harmful behaviors, but they will inevitably lack the motive to attend Mass and have their sins forgiven. Empty pews are the result with fewer people benefiting from grace.

In the absence of grace, that moral power to be good, a civilization which is rooted in love and based on human dignity becomes exceedingly difficult to sustain. As such, both the individual and society falls into self-destructive habits. People begin to live for the moment. The convenience of cohabitation replaces the stabilizing effects of marriage and couples opt to have fewer children in favor of possessing more things. Historically, the unintended consequence of such easy lifestyles is that whole societies fail to reproduce themselves and survive. Such was the case with ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. As Arnold Toynbee said, civilizations do not die from murder but from suicide.

It is to be regretted that Western Civilization will have to relearn the painful lessons of history. But unlike ancient pagan civilization (at least before the birth of Christ), we have a prophet in our midst; and the prophet is the Catholic Church. Our Lord conferred on the Catholic Church the authority to speak in his name . He said to the Apostles, “As Father sends Me, so I send you.” And throughout history- both in and out of season –the Church not only proclaimed the Good News but she also positioned herself as a Sign of Contradiction. As Pope Paul VI said in his encyclical, On the Regulation of Birth, “To tell the truth, the Church is not surprised to be made, like her divine Founder, a ‘sign of contradiction’, yet she does not because of this cease to proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.”

In recent years, however, the Church has been a reluctant prophet to the modern world as Jonah was to the Ninavites. Just as the widespread use of contraception ushered in the Sexual Revolution in 1968, Pope Paul VI- as if compelled by the Holy Spirit –wrote an encyclical with the Latin title Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth). In this letter he reiterated the moral law concerning the use of contraception and its social repercussions; this, just when Paul Ehrlich, author of Population Bomb, and academia at large were propagating the myth of overpopulation.

For the next forty-plus years the pope's predictions about the artificial reduction of births would come to pass: increased marital infidelity, the objectification of women and the general lowering of morality. And now, with the threat of a demographic collapse, one would think that the Catholic Church would see herself as being vindicated on this issue. But no, it is as if the last forty years of the social ills resulting from the widespread use of contraception has never happened. Indeed, the Church has been relatively silent about contraception and its perilous effect on Western Civilization. Her doctrine has been validated by recent economic and sociological developments and yet there is little confidence to show for it.

Japan, the first Western nation to legalize abortion in 1948, is now an aging culture resembling a top-heavy, inverted pyramid of elderly citizens. Japan's younger generations are increasingly carrying a disproportionate burden of subsidizing its elders. For the last 10 years its once prosperous economy has suffered decline. Japan is a good index of what our future might look like. Indeed, Europe and America are sure to follow Japan’s downward decline if it continues with the same old contraceptive mentality. As a matter of fact, there are 103 nations which are under the 2.1 replacement fertility rate needed to sustain a civilization. Most of these nations are European. Below are just a few nations that facing a demographic crisis:

US 2.06
Ireland 2.02
France 1.96
UK 1.91
Australia 1.78
Norway 1.77
Denmark 1.74
Finland 1.73
Sweden 1.67
Belgium 1.65
Canada 1.58
China 1.54
Spain 1.47
Switzerland 1.46
Georgia 1.45
Russia 1.42
Georgia 1.45
Germany 1.41
Austria 1.40
Italy 1.39
Greece 1.38
Poland 1.30
Lithuania 1.25
Japan 1.21

Keep in mind that once the birthrate falls below 1.6 it is nearly impossible to reverse the trend. In any case, the most painful truth of the depopulation of the West is how reluctant the Church has been to raise her prophetic voice about this critical issue. The very backyard of the Vatican, namely, the nation of Italy is contracepting itself out of existence. How few children and pregnant women there are in Europe! As one Englishman remarked, “If an adult is walking with more than three children in public, the average European will assume that he or she is running a daycare.” To be sure, their aging population is palpable because their streets are childless and the Cathedrals are empty. And as I said previously, childless streets result from empty pews. After all, hope comes from faith. And without hope sacrificial love loses its value; children are then seen as a burden.

Catholics, both clergy and laity, would do well to do an examination of conscience; to take the plank out of our eye before we assign blame to a decadent culture. If the Church is not going to bother to call Europeans to repentance by addressing specific sins- such as contraception and cohabitation -why should Europeans (or Americans for that matter) bother with church on Sunday's at all? In order for Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, we must recognize those sins, turn away from it and turn towards him. But if the Church does not cast its light on the sin of contraception and the unwillingness to have as many children as God wills, then Jesus cannot save us from these sins. Consequently, he will not be in a position to save our civilization.

For the life of me I cannot imagine why the Catholic Church- both on a universal and local level –does not implore Christians in no uncertain terms to have more children. To this day there has not been a papal encyclical or any visible campaign by the Holy See to remedy this cultural suicide. Sure, there has been a mention here and a document there, but so far these expressions have been mere whispers. We could also probably count, on one hand, the number of sermons in our local parishes which addressed the need to be generous with God in having children. As for myself, I have heard it mentioned in passing once or twice at the most.

What is needed is for the Church- a reluctant prophet up to now –to raise her voice as she has done so many times in the past. In a direct and unequivocal manner, to repeat the message that children are a blessing to the world. And the more there are, the better we become. The Gospel of Life demands this and our future depends on it.