The New York Times is suddenly concerned about declining birthrates in continental Europe, and especially in Germany. Having beaten the drums for decades on the dangers of overpopulation (not to mention the threat of resurgent neo-Nazism ever lurking below the surface of polite German society), the Times might reasonably be expected to rejoice at the news that, "In its most recent census, Germany discovered it had lost 1.5 million inhabitants. By 2060, experts say, the country could shrink by an additional 19 percent, to about 66 million." But rather than taking delight in reports that German towns are tearing down houses and apartment buildings that saw their last family meal of schweinshaxen, sauerkraut, and spaetzle long ago, the August 13 article "Germany Fights Population Drop" speaks of "the dawning impact of Europe’s plunge in fertility rates over the decades" and the "frightening implications for the economy and the psyche of the Continent." Twenty-five years ago, the simple line "There is little doubt about the urgency of the crisis for Europe" in a publication such as Chronicles might have earned a stinging rebuke on the editorial page of the Times. Now, the Times simply reports it as fact—which it was then, just as much as it is now.
So what has changed? A quarter-century ago, those who warned of the demographic collapse of the West were tarred as racists, because they focused on the cultural implications of the decline of the historic populations of Europe and her colonies in North America. On that question, the Times hasn't changed its tune, arguing that part of "the solution lies in remaking values, customs and attitudes in a country that has a troubled history with accepting immigrants" and making several other slighting remarks about Germans' reluctance to welcome the stranger, before ending the article with a blunt prescription from Dr. Reiner Klingholz of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development: "I think the answer is that we need to look outside Europe." If it seems odd to think that the answer to the dwindling tide of diminutive Dieters and Dagmars is to increase the number of miniature Muhammads and Masumahs in Germany, then you clearly don't understand the question. The Times, you see, is not concerned about Germany, much less Germans, and certainly not about their culture; all that matters is the increasing labor shortage, the kind that means there are fewer people to fill the factories, not to follow in their fathers' footsteps.
Because that, of course, is what human life is all about: The economy is not made for man; man is made for the economy. An unmarried German man and a Turkish Muslim mother are both just cogs in the great machine that the Times calls the "global market." The article attacks the German "system of benefits and tax breaks that includes allowances for children and stay-at-home mothers, and a tax break for married couples," arguing instead that "a far better investment would be to support women juggling motherhood and careers by expanding day care and after-school programs." Yet such policies rarely encourage women to have more children; rather, they help convince women who already have children to enter the workforce. But that, of course, is the point: The struggling economy demands that women not think of themselves as wives and mothers, but as homo economicus. "'Before my son was born, I was Melanie, a working businesswoman,' [Melanie Vogel, 39, of Bonn] said. 'But after my son was born, to a lot of people, I was just a mother.'"
The answer to the labor shortage—the lack of people to work on factories and farms—is to reverse the more important labor shortage, the 1.4 children per woman that has been the average in Germany for 40 years now. But as Virginia Deane Abernethy demonstrated in two groundbreaking articles in Chronicles close to 15 years ago, family size increases in societies where people feel optimistic about the future. Increased immigration to a country decreases the optimism of the native population; and it's not unreasonable to surmise that government programs designed to offset economic hardships also keep those hardships front and center in the minds of prospective mothers and fathers. (That applies not simply to programs created to push mothers into the workforce, but "pro-natalist" programs generally, most of which are responses to the long, slow, but steady decline in male income.)
The effect of changes in optimism on fertility is immediate; a PewResearch study found that, in the wake of the economic collapse of 2007, "The overall U.S. birth rate, which is the annual number of births per 1,000 women in the prime childbearing ages of 15 to 44, declined 8%" by 2010. Moreover, "according to preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the overall birth rate in 2011 was 63.2 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. That rate is the lowest since at least 1920, the earliest year for which there are reliable numbers." That's just slightly over half of the overall U.S. birthrate in 1957 (122.7), at the height of the Baby Boom. The decline has been greater (14 percent) among foreign-born women in the United States than among native-born women (6 percent), but before 2007, foreign-born women in the United States had greater cause for optimism than the native-born. They thus had farther to fall, and the decline in their birthrate reflects that.
The glaring omission in all of these articles and studies is any discussion of the correlation between religious faith and practice and birthrates. The recognition that this world is not our final home, that a better life awaits after we depart this vale of tears, can offset the pessimism that arises from economic conditions, cultural conflicts, and rumors of war. But even though the New York Times has finally acknowledged that the no longer impending but current demographic collapse of the West is a problem, don't expect to see a follow-up article on how the Christian Faith could be the answer. That's a question the Times will never ask.
Scott P. Richert is editor at large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and Publisher for Our Sunday Visitor. He holds an M.A. in political theory from the Catholic University of America. He has been published in, among others, The Family in America, This World, and Humanitas. He is the Catholicism Expert for About.com.