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With the world’s declining population, Pope Francis calls us to bear witness to ‘the joy of being a family’

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Corn farmer Aroldo Antonio Linares Jacome shows some of his crop at his San Jose La Arada, Guatemala, farm Sept. 10, 2019, using a proven practice of managing soil to manage water and increase yields. (CNS Photo/Katlyn Holland, Catholic Relief Services)

As we await the birth of the Savior Child, it seems fitting to note that in many parts of the developed world, the lack of babies is a growing concern.

This is a surprising change for those of us raised on “The Population Bomb,” a wildly inaccurate prediction that the world’s population would bring the earth to a miserable collapse. The book appeared in 1968, and its author, Paul Ehrlich, with help from a largely uncritical media, for years convinced many countries that children — in the form of population growth — were the problem.

So imminent was this disaster, in Ehrlich’s mind, that he predicted the starvation death of hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s.

In 1968, the world’s population was 3.5 billion. This past November, planet Earth’s population surpassed 8 billion.

Which makes a recent population editorial in The Washington Post noteworthy for its lack of handwringing. While recognizing the impact of the population growth on environmental and man-made infrastructures as well as on Africa and Asia, it concluded that “living standards around the world have vastly, though unevenly, improved” in the years since Ehrlich’s book was published.

Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, writes the CNS column “Amid the Fray.” (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Earth’s population expanded when farmers and workers were able to produce more and support more people, the Nov. 19 editorial said. In fact, as living standards improve, both birth rates and death rates shrink, suggesting that when the advancements that the Northern Hemisphere enjoys spread more widely in the Southern Hemisphere, population stability will occur there as well.

Where population growth is occurring, there are implications. For one, if job creation does not keep pace with people creation, migration is likely to follow. Compounded by pressures like climate change and war, we are seeing this impact now on the flow of migrants to wealthier countries.

The Post notes that sometime in this century we are likely to see population growth plateau, and the editorial ends with a warning that Paul Ehrlich certainly did not foresee: “Instead of population growth and growing birthrates, the fast-approaching new demographic challenge is societal aging.”

Indeed, populations in several European countries are now shrinking, meaning more and more people over 65 and fewer under 18. Even the U.S. is not immune, although its immigration rate can mask its decline in births. This foretells what demographers call a “demographic winter.”

Exhibit A would be Japan, where some say the country is irreversibly withering. Notoriously hostile to immigration, Japan has no ready means to increase its population, which will put the economy and social services under grave stress as its population ages. Diapers for the elderly now outsell diapers for babies there.

Italy also has had a below average birth rate for generations. There are almost twice as many deaths as births in Italy, and a birth rate of 1.24 births per woman is lower than Japan’s. Maternity wards are being shut down.

Pope Francis has taken notice, and he has been sounding the alarm about the declining number of births. In a speech to Italian family associations this December, the pope warned Italy about “a serious demographic winter” that he called “awful” and “horrible.”

For the pope, the first priority, he told the Italian Forum of Family Associations, is to bear witness to “the joy of being a family.” He also called for more family-friendly services and government policies. U.S. church leaders are calling for similar action in the United States, where maternity, childcare and family leave policies are woefully behind most developed countries.

As we await the Christ Child this Christmas season, let’s pray for parents and would-be parents and a greater recognition of “the joy of being a family.”