In Western Christian culture today
fertility is seen as a curse
because it invades the selfishness of man
Catholics and the Flight
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HOMILETIC & PASTORAL REVIEW, July, 1987
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The controversy between Fr. Charles Curran arid the Vatican congregation headed by Cardinal Ratzinger over matters of sexual ethics has focused attention on the official and reiterated Catholic condemnation of contraception and innately contraceptive acts, such as homosexual acts. However, the narrow focus of the current controversy on Curran's (and, it must be admitted, the American Catholic laity's) approval of contraceptive acts misses the real source of the sickness in Catholic life in the West. Catholic populations are not even reproducing themselves in countries of traditional European culture. If this refusal of fertility were accomplished by natural family planning rather than by abortion and contraception, would the end result be any better? The refusal to bear children is not a trivial matter; it is a result (except in rare cases) of a hard-heartedness and selfishness that are the essence of man's alienation from God, or to put it in plainer language, damnation.
The work of Allan Carlson has made us familiar with the statistics concerning the population decline of the West. At the turn of the century, the traditionally Christian countries of the West accounted for 30% of the population of the world; they now make up 15%; by 2025, they will be 9%. The basic trend is clear in all the countries of European Christian civilization, whether they are capitalist or Communist, Catholic or Protestant. Catholic countries and groups have shared in this dramatic decline of fertility. If one had only the statistics on the birth rate to go by, one would assume that these countries have been wracked by famine, plague, and poverty. However, the opposite is the case. The Catholic populations of the West are among the most prosperous groups of Catholics in the whole history of Christianity, but they have an extremely low birthrate, and it is doubtful that they are even reproducing themselves. Although it is difficult to determine who should be called Catholic, and therefore it is impossible to develop precise statistics, nevertheless it is clear that the number of children in the average Church-going Catholic family has declined dramatically in the past twenty years. This has occurred even as these Catholics have finally made it in America, and achieved the highest incomes of any group of Catholics in American history, and among the highest incomes of any group in the world.
Be fruitful and multiply
Catholics in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe have escaped the economy of subsistence farming that is the common lot of humanity, and have also largely escaped the drudgery of the industrial revolution. They have achieved a prosperity that is the envy of the whole world. Yet they have few children. Why? More to the point, how can they so restrict their fertility and still consider themselves in any way as obedient to the will of God?
The first command of God to man is "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). While the religion of the Old Testament is not a fertility religion as that phrase is commonly understood, clearly the writers of the Old Testament saw man's fertility as an image of the divine creativeness. That man is made in the image of God means many things, but the first and most obvious meaning in Genesis is that man's resemblance to God consists in man's differentiation into male and female ("in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" Gen. 1:27), and mankind's consequent sexual fertility and ability to reflect the divine fruitfulness. The promise of God to Abraham is that from this man, sterile from old age, God will miraculously raise up "a great nation" (Gen. 12:2), as numerous as "the dust of the earth" (Gen 13:16), as numberless as "the stars" (Gen 15:5). A major portion of the Old Testament recounts the miraculous fertility of the seed of Abraham, which God preserved and multiplied through all the disasters of history. Sterility to the Jews was a curse; fertility a blessing, indeed, the fundamental blessing of the Old Testament, for in it God demonstrates his power against the devouring forces of death, and man participates in the creative, self-giving love of God.
This attitude to fertility continued in the Judaism into which Jesus was born. Elizabeth is saddened by her barrenness, and rejoices when the Lord demonstrates his creative power by making her and Zechariah, like Abraham and Sarah, fruitful in their old age. God does an even greater work than this: he makes virginity itself fruitful. The Spirit which moved over the face of the waters in the beginning to give them life and fruitfulness now does something even greater in Mary. She is not only made fruitful in her virginity; the child she conceives is the Son of God in the fullest sense. Creation, by the power of God, is made so fruitful that it gives birth to God himself. The promise of fertility to Adam and to Abraham has been fulfilled in a way far surpassing, infinitely surpassing, the greatness of the original promises.