Douthat: Decadent societies lack babies, and hope

Screen Shot 2020 03 20 at 20633 PM Ross Douthat on EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, March 19, 2020. | CNA

Catholic author and commentator Ross Douthat said that a "decadent society" plays a role in declining birth rates, as cultures and couples lose a sense of hope in the future.

Discussing his new book, "The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success," the New York Times columnist said, in an interview Thursday on EWTN Pro-Life Weekly, that a "decadent" society is marked by "stagnation, repetition, and sterility," but also "a high level of wealth and technological development."

Douthat argued that the United States and parts of Europe are experiencing "a sort of loss of the sense of possibility, hope for the future," and that this shows itself in slowing economies, gridlocked politics, and declining birth rates.

In his book, Douthat wrote that "amid all of our society's material plenty, one resource is conspicuously scarce. That resource is babies."

During the interview, Douthat said that some factors, such as a shift away from an agrarian economy and lower infant mortality rates, can help explain declining birth rates but cannot account for why birthrates have fallen below the replacement rate.

"If you ask people how many kids they would like to have, even in a secular society where most people don't have Humanae Vitae on the shelf, people still say they want between two and three kids," Douthat said. 

"But if you look at how many kids they're having, our birth rate is at 1.6, 1.7, in places like South Korea it's at one-that has the potential to cut your population in half without immigration over a couple generations."

Increasing secularization alone, Douthat said, does not explain the shift, because parents in some secular countries, like Sweden, have more children than some religious ones, like Poland, but that broadly "there is something about the idea that you are embedded in a story that extends beyond yourself and your own moment, to the next chapter and next development, that makes people more likely to start families and so it helps to think that your story has a capital A author."

Thinning family trees present a host of socioeconomic consequences, he said, creating a society that is older, more resistant to change. It also creates families with fewer members, and children experience experience fewer interpersonal relationships with siblings and cousins.

"Large families, they toughen kids up in interesting ways," Douthat said. 

"Like if you're a four-year-old in a family with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, you can't afford to be too special of a snowflake and you get used to sort of managing interpersonal tensions, you know, if the family is healthy."

Douthat noted the similarity between his own arguments about a decadent society and Pope Francis' criticisms of a "throwaway culture."

"It's a society that doesn't have a strong idea of the future or of the past," Douthat said. "So it's sort of lost faith, it thinks that the past was bad and unprogressive and corrupt, but it doesn't have a lot of confidence about the future, so it does, I think, tend towards very disposable forms of culture." 

"You don't get people, building the great cathedrals, and writing the great operas," in a decadent or throwaway culture, he said, "not that I attend opera all the time, I mean, I myself am decadent too."  

Kate Scanlon is a producer for EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.

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