Belief in the transcendent good of kids boosts birthrates

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In my middle school Social Studies classroom, there was a graph on the wall showing the history of the world’s population. After millennia of very modest growth, the human population exploded in the 20th century. Like most such representations until very recently, this graph imagined that such exponential growth in the human population would continue indefinitely into the future.

I grew up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1980s and ’90s. In that time and place, families with two or fewer children were relatively rare. We all imagined that our own villages would become towns and the nearby towns would become cities. The fact that the K-3 elementary school in my village had just closed and that we were being bussed to school in the neighboring town never registered as a counterfactual. But even as we contemplated that chart on the wall of our classroom, the writing was on another wall. Though none of us noticed, birthrates in our part of the world were already in steep decline.

It is easy to miss a decline in birthrates. At the local level, we didn’t know that the younger families with just one or two kids were done having children. At larger scales, the decline is easy to miss because populations don’t start declining until two or three generations after birthrates falter.

But by then the situation is locked in. You can’t go back in time and have more babies. Two decades ago, those far-sighted enough to be warning of the looming population implosion were largely ignored. About two years ago, everyone started talking about it.

Population economics

The public discussion is largely economic. Who will fill the jobs? Who will pay the taxes? The social security net in Western democracies relies on a working population that can support a retired population. As a population ages, that calculation gets tougher and tougher. Pressure to push back the retirement age has already caused massive protests in France, and that same pressure is exerting itself across the developed world.

But while the problem is largely framed in economic terms, economic solutions seem basically impotent in addressing it. Various jurisdictions have tried various types of baby bonuses to minimal effect. Done well, they do seem able to help some couples who already wanted more children to have them. But they do not seem capable of making people want more children.

Once upon a time, children were an economic benefit to families, perhaps as labor on the farm or in the family business, maybe as one’s retirement plan. Sharing this latter among several siblings was certainly safer and easier than counting on just one. Nowadays, we still need children for our retirement plans, but this is spread over a population and the urgency is not felt at the individual level. People can be motivated to have children for economic reasons when those reasons are personal. Not so much when those reasons are societal.

Religion’s role

In her new book, “Hannah’s Children: The Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth,” Catholic University of America economist Catherine Pakaluk studied a group of relatively well-educated women with five or more children. “Well-educated” matters because, in general, as women’s education rates go up, birth rates go down. Few are comfortable suggesting that the solution to our demographic problem is to curtail women’s educational opportunities. And so, the question of why some educated women choose to have large families becomes quite salient.

What Pakaluk found was that the single biggest factor behind these women’s decisions was the conviction that a child was a transcendent good, something beyond economic calculation. This puts civic authorities concerned about the birthrate in an awkward position. Transcendent goods are not their stock in trade. Or, at least, we don’t want them to be. Blood and soil are best not sacralised.

Religious authorities, on the other hand, actually do have something to say that can move the needle on birthrates. Religious authorities can present the reality of a good life in which transcendent goods like children are worth temporal sacrifices. Moreover, religious communities are best placed to help people who pursue such a life to thrive in it. Our world does not make having a large family easy. A community with shared goals and values is an immense help.

If we doubt the capacity of religious authorities and communities in this regard, we should ask ourselves to consider the large families we know and their motivations. Chances are they have been encouraged and supported by a religious worldview and community.

Pakaluk does have one suggestion for governments, though: don’t get in the way. If civic authorities can recognize that religious authorities are the ones best suited to help governments meet their worldly goals by helping their adherents pursue transcendent ones, impeding religious groups from work and ministry is making the government’s own job harder.

Religious authorities, for their part, should probably not be primarily concerned with demographics. At least, not for its own sake. If openness to children leads to joy and holiness, that is reason enough. Seek the kingdom first; demographics will follow.

Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld, Ph.D., is a Catholic theologian, speaker and author. He serves as archdiocesan theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan.