IN 1980, I had the opportunity to speak in Rome at a conference on the future of the family in Europe and Africa, which was sponsored by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart’s medical school.
During the meeting, a young African mother introduced herself and her new baby. She told us that her child’s name was “Gift Francis” and that she chose that name because when she was pregnant her parish priest, who was a Franciscan missionary, told her that her child was a gift from God.
I thought of Gift Francis last Advent when Pope Francis lamented nations that have entered a demographic winter because they have “chosen sterility.” Pope Francis contrasted this with the Christian’s way of life that is open “to receive and give life.”
The pope’s words followed a recent study published by Demographic Intelligence, which reports that the U.S. birthrate has fallen to a 30-year low of 1.77 children per woman. The study predicts that the U.S. birthrate will be at its lowest rate of growth since the Great Depression years of 1936-1937.
Numerous factors influence this negative growth; we identified many during our conference back in 1980. But now some experts suggest there may be a new factor: a correlation between the birth rate and increased use of social media.
They say more time spent in virtual reality has not only diminished real human interaction but created a new hesitation to commit to long-term relationships such as marriage and especially to the responsibility of raising children.
In an earlier column this year, I wrote about the coming of a new crisis as developments in science in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and genetics increasingly blur our understanding of what it means to be human and even to act in a human way.
I wrote that, in this regard, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, was truly prophetic.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the encyclical, let us strive to recover its central teaching, that “married love particularly reveals its true nature and nobility when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who ‘is love,’” (8) and that “this love is above all fully human”(9).
If we do not recover this understanding of the “true nature and nobility” of married love, many younger Catholics living in a thoroughly secularized culture will find it increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to understand “human fulfillment” and what it means to be “fully human.”
We need more Catholic couples to adopt the attitude described by Pope Francis: a life of such generosity and sacrifice that they are willing “to receive and give life.”
This will require all of us to make greater efforts to transmit the central teaching of Humanae Vitae regarding the dignity and mission of marriage. This is one of the great pastoral challenges facing the Church in our time.
The Knights of Columbus is seeking to strengthen Catholic families by helping men and women understand their mission as both spouses and parents in terms of a “domestic church.”
We hope more Catholic families will appreciate in their daily lives how, in the words of Paul VI, “the marriage of those who have been baptized … represents the union of Christ and His Church” (8).
At times, this will require Catholic couples to act heroically. At times, all of us will respond imperfectly. But this should only make us more, not less, determined to accompany and assist each other in fulfilling the noble mission given to our families. The safeguarding of this mission has been entrusted, through Father McGivney’s foresight, to our noble Order.