In his great encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI described the “natural family” — the permanent union of one man and one woman — as the key to real human development and the basis of all human community. Every neighborhood, city and nation begins with the family. It’s the seed from which all larger communities grow.
One of the Church’s arguments for the natural family is that we need the family in order to create the kind of world everyone wants to live in. We all want a world where relations between people are more than commercial or contractual; a world of solidarity and charity. We want a world of people who freely come together, and live together, in mutual support around shared goals and beliefs. In other words, we want a world of real communities. And therefore, whether or not we know it, we want a world of strong, independent, natural families.
Lived well, the family is the most ennobling force in history. In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II noted that in the family “citizens come to birth, and it is within the family that they find the first school of the social virtues which are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself.” The dignity of the human person is what all Catholic social teaching seeks to advance. We learn this first and most fruitfully in the “school of love” we know as the family.
So the Church defends the family not just for her own sake, but for the good of the world.
This has implications. Families create the future. But they don’t do it with magic. They do it by being open to new life. They do it by having children. Children are the key to a culture’s survival — not just in terms of hope, energy, creativity and imagination, but also economically in terms of paying for the elderly. Last fall China announced changes in its famous one child per family policy. And the reason for the changes — sadly but tellingly — had nothing to do with human rights or compassion. China’s population is aging rapidly. And too few young people are entering the work force to sustain the growing number of old people. It’s that simple.
A population replaces itself with a fertility rate of about 2.1 children per woman. The average fertility rate for the European Union is now about 1.6. The U.S. fertility rate is about 1.9, but that’s misleadingly high and masked by immigration. China’s fertility rate is about 1.55.
The point is this. Societies that discourage children and undermine the integrity of the family actively choose to have no future. They may not intend it, but that’s the logic of their choices. The world will continue. Life will go on. But it won’t include cultures that are already dead in their spirit. If our nation’s idea of human development involves the export of abortion, contraception and a confused version of marriage and the family — and too often, unhappily, it does — then the developing world is right and sensible to reject us.
What can we do about it? Healing families and healing our culture are tasks well beyond the capacity of any of us as individuals. But we are not at all powerless. We can live our Christian faith with courage and conviction as a counter-witness to the times. We can choose life over sterility in our own families. We can touch other lives with our willingness to trust in God and to love the people around us.
And we can at least speak and write the truth. Because the truth, as Jesus himself once said, does make people free. And real freedom, alive in the hearts of real disciples, has the power to renew the world. It already happened once. It can happen again, beginning now in our own families. But that depends on us.