Europe's problem--or ours?

Author:Callahan, Daniel
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

George Weigel's provocative article, "Europe's Problem--and Ours" (February) was interesting to me for two reasons. First, in the late 1%0s, I served as Christopher Dawson's teaching assistant in the Harvard Divinity School, where he held the Stillman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies. He taught me about the importance of culture, a lesson I've never forgotten. Mr. Weigel very nicely captures Dawson's thought. Second, my work in bioethics has brought me to Eastern Europe (particularly the Czech Republic) for close to fifteen years, so I have seen with my own eyes much of what Mr. Weigel describes.

Yet I do wish that Mr. Weigel had a greater sense of the mystery, even perversity, of history, both Europe's and our own. Let me begin with his question and lament: "Why is Europe committing demographic suicide?" Demographically speaking, it is not just Europe that is doing so, but every developed country. The United States has a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman, just at the replacement level. But demographers attribute that high figure to the impact of immigrants, who have much higher birthrates than those already here. If those newcomers are left out, the U.S. is committing demographic suicide along with everyone else. But it is to our credit that we take immigrants in a generous way, and they may keep us going.

Catholics--and those who believe in the power of underlying cultures--might well be disturbed by the fact that the European countries with the lowest birthrates are historically Catholic. Spain and Italy have birthrates of 1.2, next to the very bottom in Europe, followed closely by the Slovak Republic and Poland (both at 1.3). By contrast, some of the most "secular" countries do much better (at least comparatively): Great Britain, 1.6; France, 1.9; and Sweden, 1.5. Most provocatively, three of the most secular European countries--Denmark, France, and Norway--are among the few that have actually reversed the fertility decline over the past twenty years.

I cannot provide any full explanation of what all of this means, but my own guess is that secularization has little to do with it. The fact is that children have a different meaning in advanced technological societies (where they are costly and harder to raise) than in earlier agricultural societies (where children were necessary for family survival and childhood mortality rates were high). I know many devout, conservative Catholic families, but it is rare to find many that have more than two children.

A word about the Czech Republic. That country has the lowest birthrate in Europe, 1.1. I have asked my friends there to explain why. I've received no good answers beyond a vague complaint about the economic burden of children. The Czech Republic has moved in just over a decade from communism to a full-hearted embrace of the market. The fact that the Czech Republic also has the highest number of average working hours a year no doubt makes a difference as well (1,980, in contrast to 1,815 in the U.S. and 1,581 in Sweden). Women are expected to work a long day outside the home and then at night to become mother, wife, cook, laundress, and house cleaner. In those circumstances even one child can seem a heavy burden.

For all the faults that Mr. Weigel perceives in Europe, is it such a bad thing that those secularized Europeans have held fast to the old Catholic value of solidarity, guaranteeing good health care and welfare programs to every citizen based simply on their human dignity (even when it hurts their market competitiveness)? Or that murder and divorce rates are radically lower throughout the continent than in the more religious U.S.? Or that the Czechs, for all of their problems, seem to me to do a better job of raising their children than we do, and maintaining much stronger family cohesiveness and intergenerational bonds?

A final, speculative question: What exactly is the relationship between America's world-class religiosity and its international power? It was Tocqueville who noted that Americans were obsessed in the early nineteenth century with religion and money. That seems still true. But Tocqueville did not say that America's success or...

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