Budapest archbishop Peter Erdo is, at 51, the youngest member of the College of Cardinals. In a late October interview, Cardinal Erdo said, bluntly, that “our society today is in a state of demographic collapse.” By “our society,” I take it that the cardinal means Europe, not just Hungary.
Europe’s demographic self-immolation is one of the most important, if least-remarked, stories of the early 21st century. Pope John Paul II has persistently identified the systematic de-population taking place in Christianity’s historic heartland as a matter for serious concern. The relationship between Europe’s de-population and Europe’s advanced secularization is certain to be one of the mega-issues for the next pontificate.
What’s the evidence that Europe is systematically de-populating itself?
No country in western Europe has a replacement-level fertility-rate, i.e., a fertility-rate capable of maintaining present population over time. The replacement-level fertility-rate is reckoned by demographers at 2.1 (the average number of children to which a woman is expected to give birth); the rate in Sweden, Spain, Germany and Greece last year was 1.4 or lower. In Italy it was 1.2, and in some Italian provinces it has been 0.9 for a decade. The results are mathematically inexorable: Spain’s population, for example, will decline to 31.1 million by 2050, down from almost 40 million today.
A Europe without children is also becoming a geriatric continent. Almost one out of five Europeans today is over sixty. Italy has the world’s oldest population, followed closely by Greece, Sweden, Spain, and Belgium. By 2050, on current projections, 42% of Italians will be over sixty years old.
These figures are unprecedented in human history. De-population is not the human pattern, except for times of war, plague, or natural disaster. At a time when Europe is wealthier, healthier, freer, and more peaceful than previous generations could have imagined, Europe is failing to create the human future in the most elemental sense – by creating a next human generation. What’s going on?
It’s not as if Europeans can’t afford a future – although some of them evidently think they can’t. But the facts belie that nervousness. Europe is more prosperous today than it’s ever been, and that prosperity is spread more broadly and deeply throughout society than ever before. Western European countries have womb-to-tomb social services, virtually all the countries of the European Union have generous state-funded child-and-maternity-support programs. The answer can’t be money.
My suggestion is that Europe, and particularly western Europe, is having a birth dearth because Europe is in the midst of a deep and longstanding crisis of civilizational morale. That crisis, whose effects could only come into focus after the collapse of communism, reached a initial fever pitch during the First World War, a four-year epic of often-mindless slaughter. Twenty years ago, in his 1983 Templeton Lecture, the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggested that World War I had killed something in the European spirit. The “Great War” could only have happened, though, if something crucial had first gotten knocked out of Europe’s moral and cultural foundations. Solzhenitsyn, widely derided at the time for the suggestion, proposed in 1983 that it was a matter of European man having “forgotten God.”
I think he was right. Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale – which is the reason for Europe’s demographic suicide – involves the eclipse of Christianity as the principal culture-forming force in Europe. Christianity’s replacement by various secularist schemes of human perfectability set the stage for Europe’s attempts at self-destruction: first in three totalitarian systems, two world wars, and the Cold War; now, through demographic suicide.
Which makes the current debate over including a reference to the Christian roots of European civilization in a new European constitution even more ironic. The avowed secularists who want to airbrush 1,500 years of Christian history from Europe are not only misrepresenting the past; they’re advocating a democratic future in which transcendent moral values have no place. But it is precisely that debased idea of the free society – the idea that freedom means doing things “my way,” with no reference to the right way – that is quite literally killing the very possibility of a European future.
Does Europe have a future? Only, it seems, if the new evangelization takes hold. And soon.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.