I started this article last year and recently finished it and then submitted it to our Provincial Bulletin. I've decided to make it more widely available!
Some time ago I watched the documentary ‘Demographic Winter’ and its grim warning on the future of Western civilisation made a deep impression on me. In essence Ireland, along with all the Western, the former Eastern Block nations and indeed most of the world outside the Middle East and Africa, is in decline. We’re not having enough babies to sustain our population.
This is not a new discovery. Demographers (a branch of sociology that studies how human populations grow and decline) have been aware of this for a long time. I remember reading about this back in the 80’s before I joined the Order. Back then in Europe only Ireland and Poland had Net Fertility Rates that were above what is called ‘Replacement Rate’. The Net Fertility Rate is the number of babies born relative to the number of women of child-bearing age. It should come out at or just above 2.1 or 2.2 babies per woman for a Western population to stay stable (neither growing nor declining). This is the Replacement Rate. Ireland’s Net Fertility Rate is about 2 but that is a very recent figure - a recent but un-sustained upward surge. It is not clear if the surge is due to an increase in births to natives or to the ‘new Irish’. For a long time it has been under 2.1 and as low as 1.85.
How did we get here? In 1978 the Fianna Fail government with the assistance of the opposition parties succeeded in legalising the sale of contraceptives (A). Ireland’s Net Fertility Rate had at that time stabilised at about 3.3. About ten years later (B) we were under Replacement Rate and, even with the recent rise (C), it has remained below it. Contraception was not the only factor – the impact of a local recession, changing expectations on the part of women etc., may have played a part, but contraception was the technical means that allowed our fertility rate to fall. Simply put we are not replacing our population. Our people, our society and therefore the Irish Church are in decline. Like a ship that has been holed we are sinking. The Government must know this but little, if anything, is being done to reverse the process. They simply do not plan that far ahead – there are no votes in that and they won’t be standing for election then.
The concerns of the demographers do not stop with the decline in certain populations. There are other implications to being below the Replacement Rate. The population profile ages. There are fewer young people generating the wealth and paying the taxes to sustain the rest of the population. There are also fewer young people to police society, nurse the sick and maintain the infrastructure. This situation worsens if there is also emigration. On the other hand immigration, unless it is on a massive scale with all the attendant problems, only slows the process and it negatively impacts on the demographics of the source countries. The economy of the declining country stagnates and eventually collapses. If the Net Fertility Rate reaches 1.1 then the society cannot recover and it collapses too. Imbalances between countries with declining populations and those with expanding ones can lead not just to massive migration but to social and cultural instabilities and wars. ‘Youth bulges’ in some populations could reshape the political and social and even religious map of the world. Perhaps this is why the US is aggressively promoting contraception and abortion in third world countries.
Once the Net Fertility Rate drops below 2.1 that society has about forty-eight years to reverse the process before it becomes too late. It is around the age of forty-eight that people generally begin to stop spending except on necessities and begin to save for their old age. Japan just passed that point. Already its economy is in decline. Despite her huge population she is going down. Japan and Russia are paying women to have babies. The Japanese, Russians and Swedes are among those trying to save their respective populations with little success. The French have had a campaign for a number of years to try to get their Net Fertility Rate up with some success but not yet enough to reach Replacement Rate. While populations have collapsed before this is a new kind of crisis, an entirely new situation created by human technology.
I was born in 1964 when Ireland’s net fertility rate was about 4. I joined the Capuchins in 1988 around the time we dropped below the Replacement Rate. Back then we had large crowds of young men attending vocations days. The vast majority did not join of course. Still there were six of us in postulancy and seven in novitiate of which only Joe Nagle and myself remain. Many of those young men were born in the mid to late 60’s. Richard, our youngest solemnly professed, was born in 1973 when our Net Fertility Rate, although in decline already, it was about 3.7. It is interesting that, so far, our native vocations have come from that era.
As a specialist group within society clergy and religious depend on the extra .3, .4, .5, who are conceived and are born to the mothers of our nation. When the Net Fertility Rate falls below the Replacement Rate of 2.1 there simply aren’t enough babies being born to both supply the Church with clergy and religious and the next generation with parents. I was twenty-four when I joined and if you go back twenty-four years from 2012 to 1988 you find why there are so few vocations; they simply weren’t conceived. If they don’t exist they cannot be called.
Just as Ireland has contracepted herself onto the road of decline and collapse so she has contracepted us to decline and annihilation. What is tragic is that our nation did this with the approbation of some of her Catholic clergy even if only in the secrecy of the confessional. This was with little or no correction from the hierarchy. How do I know this? Apart from anecdotal evidence there are those who have documented the campaign at that time within Irish society and the Irish Church for the acceptance of contraception. Just check out the work done by the blogger at Lux Occulta. This should be no surprise. After all would any Irish Government of the time, especially Fianna Fáil, have considered such a policy without some support and encouragement from within the Catholic Church? No one realised such a catastrophic fall in our fertility rate would be the result. No doubt there were expressions of disappointment when contraception was legalised and talk of ‘pastoral realities’ etc., but in the end we are here because there was a failure of both oversight and foresight. These rocky shores could’ve been avoided but now the ship is sinking and who has the courage to go down and plug the holes?
This situation also places all religious and clergy in a ‘prophetic position’ vís a vís Irish and Western society. We are where they will be. Thanks to Jeremy (one of our friars) I have these charts.
The first chart above shows the age distribution in the Province. The sad reality is that in ten to fifteen years a majority of our friars will be deceased or no longer capable of ministry and perhaps even community life. This is where Ireland is eventually headed too.
While not definitive the second chart above clearly shows how we will probably decline in numbers. As I write there are ninety-four Irish friars and of them there are only forty-two friars under 70. In ten years time only thirteen and in twenty years time only six will be under seventy. Union with the British Province, though it may bring other benefits, will not solve this problem. They have their own sinking ship. Two sinking ships will not keep one another afloat. On this point all union will do is spread the same problem over a wider geographical, cultural and social area. Either way our future does not present a pleasant prospect.
On a national scale it means that there will come a time when there will be too few young people both to generate the wealth and pay the taxes as well as run the system that supports the elderly and needy. Perhaps that is really why there are moves to introduce both assisted suicide and euthanasia.
So there are other considerations besides the impact on vocations. As for society so for us: there will be fewer friars to provide and care for the greater number who are elderly. There will be fewer friars to maintain ministries. Let me be more direct: many of our ministries and communities will no longer be viable. How can nine communities and their ministries be sustained with these declining numbers? It’s not possible.
For our province and for the Irish Church there is a hard and bitter task ahead. If Irish society and therefore the Irish Church are to be saved from the deep we must brace ourselves for the icy days ahead. The waters of conflict must be braved and a great effort made to reverse that most dreadful and fateful decision of 1978. Is it not time for a re-appropriation of the Church’s teaching on contraception? Is it not time that Catholics are clearly and consistently told why contraception is morally wrong? That will not go down well! No doubt even among the clergy there are those who will not assent to this teaching. Perhaps we are where the Roman Republic once was and,if I may quote the Roman historian Livy, “We can bear neither our vices nor the remedies.” Perhaps there are those who have no stomach for the task ahead but if we do not strive to do something we will not survive.
It is also true that the Church has lost her moral authority. Perhaps that is no great loss. Surely the people should be convinced by the rationality of our arguments not the moral authority of the institution? At least, if we are successful, we might save Irish society, restore some life to the Church and even to vocations. If the rest of society sinks then the Church in Ireland could be a lifeboat for the Irish. If we shirk this task we will go down together.
Br. Tom Forde OFM Cap
Resource for statistics:
Population Research Institute: