Yup, that’s right; that’s not a typo. The Catholic Church was responsible for reducing the size of families in Western Europe contrary to popular belief.
Before I get stuck in the details, a little context is needed.
The fight over the reproductive health bill in the Philippines has pitted the Catholic clergy and faithful on the one hand against secular, feminist, and humanists on the other. One of the contentions of the anti-RH camp is that the bill is anti-family and will cause a rapid decline in our population similar to what has occurred in Western Europe.
Here is Sen President Juan Ponce Enrile one of our elder statesmen opposed to the RH bill,
If you are going to contract the population, you reach a point in time where you will have less workers, less production, less consumption, less taxpayers to support the government.
And again, he goes on
The economic interest of the country will be a factor and the security of this nation for the next 100 years will be on the balance. Mind you, this bill is not really that easy. It’s a matter that will affect, will impinge on the faith of each one of us.
This popular belief which he expresses comes from the experience of Western European countries where fertility rates have dipped below replacement levels since the mid-60s. This is attributable to the rise of contraception use in those countries, the strength of the women’s movement and the legalization of abortion. Concurrent with these developments has been the collapse of the traditional family and with that the greying of the population.
The Philippines with its exposure to Western media and culture has still managed to maintain laws which reflect the predominantly Catholic nature of its population. This according to Sen Enrile is the only thing that prevents it from slipping into the demographic malaise of our European counterparts.
In reality, the decline of the traditional family in the West preceded the rise of modern contraceptives. In his new book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama devotes an entire chapter the title of which I borrowed from him here to discuss this form of “European exceptionalism.” According to Fukuyama, dating the rise of the modern family is a bit tricky.
Karl Marx associated it with the rise of the bourgeois class during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the Communist Manifesto Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie “has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced family relation to a mere money relation.”
For his part, Max Weber felt that the rise of individualism came about through the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on personal salvation and the Enlightenment with its emphasis on individual rights and secular humanism. This would date the existence of modern families to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
If Weber and Marx are correct then the collapse of traditional societies, which were based on extensive ties of kinship, restrictions on market transactions and individual social mobility due to informal social norms grounded in tradition, religion, and charisma, and the transition into modern societies which are based on individualism, meritocracy, egalitarianism and rational-legal forms of authority is only but a few centuries old.
The french historian Marc Bloch however believes that the rise of feudalism in the ninth and tenth centuries was in part a way of coping with the decline of kinship based tribal societies in Europe. According to Bloch, “Neither the state nor the family any longer provided adequate protection…Everywhere the weak man felt the need to be sheltered by someone more powerful.” This dates the birth of the modern family much sooner.
But it was actually around the sixth century, when the Catholic church, confronted with the marriage practices of newly converted Germanic tribes that had toppled the Roman empire, introduced changes to them. These tribal practices included marriage to cousins or close kin, the levirate or marriage to widows of deceased relatives, adoption and divorce. The church instituted edicts that forbade concubinage and promoted marriage as an indissoluble, monogamous and lifelong bond.
The reason according to Jack Goody was not theological but material in nature. Goody labels the marriage practices banned by the church “strategies of heirship” whereby kinship groups maintained control of property. At a time when the average life expectancy was less than thirty-five, the likelihood that a couple produced a male heir who survived into adulthood was quite low.
At that time the church encouraged donations of land and property to itself. Accordingly, women were allowed to own property to prevent their deceased husbands’ inheritance from reverting back to the family group in the absence of an heir. Thus, women’s rights to own and bequeth property was an unintented consequence of this teaching which profited the church largely. By the end of the seventh century, one-third of all productive land in France fell into the hands of ecclesiastical estates.
So there you have it. The rise of individualism, women’s rights and the modern society in Western Europe which is blamed for the demise of the traditional family originated from church law back in the sixth century. If it was motivated by material interests to outlaw old forms of marriage back then, it might be similarly motivated today in seeking to discourage new forms of family planning to prevent its flock from shrinking.
Finally with regard to the argument that the promotion of modern forms of contraception will lead to an irreversible decline of population and economic stagnation, I would offer the following chart taken from a study by Mikko Mryskyla of the University of Pennsylvania published in the science journal Nature back in 2009.
It shows two snapshots of cross-country fertility rates recorded in 1975 and 2005 on the vertical axis plotted against human development scores on the horizontal. Back in the twentieth century, you could be forgiven for thinking that the downward trend would have no end as countries that grew richer exhibited lower fertility rates. This is clearly shown by the 1975 scatter plot (in blue).
Here in the twenty-first century, that pattern has clearly been reversed with countries exhibiting advanced levels of human development recording a recovery (see the red scatter plot) of their fertility rates compared to previous levels set in 1975 (HDI or the human development indicator on the horizontal axis is a composite index of health, education and income levels).
The way that these countries have reversed the downward trend and produced the J-curve observed in 2005 has been by promoting a number of family friendly policies which include generous maternity/paternity leave allowances, free or subsidized childcare and pre-schools, pre- and post-partum care to mothers and newborns, and flexible working hours, to name a few.
Myrskyla has since then studied the relationship between happiness and fertility using data from the World Values Survey and has concluded that having children is “a long-term investment in well-being.” In the short-run however the data shows that having more kids poses challenges to happiness (less time for personal needs and interests). The policies mentioned help to counter that and allow families cope better with raising kids.
With such policies in place, these countries have seen their fertility rates rising above the demographic point of no return (of around 1.5 births per woman) to near replacement levels (around 2.1 bpw). Given that this field of policy research and development is still in its “infancy” (pardon the pun), we can expect to see more countries joining them and hopefully see fertility rates in rich countries reach replacement levels in the near future.
So to the doubters out there who still feel that modern family planning is anti-family, perhaps they need to brush up on their reading of events, both past and present.