In moral decline, both personal and cultural, the problem is that not only do we desire what is evil, we also stop desiring that which is good and holy. At the heart of desiring what is evil (or what is good, but to excess), are pride, greed, lust, and gluttony. Sloth and envy are more involved in no longer desiring what is good.
Sloth is a kind or sorrow or aversion to the good things God offers to us, involving everything from the life of prayer to virtues such as moderation, chastity, generosity, and forgiveness. Envy is sorrow or anger at the goodness or excellence that others manifest, because I take it to lessen my own standing. Thus the soul or culture that is in moral decline no longer desires what is good and even detests it.
No matter how you look at it, moral decline is an ugly business. Consider the following example of a cultural trend in which what is good (having children) is no longer desired by an increasing number in our culture. There was a column in the New York Post recently entitled More Women Choosing Dogs Over Motherhood. The article begins,
America’s next generation of youngsters should be called “Generation Rex.” If you’re wondering why playgrounds around the city are so quiet and dog runs are packed, a new report has an answer: More and more US women are forgoing motherhood and getting their maternal kicks by owning handbag-size canines … Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that a big drop in the number of babies born to women ages 15 to 29 corresponds with a huge increase in the number of tiny pooches owned by young US women … “I’d rather have a dog over a kid,” declared Sara Foster, 30, a Chelsea equities trader who says her French bulldog, Maddie, brings her more joy than a child. “It’s just less work and, honestly, I have more time to go out. You … don’t have to get a babysitter.” 
Well, you get the point. The article goes pretty much downhill from there.
One hopes that when these women get a little older they will think differently. However, even among the married, more (as many as 20%) are choosing the childless route. Last summer there was a Time Magazine cover story about “The Childfree Life” and the web edition of the article was subtitled “The American birthrate is at a record low. What happens when having it all means not having children?” The article begins,
[At] 50, Angela Scott [who is married 24 years and intentionally childless, says she] is more than fine: she’s fulfilled. And she’s not alone. The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history. From 2007 to 2011, the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s … 
We have discussed here before the demographic harm caused by low birthrates. But if you want to read a thoughtful article from a Catholic demographer, see the CARA Blog Post. Among his observations, author Mark Gray writes,
The effects of fertility decline are not just limited to the state budget and care for seniors. A future of fewer people year-over-year will also be one of perpetual economic stagnation or recession for all. Currently it costs a middle class family $245,340 to raise a single child to the age of 18 in the United States. If a couple has two kids that’s close to half a million dollars they inject into the economy. A skeptic might say they would have just spent that money on something else if they had no children. Perhaps but as most parents know having a child can “encourage” you seek out more income out of necessity (e.g., dads, on average, make more than non-dads and the combined incomes of a mom and dad outpace a couple with no children). As I write Japan is again in a recession. Downturns and anemic growth have become the normal way of life there for decades and will be so for the foreseeable future until they begin to grow demographically again (innovations and exports have been insufficient).
For the purposes of this post, I would like to return to the opening point: moral decline consists not only in desiring what is wrong, but also in no longer desiring what is good. Here are a few additional reflections on the problem of no longer desiring what is good (in this case, new life and children).
I. Children are a very great blessing. This is not only the biblical tradition, but also the instinctive assumption of Western culture (and arguably every healthy culture). Until about 1950, children were sought in number, valued, and appreciated. Even in the 1960s it was common to speak of pregnancy and birth as “the blessed event.” By current standards, family sizes were large. In my youth of the 1960s, it was common for families to have four or five children. And many of my older parishioners (those in their 70s and up) came from families of twelve or more. This was not only normal, it was considered good.
Parents and extended families shared in the raising of children, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Getting married and having children was a central goal in life, a supreme blessing.
The Scriptures well attest that fertility was sought after. Children were considered a blessing and barrenness was one of the worst of curses.
- Genesis 1:27-28 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.
- Exodus 23:25-26 Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.
- Deuteronomy 7:12-14 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb … You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor will any of your livestock be without young.
- Psalm 127:3-5 Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court.
- Psalm 128:1-4 Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the Lord.
II. Only recently has having children come to be considered burdensome. And even more than burdensome, many people outright fear having “too many” children. I often see young couples, especially the woman, visibly cringe when I suggest that they consider having more than two children.
There are many cultural reasons we have arrived at this place, among them feminism, dual incomes, women wanting careers, modern economic realities, the move to urban vs. rural settings, the rise of the consumerist mentality, the expectation of a lavish standard of living, and the advent of retirement plans (children used to be your social security, since they cared for you in your old age). Much of this has resulted in a contraceptive mentality and an almost irrational fear of having children.
But the point here is that this is all rather new. Most of us who are fifty or older remember a time when this thinking was not the norm.
III. Whatever the “cultural and sociological roots,” all this has led us to a sinful rejection of one of God’s greatest blessings: children (life). And make no mistake, this sinful rejection of the good of children is itself the result of sin. Our sin, our desire for what is evil, has now led us collectively to no longer desire what is good, in this case children.
How has this come to pass? Morally speaking, lust has led to a darkened intellect and to disordered desires wherein we not only desire that which is evil, but also fail to desire that which is good. Our collectively sinful, promiscuous, and disgraceful attitudes toward marriage and sexuality have collectively darkened our intellects and led to a voracious appetite for sex (lust) as well as a fear of what we know to be the intrinsic fruit of sex: children.
In our darkened minds, we have separated what God has joined. Sex is meant to be joyfully and seriously tied to marriage and having children. In the contraceptive revolution we severed those ties, declaring that there was no necessary connection between having sex and having children. Yes, we separated what God intended to be joined: sex, marriage, and family.
So, we have sown the wind and now we reap the whirlwind … of pornography, sexually transmitted disease, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, rampant divorce, abortion, the profound confusion that is the celebration of homosexual acts, and every bizarre “gender-bender” ideology our collectively darkened culture can devise.
Meanwhile, the very fruit to which sex is meant to be joyfully joined is increasingly seen as an outcome more dreadful than anything just mentioned. It is an outcome so horrible that many women are willing to ingest a kind of pesticide that dramatically alters the endocrine system, kills the spark of life in them, and attacks the normal and healthy function of their bodies. It is a result so frightening that men are willing to be gelded. And this leads us back to where we started: many women and couples would rather raise dogs than children.
The perversity of this outcome is difficult to overstate. Somehow I am reminded of Morticia Addams, the matriarch of TV’s Addam’s Family, who used to cut the roses off her rose bushes because she hated the beautiful blooms and preferred the thorns and half-dead look of barren rose bushes. (Thus, see above.)
And speaking of Morticia leads me to my last point.
IV. The Culture of Death – Low birthrates and childless couples are yet another outcome of what has fittingly been called the “culture of death.” In effect, this phrase, used frequently by both St. John Paul and Pope Benedict, describes a culture in which the death (or non-existence) of human beings is proposed as a “solution” to problems. The celebration of contraception as a “virtue” surely points to this mentality.
The myth of overpopulation has caused a lot of fears. Further, concerns about inadequate resources have also proven to be unfounded. The improper and/or inadequate distribution of resources (usually due to war and corruption) is problematic. But the death (or non-existence) of human beings is not the solution and in fact leads to other economic difficulties.
In the end, the “culture of death” is the result of sinfully selfish desires and fears. Jesus, while speaking of horrors to come in His own time, surely knew of our times as well and His words in this Lucan passage are prophetic of the current culture of death:
Luke 23:28-31 A large number of people followed him (on the way to Golgotha), including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then “ ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Yes, such are our times, when a great number cry out, “Blessed are the wombs that do not bear and the breasts that do not nurse!” And the “green wood” of Jesus’ innocence has surely given way to the “dry wood” that is the modern lack of appreciation for the beauty of life, marriage, and sexuality.
These are good times for dogs, not so good for babies. Morticia (a name that means death) would be pleased.