DAY ONE: Europe's fertility boost of cold comfort to pope

Vienna, Austria

During a speech tonight to diplomats in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the current demographic decline on the Old Continent, expressing hope that European countries will become “once again welcoming to children.”

“Encourage young married couples to establish new families and to become mothers and fathers!” Benedict urged. “You will not only assist them, but you will benefit society as a whole.”

At the moment, no European country has a fertility rate above what demographers call the “replacement level” of 2.1, referring to the number of children each woman of child-bearing years need to have in order to keep a population stable. The current fertility rate in Austria, for example, is 1.4.

Overall, Europe is projected by the United Nations Population Division to drop from 728 million people today to 590 million in 2050, a loss of 131 million. Its share of the world population will drop from 21 percent to 7 percent over that span.

Benedict said that political efforts to raise fertility levels will come up short unless “we can succeed in creating once again in our countries a climate of joy and confidence in life, a climate in which children are not seen as a burden, but rather as a gift for all.”

Ironically, some European countries seem to be doing today exactly what Benedict is asking for – posting gains in birth rates – but hardly in a manner that the pope is likely to approve.

A June 16, 2007, piece in The Economist found that demographically speaking, there are really two Europes. One stretches from the Mediterranean through Central and Eastern Europe, and is characterized by fertility rates of 1.5 or below. These countries are caught in a “fertility trap,” meaning that below-replacement fertility has become the new family pattern, resulting in a widespread embrace of one-child and childless families.

The other Europe runs from Scandinavia to France, and has fertility rates around 1.8, much closer to replacement, and trending upwards in some places. France, Denmark and Ireland today have the highest fertility rates in the EU. In these countries, older women are having children at rates almost high enough to compensate for lower fertility among younger women. If these trends hold, somewhere around mid-century France will surpass Germany as Europe’s largest nation. Great Britain’s population will rise 15 percent by 2050.

What accounts for the difference? One-size-fits-all theories don’t seem to work. The high-fertility tier includes thoroughly secularized nations such as France, and less secularized ones such as Ireland. It includes nations that dole out generous benefits to families with children, such as Sweden and France, and ones which do not, such as Great Britain.

The Economist suggested a surprising hypothesis. It’s those nations which have most thoroughly rejected the traditional norm of two-parent monogamous marriage, it suggested, which are reproducing at the highest levels.

In Northern Europe and France, the social stigma once attached to birth outside of marriage is almost completely gone. France removed the category of “illegitimacy” from its official documents in 2005, and in Sweden today, 55 percent of all births are out of wedlock. By affirming birth wherever and however it occurs, the article suggested, these nations have managed to boost fertility to a degree that countries where the older stigma still holds sway have not.

In other words, according to The Economist, an "anything goes" ethic may trump Catholicism in today’s Europe as a way to prod people to have more kids. If so, that’s likely to be cold comfort for Austria’s most distinguished weekend guest.

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