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Sharp Decline in U.S. Birth Rate a Concern To Some Church Leaders

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NEW YORK — When Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodríguez of Denver moved to the U.S. from Europe, one thing that made the country “exceptionally beautiful” to him was the number of families with multiple children spending time together, a distinction he fears might be slipping away.

Bishop Rodríguez’s concern stems from a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics published earlier this week. It shows that the number of births in the U.S. last year declined for the sixth consecutive year, to 3,605,201 — a four percent drop from 2019 and the lowest number since 1979.

“When a generation does not have enough children, we will not be able to guarantee the future and what the world will look like for our children and grandchildren in terms of societal consequences,” Bishop Rodríguez told The Tablet via email. “Even worse: The decrease of births means a decrease in our capacity to love and to cherish life. That is very scary.”

In conversations with The Tablet, Catholic leaders and experts on marriage and family life identified several factors — including declining marriage rates, later marriages, societal expectations, and contraception — as reasons for the decline.

The CDC hasn’t published data for 2020, but the latest data from 2019 shows declining marriage numbers every year since 2016. From 2018 to 2019, the number dropped 5.5 percent from 2,132,853 to 2,015,603.

For Bishop Rodríguez, the culture around contraception is the biggest reason for the decline in the birth rate.

“When society has created a vision of the baby as an invader or even an aggressor who threatens personal plans, dreams, and accomplishments, a decline in our willingness to welcome them is expected,” said Bishop Rodríguez, who serves on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who also serves on the committee, told The Tablet that the contraceptive mentality “changes how people look at marriage, and it changes how people look at having families.”

He believes the “ultimate consequence” of the decline is the replacement of the population. 

The total fertility rate in 2020, which estimates the number of births that a hypothetical group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes, was below replacement — the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself (2,100 births per 1,000 women).

In 2020, the rate was 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women, a record low for the nation. The rate in the U.S. has been below replacement consistently since 2007.

Timothy O’Malley called this “terrifying.” A society absent of children, he said, is one “without hope, without communion.”

“When we live in an age without children present in society, functionally kind of erased, we also lose the capacity for hope,” said O’Malley, author of “Off the Hook: God, Love, Dating, and Marriage in a Hookup World.”

“We lose the joyfulness that comes into existence when a child is around. The playfulness of life. The fact that life is not always totally and absolutely serious. With a declining birthrate, that’s something all of us lose as a society,” he told The Tablet.

O’Malley, the director of education at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life, identified economics as another factor that contributes to a declining birthrate.

The U.S. birth rate fell in 2020 to its lowest level since 1979. (Photo: Getty Images)

Economic Reality

He said that for some people the economic reality is real that having kids is really expensive and “there’s not a lot of monetary support.” On the other hand, he noted that there are other people “that think you need to have way more money to have kids than you actually do.”

Another contributing factor to the decline is later-in-life marriages.

“If you’re getting married at 28, 29, 30 years old, that’s fewer years in which you’re fertile,” O’Malley said. “I think most people don’t understand that.”

In the Diocese of Brooklyn, Christian Rada, director of marriage, family, and respect life education didn’t absolve COVID-19. Rada told The Tablet that the diocese has received more calls for marriage counseling through the pandemic. At the same time, domestic violence has increased and people have lost their jobs.

“The idea of bringing life into this world was the last thing that’s on people’s minds,” Rada said.

As far as the church’s role in reversing the birth rate trend of recent years, Rada acknowledged especially younger couples aren’t in the pews as much anymore, therefore it’s important for the diocese to post programs, classes, opportunities, and facts about marriage online and on social media where it’ll reach them.

Deanna Johnston, director of family life for the St. Philip Institute in Tyler, Texas, told The Tablet that at the parish and diocesan level there needs to be more of a focus on maintaining communication and investing in couples after they’re married.

“If we just treat marriage like a hoop to jump through, or marriage prep as a hoop to jump through, and not as the parish community is investing in you and the couple, and we want to walk with you not only to the wedding day, but we want to walk with you through those first five years especially, and then we want to make sure that we have things in place,” she said.

Bishop Paprocki also said a shift in the church’s approach needs to take place. He wants the church to start recruiting for the sacrament of matrimony in the same way that it does for the priesthood and religious life.

It’s something he’s committed to in his diocese. Bishop Paprocki recently appointed an associate vocations director focused on the married state.

“In our current society, we have to recruit young people basically to say, ‘you should think about the sacrament of matrimony’ and to teach what is the sacrament of matrimony,” Bishop Paprocki said. “And the beauty of giving yourself totally in love to your spouse and then wanting to have children and love your children and bring them into the world and give up yourself for the sake of your family. That’s not going to happen automatically.”

A new pastoral framework for marriage and family life ministry from Bishop Paprocki, Bishop Rodríguez, and the rest of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth is ready to be presented at the U.S. Bishops’ June meeting, according to Theresa Notare, the associate director of the natural family planning program, part of the USCCB Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

Notare told The Tablet that while there’s a “remarkable” amount of creativity from dioceses in tackling the topic of marriage and family life, she hopes the document will help create a consistent vision across the diocese that brings along some that are “doing the same old, same old, and not doing their best to plant the seeds for the Holy Spirit to water it.”

She also recognizes it’ll take more than a pastoral framework for change.

“When you’re talking about something as significant as marriage and as deeply personal as having children that’s a real journey of faith,” Notare said. “We have to find better ways to encourage our young people to have hope in the future, embrace the gifts God gave us, and to get married.”

O’Malley wants to see church leadership lobbying politicians on the importance of creating some sort of economic benefit, or support, for having children, so the economics aren’t as much of a deterrent. And, also place an emphasis on parish communities.

“It’s not just urging people to have a lot of kids, which is often what you hear, but then there’s no support network,” O’Malley said. “Have lots of kids is great but make sure your neighbor down the street is someone you can drop those kids off to when you have to run out with the other kids who just broke their arm. These are the kinds of things that are needed.”