Our recent trip has prompted me to write about our experience of going home with three young children. I ask my readers to bear with me as this will be quite long and might sound a bit like a rant.
While we were still living in Portugal a friend, who is living in the USA, said that what he noticed most when coming home was the absence of children. At the time my wife and I were unable to grasp fully what he meant. That changed when we moved to the UK. One of the first things I noticed was the amount of children everywhere. This was not simply because the UK has more population than Portugal, but because it is quite normal to still see families with 3 to 4 children (especially with a small age gap between them). To put things into perspective, in 2017 Portugal was the 6th country in the world with the lowest birth rates.
As some of you might know, I have three small children with an average age difference of two years. In Portugal couples with three children have become uncommon; couples with three small children, even more. While we were aware of this fact, we were not expecting most of the reactions we got on this last trip (which was the first time the whole family went home). On a few occasions some elderly people came up to us, startled that they were all our children, saying things to the effect of “such a large family, just like back in the day!”. Others would just stare at us for a long time. On a visit to a church, we crossed paths with a canon who was so amazed that we had “so many children” that he gave us his blessing then and there…
Why does a (formerly) Catholic country have one of the lowest birth rates in the world? Though Catholicism is still the majority religion there, why are Catholics having so few children? Now, before someone gets hot under the collar (no pun intended), I want to say that I do not believe that having many children is necessarily a sign of holiness. A couple with no children may be holier than one with five. That is not the point of this post. What I want to get at is, what does the low birth rate say about the way the Portuguese live the faith, especially in regards to openness to life?
During the seven years after I returned to the Church, never did I ever hear a single sermon in church on the importance of couples being open to life. Never did I hear a sermon against abortion. When I tell other Catholics here in the UK that I’m Portuguese they almost always say, without fail, “oh, you have Fatima! The Portuguese are such a Catholic people.” I often wonder if their idea of the Portuguese is not something taken out of the 1950’s movie “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima”. Let us not forget that it was “Catholic” Portugal who voted in favour of liberalizing abortion in 2007. There was little noise (if any) from the hierarchy. I knew a few members of a certain religious order who actually voted in favour of the liberalization. When the law was finally passed, the Episcopal Conference came out with their typical hand wringing (as they did when same-sex unions were approved), but not much after that. There is something diabolical in the fact that in the maternity where my daughter was born there are images of Our Lady everywhere and yet abortions take place within those very walls; in fact, women with scheduled abortions have priority over other women…
At our marriage preparation there was some discussion about openness to life. One of the moderating couples had five children (it was the first time I’d ever seen such a large family in my city), yet they were the ones who implied that artificial birth control was a matter of personal conscience!
Why are the Portuguese having so few children? I think it is for quite a few reasons, being mostly materialistic. There was a generation or two that was brought up on the idea that having many children is a sign a poverty. I have heard this from people close to me, some who even came from large families themselves.
The reason most invoked, however, is financial economical – children are “expensive.” There is clothing to be bought, diapers, strollers, cots, food… then there’s putting them through university… I don’t say these are unfounded preoccupations. Life in Portugal is expensive, wages and salaries are low, and the way things are set up do not currently favour families. I know; I experienced this first-hand. I hear parents say they only want a child or two so they can give their children the best (which is a noble thing) but one has to inquire what is “the best” they’re talking about. It normally comes down to material things (clothes, schools, etc.). They think that lavishing their child with creature comforts will give them “the happiness they deserve”, all the while depriving the child of another sibling which would give them a richer happiness than that which money purchases.
Linked with this is what I term “readiness”. By “readiness” I mean that a certain number of prerequisites are need: one must first university, find a job, advance one’s career, save some money to buy a house, and then (if you should still be fertile at that age) you might, just might, be ready to have your first child.
Others simply do not want to give up their current life style. They want the latest mobile phone, their dream car, the X-bedroom house, the holidays abroad, and children will only get in the way of that. Children demand sacrifices, especially of “freedom”.
Another reason, which is, perhaps, not conscious, is the fact that sexual relations have been divorced from their proper marital context. Girls are put on the pill as soon as they come of age and culture at large tells them that procreation has nothing to do with sexual relations, being mostly an unfortunate by-product, and that one needn’t be married to engage in what is proper to the married state. Curiously the state does not authorize marriage at the age that children/teens are being told that it is OK to engage in these acts which are proper to marriage.
I would also add that seeing lots of children affects people psychologically, making them more prone to wanting more children themselves. In the case of a reduced birthrate society, “out of sight, out of mind”, as it were…
There are a few other reasons which I have heard, but I think the ones listed are the most prevalent.
What I’ve described above is true of believers and non-believers. In fine, Catholics are living as heathens. They have embraced the “pomps of the Devil”; they have put a caveat on one of the requirements for the validity of their marriage; they have broken their baptismal vows. And to make matters worse, in many cases the institutional Church has failed them. Priests and bishops, those in charge of shepherding souls, have failed time and again to bring their flock back to the green pasture of sound doctrine. They have failed to call sin by its name and, in some cases, even given it their approval and blessing. And those of us laymen who know better have failed them as well with our own silence out of human respect.
While the Lord does not ask us to be reckless, especially in regards to our children, where is our trust in His Providence when we, by our actions, say “no, life is hard. I will not bring more than one or two children into this world. I can deal with that. That many I can manage. More is out of my control.” We take a rationalistic, calculated approach to life. I can control the outcome of my decisions (or at least minimize the negative impacts). I am in charge of my destiny, of my life… That is, until my soul is demanded of me. While more children can be an extra burden on family finances, they provide the couple with an opportunity to reassess their priorities. The couple can take stock of how they are living, discovering what things are actually not “needs”, but only “wants” and so can be lived without. Old clothing suddenly finds a new life as it is passed from sibling to sibling (our youngest has worn clothes that the eldest wore at their age).
Have we not failed as Christians is supporting our fellow brothers-in-Christ, especially in their hour of need? We have been quite fortunate to have found a parish were at last we feel as though we are among family. There are many families there, and they do tend to support one another as needed. Someone is always passing along children’s clothes they no longer need to another family that does need it. Experiences in parenting are shared. Help is offered. There is a sense of community.
With regards to “the best” being synonymous with material well-being, is that not spiritual short sightedness? While we do have certain material needs, much of what we give to our children are not “needs” at all. Are designer strollers/clothes/shoes/… “needs”? Or are they only buzzing flies that distract us, maggots that feed off our sense of pride? Through Baptism we have been raised with Christ, so why are we not seeking the things that are above, where Christ is seated? Why do we continue to think that what moth and rust consume are “the best”, while we neglect the one thing necessary?
Why have we sold Holy Matrimony short? Why do we, in our marriage preparations, mostly offer young couples what the world already offers? I recall hearing in my own marriage preparation other couples saying that they wished to “enjoy marriage” before having children (the couples who said this had already been living several years more uxorio!). What does it mean to “enjoy marriage” yet leave out children from that enjoyment, as if they were detrimental? Why do we not tell young couples that Holy Matrimony is not about happiness, but rather holiness? Why do we keep from them the fact that Matrimony is an icon of Christ and the Church, and that just as His love for His Bride is fruitful so too must our marriage be fruitful?
I am sure the problems I have described are applicable to any number of traditionally Catholic countries. However, in this case I write about the reality that I know. I put this out there merely as food for thought.