Speaking at a Gates Foundation event in New York, French President Emanuel Macron recently said that the reason some African women have large families is due to a lack of education. ‘Present me the woman,’ Macron said, ‘who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children.’
Macron is not alone in his thinking.
Increasingly, the decision to have a large family is conveyed as less of a decision and more as the lamentable result of a series of unfortunate circumstances. The notion that a couple might openly and willingly welcome an abundance of children into the world is fast acquiring the status of mythology. Only the poor, the uneducated, the promiscuous and the irresponsible find themselves raising more than a couple of children. This belief, at times classist, at times intellectually snobbish, always narrow-sighted and judgmental in character, is paradoxically posited as progressive.
Macron wants to change the lives of African women for the better, he claims, and the starting place for doing so is enabling ‘chosen fertility’, a euphemistic term for Western states encouraging and funding reduced family size, imposing a modern Western cultural bias on the African continent, and presenting it as a form of ‘aid.’
On the eve of the canonization of Pope St Paul VI, speaking at a conference in Genoa commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Humane Vitae, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco offered two reasons as to why magisterial intervention regarding ‘chosen fertility’ is not only warranted but increasingly necessary.
A Diffused Nihilism
His eminence cited ‘a diffused nihilism, where nothing has an absolute value’ as the first reason the Church has for pronouncing itself on the topic of reproductive practices. Describing the ontological landscape the Western world ‘lives and breathes today,’ he posited that ‘each choice has a moral character not in relation to an objective moral content or principle, but in relation to the self-determination that generates the action.’ That is to say: today to speak the truth is to speak your truth.
This gives rise to a ‘pragmatic relativism’, that shares the same presuppositions as nihilism: ‘there are no values of themselves, much less absolute values. This is where ethical relativism is born and what it is fuelled by.’
The Human Person
‘The human subject is undergoing a metamorphosis where the person is being transformed into an individual. A person is, of course, an individual, but a personal individual: with a specificity, a constitutive character.’
This specificity concerning the human person, a clarity and awareness as to what constitutes a human, is fast disappearing. Mankind is going, the Cardinal argued, ‘from a self-perception of a relational type –the heart of the person being constituted in a relationship– to an individualistic perception –the human unbound by others and by norms, free in a solipsistic way, unbearably alone with himself.’
This echoes a problem faced by many millennials today: the pressure of establishing an identity based on the unbroken internal monologue of our mind, rather than in relation to other people, to wider aims, to a body of knowledge and a teaching that precedes us. In a world where there are no right answers and no absolute morals, each individual is alone in determining not just right and wrong, but the very question of what it is to be human.
This question, the answer to which is, for the Church, necessarily experienced in the company of others – not a conclusion is drawn in isolated thinking – is increasingly unanswerable, with devastating consequences for the mental health and wellbeing of the youngest generations.
‘The phenomenon of secularism,’ Bagnasco continued, ‘that is to say: living as though God is not there, concludes this anthropological transformation.’
Framing this within the context of reproductive practices, our understanding of the marital bond and familial structures, the Cardinal explained that ‘we have gone from a nihilistic value-system to inevitable ethical relativism, and thus to an anthropological vision that is completely solipsistic and individualist, where human ties are dissolved and even fought against as unbearable limitations.’
This anthropological vision is evident in the words of Macron, where a mother’s ties to her children are undesirable by any woman in her right mind, with access to information and education. In a world where the human is merely an individual, why would anyone choose to have seven, eight, or nine children, thereby substantially limiting their individual freedoms?
The reasoning Macron follows has a darker conclusion that is manifest in modern Western birth rates: why have children at all? If our identity is not established in a relationship if the heart of the human is not formed in relation to others, why give rise to a situation where we will be so stringently restricted to relate to another human if we could do without? In this vision, children become accessories to an individual’s goal-setting and attainment, and many of today’s parents are profoundly shocked when the child arrives and it does not behave as such. The child begs us, especially the mother, to find our true identity within a relationship. And we are unsure as to how to do this in the West, living in a society that tells us this is not where our identity is found.
The ‘scope of this mutation process,’ the Cardinal argued, is ‘to better manipulate man and societies in order to further exploit them.’ This is clearest in the mouths of Western leaders who wax lyrical about ‘helping’ the developing world.
But, perhaps to Macron’s surprise, it is not the least educated who are choosing to have large families in the West. The hashtag #postcardsformacron was created by Dr. Catherine R. Pakaluk, professor of social research and economics and mother of eight. She posted a photo of herself with six of her children and has since been joined by other women with bachelors, masters, and PhDs who have ‘seven, eight or nine children’, to show that their education led them to choose that path – not away from it.
In the words of the Cardinal, ‘individualistic relativism has as its scope the progressive detachment from objective reality, with the end of conceiving human dignity no longer as an inherent dimension to each human person.’ These women are women who, unlike Macron, don’t have the option of detaching from objective reality. Their vocation as mothers of numerous families demands that they encounter with the truth of what it is to be human in a very real and relentless manner. Armed with this experience, they are telling us the world has it wrong: man is not, and never could be, ‘unbearably alone with himself.’