When in Rome....

Jennifer Roback Morse
Posted: Jan 30, 2006 12:05 AM

Politicians have short attention spans. A long-term plan is the length of an election cycle. We are so dominated by politics that we forget that other institutions have longer planning horizons. The Catholic Church, for instance, famously thinks in terms of centuries. I got a demonstration of this last weekend in Rome, of all places.

 I was in Rome for an Acton Institute conference entitled “The Family in the New Economy.”  The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is a non-profit organization devoted to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. I have been on the Academic Advisory Board of the Acton Institute since its founding in 1990.  The occasion was a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s magisterial encyclical on economics and society. The principle speaker was Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the President of the Pontifical Council on the Family. I was invited to offer comments as well.

 Cardinal Trujillo emphasized that the family exists prior to the state, not as an appendage of the state. He proposed a kind of inversion of the famous Cartesian motto of the Enlightenment. Instead of  “I think, therefore I am,” Cardinal Trujillo proposes, “I am loved, therefore I am.”  A child becomes aware of his own existence through being in relationship with his mother, even prior to rational thought. A left-alone child has serious difficulty knowing even who he is, much less knowing how to relate to other people.  He also reminded us that Aristotle had described the love between husband and wife as a friendship. In a very real way, society is built around the friendship between husbands and wives.

 When it was my turn, I spoke about the demographic meltdown of the modern industrialized countries, particularly Europe. The total fertility rate for the European Union is a mere 1.47 babies per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman. For some countries, such as Spain and Italy, the total fertility rate is a desperate 1.2.  At this rate, the population of these countries will decline by half every generation.

 I attributed the fertility decline to the cradle-to-grave European welfare state. The lethargic culture of public assistance drains the enthusiasm of the young for beginning families. And state financial support displaces the economic function of marriage, for women and men alike.

 Women don’t need a husband to support them if they have a child. Husbands are a nuisance, when the government provides money without the inevitable difficulties of dealing with a flawed human being as a partner.  Men dislike the feeling of  powerlessness inherent in having the state claim a large fraction of one’s earning power, and then give it back in dribs and drabs. Men are resistant to playing the genuine paternal role, when they are neither providers nor protectors. In this environment, children become consumption goods, optional life-style appendages to acquire only if one happens to enjoy children.

 Most European countries require high wages and short working hours. Employers must provide other benefits such as health care, paid vacations, paid parental leave and the like. These mandates obviously increase the cost of hiring a worker. The productivity of skilled, experienced workers can justify this generous compensation package. But everyone begins their working lives as not very productive, not very skilled workers. The young are less employable because of the lavish compensation packages mandated by the government. In the 25 countries of the EU, the unemployment rate for those under 25 hovers just below 20%. This contributes to delayed marriage and child-bearing, which lowers the birth rate. Across the European continent, the political classes show no signs of dealing with this problem.

 The reactions from the audience reflected this reluctance.  Some, who were involved in politics in their respective countries, claimed that my analysis had nothing to do with their countries. The demographic situation wasn’t nearly so dire. And anyway, the non-dire fertility decline would surely be solved by state programs providing  family support.

 I offered an inoffensive comment to the effect that while every country was different, the general trend was as I had described.

 Cardinal Lopez Trujillo wouldn’t have any part of that.  He assured the audience that his office at the Pontifical Council on the Family had been gathering world-wide demographic data for a long time. The trends were absolutely as devastating as I had described. Fertility rates have been falling for decades. Differences in state support for families made some difference, but not a significant difference in fertility rates. This is not a short-term phenomenon that can be easily reversed. Rather, the decline in fertility is a complex phenomenon in which economic incentives and cultural attitudes are deeply intertwined.

 I thought to myself, it isn’t every day that I have a Cardinal to take my part in a debate. And not only that, but the churchman was taking a much more realistic position than the politicians. While much of the secular world assumes religious people are pie-in-the-sky-dreamy-eyed, here it was the politicians who were whistling past the graveyard, dodging reality at all costs.  The Cardinal was taking the long-term view, facing the problem on its own terms, which includes both economics and attitudes. 

 The economic incentives need to change, that’s for sure. But we also need to recover a sense of the importance of love to the family. No amount of money from strangers can take the place of the exuberance of a couple in love, facing the world together, building a family. The state can get out of the way, and stop doing harm. Then the rest of us will have to do our part to build up the culture of life and love.