Editorial: Received as a gift

In the 1992 dystopian novel, “The Children of Men,” author P.D. James imagines a world facing mass infertility. “When (it) came,” she writes, “it came with dramatic suddenness and was received with incredulity. Overnight, it seemed, the human race had lost its power to breed.”

The warning signs that the fictional world did not heed were a drop in the number of children being born because of birth control, abortion, intentional postponement of pregnancy, and a desire for a “higher standard of living.”

The novel, set in a fictional 2021, rings eerily and almost prophetically true in our 2017 reality. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the U.S. fertility rate had reached its lowest point since record-keeping began in 1909. The data also indicates that women are having babies later in life. Fertility rates worldwide are down as well.

For all the unlikelihood of the sudden “mass infertility” that fuels James’ novel, the decline in numbers is cause enough for serious concern and reflection. Perhaps more worrying is the pervasive, sometimes defiant, desire on the part of some for living a childless existence — a theme that has been perpetuated over and again in media. Time magazine’s 2013 cover story on “The Childfree Life” pictured two adults lying, seemingly carefree, on a sandy beach, and proclaimed: “When having it all means not having children.” More recently, an Oct. 14 story in Salon was titled, “Rejecting the mommy mandate: ‘Our culture made motherhood feel so inevitable.’” Going intentionally childless, it seems, can now be called a “movement” — and one portrayed as highly desirable. (This is, in no way, meant to diminish the all-too-real anguish experienced by many couples who heartbreakingly are unable to have children.)

That’s why a recent address by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy for Life, where he spoke plainly on sexual difference and the gift of procreation, was so refreshing. “The mystery of human generation radiates a profound wisdom about life,” he said. “Received as a gift, life is itself exalted. Generating life regenerates us; by giving of our lives, we are enriched.”

Our challenge, Pope Francis said, is to “counter an atmosphere of intimidation that surrounds the generation of life, as if it were somehow demeaning to women or a menace to our collective well-being.” He added that “the life-giving covenant between man and woman protects, not hinders, the dignity of our human family. Our history will not continue to be renewed if we reject this truth.”

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Pope Francis’ words are especially powerful as the Church looks ahead to the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that rocked the Church and the world by reaffirming responsible parenthood and upholding the Church’s consistent tradition regarding use of artificial birth control. “… The exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society,” Paul VI wrote. “From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator.” 

Society may shout about the glamour of a child-free existence, but the Church understands that true freedom is found in openness to life. As Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes reminds us: “Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute very substantially to the welfare of their parents.”

In a society that constantly idealizes a “culture of me,” Catholics should be fortified by the words of Popes Francis and Paul VI in their acceptance of a lifetime of “we.”

OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, Greg Willits, York Young