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Time for Europe to confront the stark reality of falling birth rates


Pope Francis waves during his visit to Manila

Pope Francis waves during his visit to Manila

AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis waves during his visit to Manila

In the Philippines last weekend an estimated six million people gathered to attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. Some experts reckon it was one of the biggest crowds to gather in the whole of human history.

When St John Paul II visited the Philippines in 1995, a 'mere' five million or so attended. Filipinos, on the whole, are still ardently Catholic.

In fact, Filipinos living here in Ireland usually attend their own Masses, because they often find ours lifeless and boring. Their Masses are usually far more exuberant.

But the huge crowd that gathered for the Mass in the Philippines at the weekend was overshadowed by some of the things the Pope had to say on the trip, and especially on the plane back to Rome, when he was talking to journalists off-the-cuff.

The Pope was asked about birth control. The Filipino government has just passed a more liberal contraception law, so the issue is hugely topical in the Philippines.

Francis used the opportunity to counter some of the stereotypes people have of Catholics and birth control, namely that we're encouraged to have as many children as we can, regardless of the consequences.

He said it's not true that to be a good Catholic "you have to [breed] like rabbits".

He cited the example of a woman he met who was pregnant with her eighth child after seven Caesarean sections.

He told her: "That is an irresponsibility… God gives you methods to be responsible… do you want to leave seven orphans?" Francis said. "That is to tempt God."

Francis called for "responsible parenthood", that is, having no more children than you can cope with. For some families that might be two children, for another it might be eight.

A common misconception about the Church's teaching on contraception is that the Church is against birth control, full stop.

In fact, the Church is opposed to artificial means of birth control only; ie, means that artificially stop the body from conceiving. But it is not against types of birth control that cooperate with nature; ie, with methods that calculate the times of month when pregnancy can occur and when it can't.

This is sometimes called 'Roman roulette', but the truth is that the likes of the Billings method, used properly, is about as effective as condoms, used properly.

This means Catholic couples are not required to have as many children as they can. They are allowed to use birth control.

The Philippines itself has seen huge population growth in the last few decades, and the Church has been blamed for that. But Filipinos like large families, just as Africans commonly like large families.

Or at least Filipinos used to like large families. In fact, the Filipino birth rate is now about three children per woman, about one above our birth rate. As countries become more prosperous, more urbanised and less rural, birth rates tend to decline naturally anyway.

In fact, the stereotype of Catholics breeding like rabbits really needs to be set alongside the reality that here in Europe we're hardly breeding at all. Throughout almost all of Europe the birth rate is far below replacement rate, that is, the number of births necessary to maintain current population levels and keep a proper ratio between the old and the young.

In his address to the European Parliament a few weeks ago, Pope Francis said the world sees Europe as "somewhat elderly and haggard".

This, of course, is how the Church in this part of the world appears to many people as well. But only in this part of the world. In lots of other parts of the world - in most of the world, in fact - it is young and vibrant. That is partly because outside Europe the world itself is young and more vibrant.

Here in Europe we look out on the world, to places like the Philippines, and tut-tut at all those young people. How could they have so many children, even though their birth rate is now lower than ours was a mere 30 years ago when all those 'Pope's Children' - to borrow David McWilliams' phrase - were being born?

But the rest of the world looks at Europe and wonders why we have so few children. The rest of the world thinks Europe is dying. And it is. Our populations are getting older and older. The percentage of the population that is over 65 is soaring.

We are now largely dependent on immigration to keep our populations growing, that is, on people coming to live here from the very parts of the world we look down on for having so many children.

We then complain when some of those immigrants don't properly integrate into our societies. But we can't have it both ways. We can't complain about immigration at the same time as requiring immigration to keep the ratio of younger to older people in our societies in some semblance of order.

So while we're inclined to stereotype Catholics as "breeding like rabbits", we really need to confront the fact that Europe itself is hardly breeding at all.

Irish Independent