The Magazine

A Global Papacy

From the April 18, 2005 issue: . . . And its foes.

Apr 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 29 • By JEFFREY BELL
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Especially humiliating, they argue, is the papacy's utter irrelevance to the religion and politics of today's Western Europe. The Catholic churches are still empty, vocations to the priesthood virtually nonexistent. Even more striking, the same pope who in his first 12 years in office helped transform the politics of Europe, ending the argument between democracy and communism with a decisive victory for democracy, has been utterly rebuffed by the continent's new political power, the European Union.

The pope fought fiercely, but in vain, for the new E.U. constitution to include a reference to the Christian roots of European culture. Not any present significance, mind you, but merely the roots. Any attempt to write this omission off as a harmless bit of cosmetic multiculturalism was shattered by the decision of the European Parliament last year to reject the first proposed cabinet of the E.U. solely because it included an Italian friend and biographer of the pope, Rocco Buttiglione, who was in the midst of a personal scandal. The scandal, in the eyes of the elected legislators of the new Europe? Buttiglione is a practicing Catholic who agrees with the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on such subjects as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality as affirmed by Pope John Paul II.

At least in Western Europe, it is clear that secularism and its hallmark, the contraceptive society, is on the verge of total victory, Catholicism and traditional Christian morality on the verge of total defeat. What is only beginning to be realized by Western elites, including many Catholic churchmen in Europe, is that the cultures where this picture is accurate are also the cultures most likely to be in the process of liquidating themselves.

This is brought home by perhaps the most important book published in 2004, Phillip Longman's The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It. Longman, himself a secular liberal who worries about the rise of traditional religion as a side effect of the trends he sees, is nonetheless a detached and unsparing analyst of today's mushrooming demographic crisis. Among his findings is that the plunge in human fertility is a worldwide phenomenon, extending to strongly religious Muslim countries and to countries that are not only miserably poor, but show little sign of attaining Western-style affluence. Such affluence was previously thought to be a necessary precondition of the sharp declines in fertility already beginning to take a visible toll in Japan and the Western European welfare states, with their rapidly aging and heavily taxed work forces. The relentless effort of Western elites to impose a culture of contraception far beyond their own borders has been too successful to allow complacency or a tempting Schadenfreude on the part of conservatives like me who disagree.

It is perhaps fitting that the developing country where Western elites have had their greatest success in exporting contraceptive culture--the People's Republic of China, with its (according to Longman) nearly suicidal One Child policy--is run by the only government of any consequence electing not to send a representative to the funeral of Pope John Paul II. China, of course, does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church. It is also the only large country whose citizens were not permitted to view the pope's funeral on television.

In his 1988 essay "The Contraceptive Culture," conservative social and economic analyst George Gilder called Humanae Vitae "the great prophetic document of our time." Gilder, himself a Protestant, argued that widespread acceptance of abortion is the

unavoidable harvest of a society devoted to contraception as the favored condition of the act of love. . . . The Pope exactly identified its fundamental problem, and made a number of very specific prophecies about the result of its spread. He said that men would come to objectify women, that they would leave their families, that general immorality would emerge. He exactly identified the set of problems that currently is sweeping through the United States, and that pose the single most serious threat to the future of the nation.

Gilder predicted that quantum theory and computer technology were on the verge of discrediting the Newtonian physics that had given rise to materialism and the contraceptive culture in the first place. Gilder, who has more than once been vilified for being right much too early in a national debate, may have seemed a lonely voice in the context of 1988, and his essay was pretty much ignored. In the context of 2005 and our worldwide demographic meltdown, his analysis of the dangers of contraception is if anything too specific to the American scene.