John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Whitney Houston told us in song, back in 1985, that “I believe the children are our future.” In doing so, she joined a long line of people, starting in Antiquity and running through George Benson (from whom Houston got the song), that recognized the future lies in children. Just recently, the First Reading for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time focused on the joy in the tents of Mamre when God visited Abraham and promised that Sarah and he would, within a year, be parents.
That’s why I took note of two concerning articles.
The ability to share life with the next generation was the first of God’s blessings, and his first command, to the newly created man and woman: “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). For most of human history, man didn’t need the command: as the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson noted, one of the characteristics of a mature individual is “generativity,” the taking of responsibility not just for your contemporaries but for those coming after you in whose existence you have a share. If we are not generative, says Erikson, we are stagnant. The human procreative capacity is not seen in the biblical vision of man as neutral, devoid of meaning, of whatever value one feels like giving it. It is seen as a blessing, and sterility as a curse: consider that when Elizabeth discovers she is pregnant with John the Baptist, she says that the Lord showed His face to her to remove her “reproach” (Luke 1:25)
The flight from fertility, however, has been in full flower since the 1960s. The ability to give life has ceased to be recognized as a good. Contemporary culture treats it as, at best, indifferent, at worst, undesirable (especially when inconvenient). What is a natural and normal part of human life and functioning is treated as a pathology to be repressed, its fruit destroyed.
Do we believe “the children are our future?”
Down at Mercatornet, an Australian bioethics website, Marcus Roberts tells us, in “No Kids—For the Future” that growing numbers of young people—largely in prosperous countries—are foregoing parenthood “for the planet.” He leads with the story that pop star Miley Cyrus will not have children “because the earth can’t handle it.”
I have long warned about what I call the “destruction of our Genesis heritage” by various modern trends, including distorted environmentalism. St. John Paul II once observed that if man wants to know who he is and why he is here, he should go back to the first pages of Genesis. The texts are clear, and biblical scholarship can readily show how they are a polemic with the cultures of the ancient Near East amid which the Israelites found themselves.
Three of the elements of our Genesis heritage that are under massive assault by postmodern “culture” are that: (1) God intended sexual differentiation and complementarity as part of His creative design: “male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27b); (2) He gifted humans with the capacity to give life as a blessing and share in His ongoing work of creation (1:28a); and (3) the non-personal material world is under human dominion, not to be abused but to be used in the service of man (1:28b-29).
Think about the title of Roberts’ article: “No Kids—For the Future.” For what future? For whose future? For a future of moss, algae and goldfish? With all due contempt for the “environmental rights” extremists, there is a profound difference between human beings, made “in the image and likeness of God,” i.e., thinking and willing beings with an eternal destiny, and the rest of material creation, which is neither rational nor volitional. George Berkeley famously asked if a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it make a noise? I am no friend of subjective idealism but, for the sake of argument in this case, I’ll even entertain it: absent the human presence, what does it matter if it makes a noise, or even falls? Who cares? And that is precisely the question that needs to be asked: what has happened that we can factor the who – the personal – out of the universe and nobody recognizes that something qualitatively critical is absent?
I’ll be even more cynical and ask whether Miley might better foster the planetary future by foregoing a few lucrative road shows, with all the carbon footprint jetting among cities they entail, rather than foregoing children. Back in 1969, Karol Wojtyła, writing in response to Humanae vitae in a line that Mother Teresa also shared, could not fail to observe that discontent with the papal teaching came not from poor but rich countries: Why is “reaction against the Pope’s word … in inverse proportion to proximity to the ‘hunger belt?’?”
The most extreme example of this peoplelessness “for the future” is, of course, South African philosopher David Benatar who, already in 2008, suggested that procreation is inherently unjust and we’d all be better off if mankind just became extinct. He’s maintained the same shtick over the ensuing years, and he’s certainly not unrepresentative (if an extreme example) of such thinking among the “intellectual” classes.
My second concerning article was Derek Thompson’s Atlantic piece, “The Future of the City is Childless.” In it, Thompson comments on the social segregation occurring in America’s great cities. American cities have been on something of a revitalization path since the 1990s, but today’s cities differ from the past in that they lack children. The demographic profile of today’s city skews young, single or at least childless, and professional. “In high-density cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children…. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places.”
Years ago, the National Marriage Project identified a troubling phenomenon tied to today’s declining fertility rates: fewer adults spend fewer of their adult years in any contact with children. It’s as if Erikson’s observation about generativity as an essential developmental step has been canceled.
“Today’s cities … are decidedly not for children or for families that want children. As sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark put it, they are ‘entertainment machines/ for the young, rich and mostly childless. …. Big cities are shedding people [but] … growing in other ways—specifically, in wealth and workism.”
Once upon a time, the American city was a melting pot of classes, from the recent immigrant to the corporate owner. They had their sections, but geographical proximity forced a certain mixing. The postwar automobile revolution, enabling suburban sprawl, gutted cities and began fostering the segregation that currently polarizes American social life. Efforts of the “new urbanism” to re-humanize the American city have met with some success, but swim against a more than half-century tide in “urban planning.”
In addition to faulty urban planning, America’s biggest cities have tended to have lousy public schools which, alongside costs, also drives families with children out of metropolises. Part of the problem is that the education establishment in those places is invested not in children but in public schools. But the DINK (double income/no kid) demographics of these places also fosters a certain hostility to making cities more child-friendly, be it parks or playgrounds or zoning codes that promote affordable housing: more than one commentator has heard the grousing about accommodation to “breeders,” i.e., parents.
So, do we “believe the children are our future?” Or is it just some nice music to be played in the $10-per-cup coffee houses of our urban “entertainment centers?”
This blog was updated after posting.