BY ROBERT V. THOMANN, AUGUST 16, 2019
A battle is a confrontation between an enemy invading to dominate and a friend defending to protect. In the Church, a most crucial battle has been fought for many decades between a culture that has invaded to dominate with artificial birth control (ABC) as the clear means for protecting one’s freedom and the Church’s defense of the fundamental truth that sexual intercourse is between a married man and woman and is to be open to life and not artificially blocked.
The Church has lost this battle.
It is essential not only that this conflict be recognized, but that its loss be reported with sincerity and fearlessness. So how is the loss of this battle with ABC to be quantified? The simplest and most straightforward measure is the infant baptismal rate, the Church’s “fertility rate”, i.e., the rate of new “births” into the Church. The battle losses are immense as shown by the precipitous decline of baptismal rates in the US Church to historically low levels: about a 75% plunge from 1950 – 2018 (all data herein from personal compilations from OCD, CARA and US Census). Therefore, it is essential to recognize that since the battle lines were first drawn in the 1960s with Vatican Council II and Humanae Vitae as the modern clarion defense call against ABC, the Church’s battle with the “enemy” culture has gone so poorly as to necessitate a concession of defeat and recognition of serious jeopardy to the heart of the Church.
If we compare US “crude” fertility rates (i.e., births/1,000 population) with the US Church “crude” birth rates (i.e., infant baptisms/1,000 Catholic population), a number of revealing facts emerge. In 1950, the US birth rate was about 24 births per 1,000 people while the US Church birth rate was 34 infant Baptisms per 1,000 Catholics, 40% higher than the US population at large. We can easily interpret this as indicating that in 1950, the birth rate of babies from Catholic couples was higher than that of the non-Catholic population. The larger number of baptisms then reflects the larger number of children born to the Catholic couples. We had the upper hand in the battle.
The shift in the battle began with a decline in the 1960s. By 1970, baptismal fertility dropped from 34 to 23 Baptisms/1,000 Catholics, which was still 25% higher than the declining US fertility rate (18 births/1,000 people). Both rates then continue to decline together so that, given some measure of uncertainty, one can say that for the decades from 1990–2010, the Church suffered extensive combat setbacks with the baptismal fertility rate at essentially the same level as the US fertility rate of about 13/1,000 population. This means that there has been a massive defection from the Church and a joining of the “enemy” culture over the past 30 years in particular. And the situation is getting worse.
In our current decade, the US Church baptismal fertility has dropped below the US fertility rate—and significantly so. For 2018, the US rate is about 12 births/1,000 pop while the US Church baptismal fertility is about 9 baptisms/1,000 Catholic pop (recall that the 1950 Church rate was 34 baptisms/1,000 Catholic pop). This 2018 baptismal fertility rate is 25 % less than the US fertility. A baptismal fertility below the US fertility has not occurred in the last 70 years of record.
Well what of it? What is the magnitude of the “casualties” on the side of the Church? Has this development, that is, the clear dominance of the culture in convincing modern couples to “desert” to the advantages of artificial birth control, had any significant effect on the Church? I have previously estimated the impact of the declining baptismal fertility rate on the US Catholic population (A Hemorrhaging Church, Amazon). If the baptismal rate had remained at 1950 levels, and using an ecclesial model which includes, births, deaths, net immigration and defections, I calculated a total loss of 26 million Catholics due to the declining baptismal rate! This magnitude of casualties represents an enormous loss of souls, either never born or never brought to the font. The consequences of this battle loss are hardly news as the sacraments, especially marriages, have seriously declined, presbyterial vocations have plunged, and parishes have had to close, or merge or be regionalized. The real news is that the magnitude of the decline—its cause, interpretation, and moral meaning—seems to be hidden behind a kind of veil of non-recognition.
So, for approximately the last 50 years, there has been a wholesale adoption by the general Catholic population of a secular, largely pagan mentality regarding the regulating of births. What is this mentality? It is essentially a moral decision made by the individual or couple to remain largely sequestered from any Church teaching of moral dogma. It is a choice that centers around one’s own comfort, future projections, and economic considerations. In other words, the decision to enter into a contraceptive mentality is governed by a determination as to the consequences of having a child or not. Any reference to the love of God and the moral teaching of the Church is generally absent. Here we are of course speaking of the Catholic population as a whole. Exceptions exist where couples truly desire to live a fully Christian marriage. But it is clear that the secular rationale for having or not having children has been widely embraced by the US Catholic population.
Yet as noted above, the situation is deteriorating even further with baptismal rates falling below secular birth rates during this past decade. If one assumes that the birth rate of Catholics is essentially the same as non-Catholics, then the baptismal rate standing below the US birth rate indicates that there are an increasing number of babies being born to “Catholic” couples that are not being baptized. This is a fundamental rejection of the Sacrament of Baptism.
Catholic ABC teaching from the 1960s to date has been ambiguous, unclear and subject to easy manipulation by the prevailing culture. Catholic moral teaching has been so equivocal, and the sinful mortal consequences of artificial birth control so inadequately explained, that one wonders where the clergy and moral theologians have been. Clear teaching without compromise and cultural nuance is essential, even as rejection remains possible. And what is clear Church teaching? It is first an announcement of the love of God, a love that embraces couples at every moment with joy at receiving the call to be open to life, and then, assisted by God’s grace, the willingness to act on that invitation with confidence in the truth of the teaching. Clear, unequivocal teaching has the effect of attraction more often than rejection. It is the key to the restoration of the Church in the US.
The loss of a battle does not mean loss of the war. Tragedies are meant to be first identified and not covered over and then faced with the courage that can only come from a most sincere clinging to the love of God. We have suffered great losses in this battle with artificial birth control but have received even greater rewards through the love of God for His Church.
Robert V. Thomann is currently Professor Emeritus of Environmental Engineering at Manhattan College, Bronx, NY. He was ordained in 1977 as a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Newark and has ministered at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Fordham University (2011), a Master’s in Systematic Theology from Seton Hall University (2007), a Ph.D. in Oceanography from New York University (1963), and a Master’s in Civil Engineering from NYU (1960). He is an emeritus member of the National Academy of Engineering and has published extensively in environmental engineering and science.