The Internet is abuzz this week with reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that one-fourth of all U.S. counties are dying. The reasons given are an aging population, an increase of only 9.7% in the U.S. population over the past ten years (the lowest decennial increase since the great depression), and migration to more affluent counties in the midst of a protracted economic slump. Demographers call this “natural decrease.” The etiology, in fact, may not be so natural at all.
In the same decade that “natural decrease” has taken place, Catholic bishops have been closing Catholic schools all over the nation, much to the consternation of the laity. So what’s behind the trend?
First and foremost, we are simply not reproducing as previous generations have done. A smaller population has led to increasing demands for higher salaries, as there is less competition in the domestic labor pool, leading companies to relocate manufacturing overseas where populations are large and the cost of living is low. This has a domino effect throughout the economy.
The fact that we have an aging population and are not producing enough workers to support them in their retirement years is an economic disaster. We are beginning to see this played out in state economies that cannot sustain current civil servant salary, retirement and benefits packages, which are far more generous and comprehensive than those in the private sector.
The Church is not immune from the chaos of what many in the pro-life movement call an impending demographic winter. Parishes and schools are closing at a steady and alarming rate, and it makes perfect sense.
I recall my very large parish, St. Michael’s, in 1960s Brooklyn when I was a child. Every Mass was packed on Sundays. Three priests were on hand to distribute communion. By the early 1970s, the church was half-filled. Today when I visit, it’s one-third filled, and with not so many Masses as we had when I was a child.
The schools and churches were built to accommodate the sizeable immigrant Catholic Church, with their sizeable families, including the Baby Boom generation. In my community, families of four and five children were the norm, and families of seven or more children were not at all uncommon. Logic then dictates that if many families no longer go to church or are active in their faith, and if those who do are only having two children, then we simply do not need the infrastructure built to accommodate an active Catholic populace 50-60% larger than we have today.
Sealing the fate of the Catholic schools and parishes has been the precipitous decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Churches cannot function without priests, and a lay staff of teachers has a higher cost of living than the previous communities of religious.
Underlying all of this has been the overwhelming rejection of the Magisterial teaching articulated in Humanae Vitae. Eighty percent of Catholics simply disregard the Church’s teaching about the use of birth control and the obligation to accept children willingly and lovingly from God. Many who decry the parish and school closings are those who also decry Humanae Vitae, and do not see the connection.
It isn’t rocket science.
If we do not produce a sizeable population of workers, there will be nobody to support us in our age and infirmity. If we do not produce sizeable Catholic families and encourage priesthood and religious life as vocations for our children, our institutional infrastructure will collapse. If we do not encourage our children to live marriage as a sacramental vocation, with all that is required of it, our Church will contract like our dying counties.
The “natural decrease” is largely the result of artificial contraception.
These contractions and the suffering and inconveniences they bring are signs to us that perhaps Humanae Vitae was indeed a relevant document. They also highlight for us some of the blessings that come from openness to large families. If we are wise, if we teach our children well, these contractions can be reversed.
The signs of spring are beginning to emerge in the Church. Vocations to more traditional religious orders are on the rise, along with an uptick in the numbers of seminarians. With a protracted downturn in the economy, many are reconsidering the treadmill of pursuit of material acquisitions and discovering the simpler joys of family life.
We certainly have a long way to go in reclaiming lost ground, but there is a sense that a newness is upon the Church. This includes a fresh look at Humanae Vitae through less rebellious and more sober eyes.