The Case for Kids

The Case for Kids

When Genesis 5 traces the line from Adam to ­Noah, the refrain “and he died” is a reminder of the curse of death—but that each man had a son is a reminder of the promise that comes through birth (Gen. 3:15). The God who has put eternity into our hearts (­Eccl. 3:11) also means to put children into the womb (Mal. 2:15). When we grasp one, we will grasp the other.

The most significant thing happening in the world may very well be a thing that is not happening: Men and women are not having children. The biblical logic has been reversed, and the barren womb has said “Enough!” (Prov. 30:16). The paradigmatic affliction of the Old Testament is now the great desire of nations. If ­Rachel wanted children more than life itself (Gen. 30:1), our generation seems to have concluded that nothing gets in the way of life more than children.

True, human beings are reproducing—but in most countries, not fast enough to replace themselves. Measuring total fertility rate (TFR) is not an exact science, so the numbers vary from source to source, but the trends are undeniable. Outside of Africa, which is home to forty-one of the fifty most fertile nations, the planet faces a bleak demographic future. Many major European nations—such as Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, and Spain—have a TFR of 1.50 births per woman or lower, disastrously below the replacement rate of 2.1. Italy’s future is especially grim, as that country has one of the lowest TFRs in the world, just 1.22. Virtually every country in Europe—including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Finland, and Denmark—has a TFR below 1.8. Only France, with a TFR of 2.03, comes close to the replacement rate. Decline is on its way. The Russian population is already contracting. Germany’s population is on pace to shrink from 83 million to around 70 million over the next thirty years. If trends do not reverse, Europe’s population will plummet from 750 million today to less than 500 million by the end of the century.

The numbers for East Asia are even worse. Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Taiwan each have a TFR around 1.0; South Korea’s is 0.81. These countries make aging and shrinking Japan, with its TFR of 1.37, look almost vibrant. And whatever military and economic power resides in China, increasingly children do not. Despite the replacement of the notorious one-child policy by a two-child policy in 2016 and then a three-child policy in 2021, China’s birthrate has continued to tumble. As recently as 2019, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted that China’s population would peak in 2029. But the decline has already started. This year, for the first time since the Great Famine (1959–61), China’s population has shrunk, by just over 1 percent since 2021, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

For many years, the United States appeared to be an exception to the rule of declining birthrates in the industrialized world. In 2007 the United States had a TFR of 2.1, whereas the figure for the European Union was below 1.6. But since then, the U.S. birthrate has fallen by 20 percent, to as low as 1.73 according to some estimates. What looked like American exceptionalism less than a generation ago now looks like mere delay.

At no time in history have people been having fewer children. In most countries the number of births per woman is well below the replacement rate, and even in countries with a high TFR, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is dropping. The human race seems to have grown tired of itself.

The reasons for declining fertility are no doubt many and varied. Surely, some couples want to have more children but are unable to do so. Others struggle with economic pressures or health limitations. But fertility does not plummet worldwide without deeper issues at play, especially when people around the world are objectively richer, healthier, and afforded more conveniences than at any time in human history. Though individuals make their choices for many reasons, as a species we are suffering from a profound spiritual sickness—a metaphysical malaise in which children seem a burden on our time and a drag on our pursuit of happiness. Our malady is a lack of faith, and nowhere is the disbelief more startling than in the countries that once made up Christendom. “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven,” God promised a delighted Abraham (Gen. 26:4). Today, in the lands of Abraham’s offspring, that blessing strikes most as a curse.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted worldwide famine and a “race to oblivion” in his book The Population Bomb. Fifty years later, the bomb has not detonated. Today, we must fear population bust rather than boom. The list of Very Bad Things—as Jonathan Last calls the consequences of declining fertility in his 2013 book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting—is long and depressing: an aging population, a shrinking workforce, a declining tax base, a decrease in technological and ­industrial dynamism, difficulty in finding a spouse, empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure, unfunded entitlements, and a general disquiet as more and more people get older and sicker with fewer people to care for them. Some future president might be forced to coin the campaign slogan, “It’s midnight in America.”

Last emphasizes economic and national concerns, the sort of developments that get the attention of presidents and parliaments. But the problems with declining fertility, and the accompanying collapse of the family, go much deeper. Whittaker Chambers was led to reject atheism by studying the miracle of his infant daughter’s ear. As he watched his daughter eat in her high chair, an “involuntary and unwanted” thought entered his mind: “Those intricate perfect ears” could have been “created only by immense design.” Faith can give us a heart for children, but children can also give us the eyes of faith.

When family formation fails, so does the inculcation of faith. This is Mary Eberstadt’s argument in How the West Really Lost God: Family decline is not merely a consequence of religious decline; it is also a cause of it. Religious people are more inclined toward family life, but it is also the case that something about family life inclines people toward religion. There is no need to prioritize chicken or egg. It is the indissoluble connection that matters: The fortunes of faith and family rise and fall together.

There are many plausible reasons for this connection. The Christian story is set within the matrix of family—from the expectation of Eve’s Snake-Crusher, to the Promised Seed of the ­patriarchs, to great David’s Greater Son, to the birth of the Christ Child to Mary with Joseph at her side. The presence of children often drives parents to church, whether for help in raising them or because the experience of creating children helps us apprehend our Creator. The sacrifices required in parenting are the same kinds of sacrifices required in a life of Christian discipleship.

The connection between faith and family cuts in the opposite direction as well. As Eberstadt observes: “In an age when many people live lives that contradict the traditional Christian moral code, the mere existence of that code becomes a lightning rod for criticism and vituperation—which further drives some people away from church” (emphasis original). In other words, if your parents were divorced, or you grew up with two mommies, or you are currently sleeping with your girlfriend, or you are not particularly enamored of the thought of monogamy and raising children, the Christian faith—which has always been a scandal to sinners—carries an additional offense, which previous generations did not have to overcome. “People do not like to be told they are wrong,” Eberstadt notes, “or that those whom they love have done wrong. But Christianity cannot help sending that message.” No doubt, secularization has undermined family formation. Just as surely, though, the collapse of the married, intact, childrearing family has made the Christian faith harder to swallow. The biggest plausibility structure for faith is not intellectual but familial.

Carle C. Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization (1947) is remembered as a book about family types, but it is fundamentally a book about fertility. Borrowing from Augustine and Aquinas, Zimmerman argues that marriage has historically had three functions: proles, fides, and sacramentum. That is to say, the good of marriage (and of family life more broadly) depends on childbearing, sexual fidelity, and the permanence of the marriage bond (whether one holds to a Catholic view of the sacraments or not). ­Peter Lombard ordered the marital goods somewhat differently, placing fidelity before childbearing. But ­Zimmerman observes that the ordering of ­Augustine and Aquinas emphasizes childbearing—or ­prior to marriage, the intention of it—as the first and determinative step in the development of marital fidelity and permanence. Without children (or an openness to children), the other two commitments lose their moral and logical coherence.

Already in 1947, Zimmerman saw that the atomistic family—the family based on individualistic assumptions about happiness and the role of marriage—would lead to rapid and groundless divorce; that looser family structures would be proffered as solutions to family problems, only to make those problems worse; that the stigmas inhibiting adultery would deteriorate; that fertility would decrease; and that sexual perversion would be normalized. He also predicted that the decline of fertility among intellectuals would embolden them to challenge the validity of marriage itself; that it would take two generations (slowed by ­immigration) for family decay to become ­evident; and that the Christian Church would be the ­only cultural institution capable of encouraging a view of family grounded in something more than ­personal fulfillment.

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