Archive for the ‘Social’ Category

Economic and Social Impact of Aging Societies

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, SEPT. 30, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Decades of declining birthrates are causing a rapid aging of many nation’s populations.

Romanian President Traian Basescu recently warned that his country’s population was declining and that more needs to be done to support women who have children, the Associated Press reported Sept. 18.

“Romania urgently needs to revise its demographic policies,” he told participants at a conference on population and development in the city of Sibiu. The nation has 4 million people in the work force, while retirees number 6 million, according to the Associated Press.

Germany is another country feeling the pinch of a declining and older population, the New York Times reported Sept. 23. The population started declining in 2003, with a drop of 5,000 that year. By 2006 the decrease reached 130,000.

The German population is experiencing “exponential negative growth,” Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, told the New York Times.

The situation in Japan is also causing widespread concern, reported the British newspaper the Telegraph in a June 1 article. The population peaked at 128 million in 2005 and some forecasts expect it to drop below 100 million by 2050.

These demographic changes are not only a problem for rich countries, noted an Associated Press report on April 11. Some countries “‘will grow older before they grow richer,” said Somnath Chatterji, team leader of the World Health Organization’s Multi-country Studies Unit, at a U.N. conference earlier this year.

Getting older

“Something that took France over a century,” Chatterji said, “has happened in a matter of two decades in other countries.” China, for example, has one of the fastest-growing older populations in the world. The number of people more than 65 years old is growing at nearly 3% a year, compared with a rate of less than 1% for the overall population, Jiang Fan, China’s vice minister of national population and family planning, told the conference.

In a number of countries, births have increased but even so, remain at a low level. The government agency Statistics Canada released Sept. 21 the population data of its country for 2005. Births reached their highest level in seven years, mainly due to an increase in childbearing by women in their 30s.

Canada’s total fertility rate in 2005 was 1.54 children per woman, an increase from 1.53 in the previous year, and the highest rate since 1998. Nevertheless, Statistics Canada added that this is still well below what is known as the replacement level fertility, normally set at 2.2 children per woman.

Italy also recorded a slight increase, reported the agency ANSA on May 5. In 2006, the total fertility rate per woman rose to a 16-year high of 1.35. This is still below the European Union average of 1.52 and well below replacement level.

Europe in focus

The European demographic situation was the subject of this year’s Munich Economic Summit, held June 21-22. The summit brings together academics and leaders from politics, industry and finance. It is organized by Germany’s CESIfo economics think tank and backed by the BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation.

“The demographic changes that Europe experiences today are without precedent in its history,” said Jürgen Chrobog, chairman of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, in his opening speech.

The low birthrates in Europe will lead to a decline of the labor force by roughly 21 million within the next 25 years, he observed, leading to negative consequences for economic output and competitiveness.

A combination of increasing longevity and low fertility constitute a “demographic time bomb” due to deficiencies in pension and family policies, warned Edward Palmer of Sweden’s Uppsala University.

Generally speaking, he noted, countries in Europe with higher fertility rates, such as France and the Scandinavian countries, are the ones with the most generous family policy. Given that the birth of each child involves a potential loss of income during the early years of childhood as well as the risk of missing out on work opportunities, Palmer called for family policies to provide adequate compensation.

Vladimir Spidla, European Union commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, also spoke at the meeting. Currently 16% of the European population is over the age of 65. If there are no changes in birthrates and immigration, by 2050, the proportion of old people will have almost doubled, he observed.

To help Europe bring about a demographic renewal, Spidla, among other points, recommended a greater attention to family needs. The decision to have children is a private matter, he acknowledged. He observed, however, surveys show that many women and men want more children than they actually bring into the world.

“Potential parents are afraid that looking after children would be a problem, or that they would have to decide between career and time with their children, or that it would be too expensive,” Spidla explained. “It is thus imperative that we improve the social and economic conditions for families and children.”

Unprecedented

A global overview of aging came in a recent report by the Population Division of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In its study “World Population Ageing,” the agency highlighted the unprecedented nature of rapid aging in many nations.

At the world level, the number of persons aged 60 or over is expected to exceed the number of children for the first time in 2047. Already, in 1998, in the more developed regions, the number of children — those aged under 15 — dropped below that of older persons in 1998.

In 2000, the population aged 60 years or over numbered 600 million, triple the number present in 1950. In 2006, the number of older persons had surpassed 700 million. By 2050, 2 billion older persons are projected to be alive, implying that their number will once again triple over a span of 50 years.

In the more developed regions, more than one-fifth of the population is currently aged 60 years or over, and by 2050 nearly one-third of the population in developed countries is projected to be in that age group.

In the less developed regions, older persons account today for just 8% of the population, but by 2050 they are expected to account for one-fifth of the population.

The Population Division also cautioned that the pace of population aging is faster in developing countries than in developed countries. Moreover, the aging in developing countries is taking place at lower levels of socioeconomic development than has been the case for developed countries.

Then there is the number of people potentially in the work force as a ratio to those who are already retired. The number of persons aged 15 to 64 per each older person aged 65 or over, has already declined from 12 to 9 between 1950 and 2007. By 2050, this is expected to drop to only 4 potential workers per older person, which will have a severe impact on taxation and social security policies.

In addition to the economic impact, the changes caused by aging will have a major influence on intergenerational questions of equity and solidarity, the U.N. report commented.

It is also unlikely, the U.N. agency continued, that fertility levels will rise again to the high levels common in the past. Therefore, the aging trend looks like it might be irreversible, making the young populations (that were common until recently) likely to become rare over the course of this century. The anti-family policies of many governments and international agencies are indeed set to bear bitter fruit in coming decades.



Religion’s Role in International Society

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, SEPT. 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Amid the clatter of popular books attacking religion, one of the more frequent accusations made is that faith is guilty of fomenting political conflict. Clearly, it can’t be denied that religion is sometimes a factor in provoking dissension. On the other hand, it can also be powerful force for good both in national and international politics. 

A study published in July by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), provides an interesting overview of the interplay between faith-related factors and the foreign policy of the United States. 

The report is titled, “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement With Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings.” It starts by observing that faith-based groups have played a major role in determining U.S. foreign policy in countries such as Sudan and China. In addition, religiously motivated terrorists have threatened security, and the United States is also involved in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where religion is a critical factor. 

In spite of religion’s importance, in general there has been a failure to understand its role — a failing that has hampered U.S. policy, the CSIS comments — even to the point of harming the country’s national security. 

These inadequacies stem from a variety of causes, according to the report. 

— Government officials are often reluctant to address the issue of religion. Many in the government see religion as a dangerous or divisive issue best left out of analysis. 

— Official frameworks for approaching religion are narrow, often approaching religions as problematic or monolithic forces, overemphasizing a terrorism-focused analysis of Islam and sometimes marginalizing religion as a peripheral humanitarian or cultural issue. 

— Institutional capacity to understand and approach religion is limited due to legal limitations, lack of religious expertise or training, and a lack of structures able to deal with religious groups and leaders. 

Peace and conflict 

The bulk of the report is dedicated to analyzing how the U.S. government deals with religion in its foreign relations. Nevertheless, it also deals with questions related to religion as a source of, or a solution to, strife. 

Religion, the report points out, can be an aggravating factor in conflicts in a number of ways. These include provoking strife between different faith communities, repressing minority religious groups, and conflict between the government and religious groups over control of the state. 

On the positive side, the CSIS argues that religious groups and leaders can often be effective diplomats due to their credibility with local communities. This can give them what the report terms a “unique leverage for promoting reconciliation among conflicting parties.” A case in point cited by the study is the faith-based Community of Sant’Egidio, which played an effective part in resolving conflict in Mozambique. 

In addition, religion can help to heal persons and communities after conflicts are over and provide a place where both grievances and discussions on how to achieve greater tolerance can be held. 

Another way in which religion contributes to communities is through helping the poor. The charitable works carried out by many faith communities often play a vital role in developing nations. The report noted, for example that more than half of the hospitals operating in Africa are run by faith-based organizations. 

In some countries U.S. government agencies provide aid in partnership with religious groups. A further example of working together comes from Burundi, where a U.S. agency worked with Catholic Relief Services to encourage the establishment of a peace and reconciliation commission comprising members of various ethnic and religious orientations. 

So far almost all the government aid has been channeled through Christian groups. Of the $1.7 billion identified going to faith-based organizations from 2001 to 2005, 98% went to Christian organizations. 

Spiritual perspective 

Another look at the relationship between religion and U.S. foreign policy came in an article published in the May 14 issue of the Weekly Standard magazine. John J. Dilulio Jr., who for a period in 2001 was the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, titled his essay “Spiritualpolitique.” 

From Brazil to Belize and Beirut to Boston, he commented, “religion in over a hundred forms and in a thousand different ways has outlived ‘modernity’ and ‘postmodernity.'” 

Dilulio explained that by the term “spiritualpolitique,” he means a view of religion that takes into account its significant power to shape politics within and among nations. It also means understanding religion not as something portrayed as being in conflict with modernity, but as something preached and practiced by many people. 

Even in stable democracies we need to realize, Dilulio commented, that religious differences play an important role. In countries where democracy and constitutional rule are still in the process of formation, religion can be a complicating factor in achieving national unity. 

Therefore, he recommended that government officials should wake up and pay a lot more attention to the role of religion and its impact on global politics. 

Religion in action 

A broader consideration of religion’s impact on conflicts came in a book published earlier this year titled: “Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution.” The book, a series of essays edited by David Little, is dedicated to a number of case studies of religious figures who have helped to promote peace. 

A useful concluding chapter by Little draws together some conclusions that can be deduced from the book’s profiles. He urges readers to avoid two oversimplifications. The first is that religion can best be seen as violence, or clashes of civilization. The second is that “good” religion always brings peace. 

A number of the testimonies in the book give eloquent testimony that contradicts the first oversimplification, Little points out. Moreover, religion is only one among a whole series of factors that are present in causing violent conflicts. 

The second affirmation is also unsustainable, Little adds. The experience in situations such as the warfare following the break-up of Yugoslavia demonstrate that religion, and even the clergy themselves, can inflame hostilities. 

Little then lists a series of lessons that can be drawn from the book’s case studies, some of which are: 

— Religion neither causes violence by itself, nor, by contrast, is it without influence, particularly in its extremist form, on the course and character of violence. 

— Religion is not just a source of violent conflict, but also a source of peace. 

— Proper religion exhibits a preference for pursuing peace by non-violent means and for combining the promotion of peace with the promotion of justice. 

— Religion dedicated to promoting justice and peace by peaceful means often prompts a hostile and violent response, at least in the short run. 

Faith and peace 

Looking at the religious figures presented in the book, Little comments that their beliefs provided an important foundation for the task they took on of promoting peace. They drew vision, motivation and perseverance from the theological traditions of their faith. 

Religion can also play a part in helping build institutions that will increase and sustain social harmony and civil unity. As well, nongovernmental groups and individuals can foment an environment conducive to peace and to negotiations for resolving conflicts. 

Benedict XVI addressed the relationship between religious belief and peace in his message for this year’s World Day of Peace, celebrated by the Church in Jan. 1. He termed as “unacceptable” those conceptions of God that encourage intolerance and violence (No. 10). War in God’s name is never acceptable, the Pontiff warned. 

“Let every Christian be committed to tireless peace-making and strenuous defense of the dignity of the human person and his inalienable rights,” he urged in the conclusion of his message. An appeal that should find an answer in the hearts of all believers. 



Interview With Missionary Katie Gesto

WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 27, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Three foreigners have been given orders to leave Sudan in less than a week, and according to a missionary working in the country, aid workers are periodically threatened with expulsion by the government.

Paul Barker, country director of CARE, told Reuters today that the Sudanese government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission had given him 72 hours to leave the country. Although no official reason was given for the expulsion, Barker speculated to the press that it has to do with an internal e-mail he sent to CARE staff on the situation in Sudan, which was later leaked to the press.

In this interview with ZENIT, Katie Gesto says that cases like Barker’s are anything but uncommon. She discusses her 10 years of missionary service in the African country as a nurse practitioner and consecrated virgin, and the challenges all aid workers face in Sudan.

Q: What is your reaction to the expulsion of the country director of CARE from Sudan?

Gesto: I am not surprised about the expulsion, as I’ve had many colleagues, myself included, threatened with the same. Nongovernmental organizations like CARE are suppose to be neutral, but when it comes to keeping their people secure, it can easily appear that they have lost their neutral stance.

Aid workers know the real nitty-gritty as they are living there and see with their own eyes, but if you publicly — and e-mail is considered public these days — declare your opinion, even though factual and true, it’s common knowledge that you can get thrown out of the country.

My friend almost got classified as a persona non-grata — PNG — for allowing a sick Dinka on a plane leaving Sudan rather than a less sick Shilluk man; because she was in Shilluk territory. They said she was being tribal and put her under house arrest for a month and threatened to declare her a PNG.

It’s not so complicated really; you have to know the volatile emotional situation all leaders are living in, and so they can react to remarks that others would think are not very significant.

Q: You have been working as a missionary in Sudan. What drew you to perhaps the most dangerous missionary territory in the world?

Gesto: Ever since grade school, I listened attentively at Mass to the stories of missionary priests and sisters. God gave me the desire to be a missionary even at that early age.

During my college years, I was involved with Campus Crusade for Christ and as a Catholic, built great friendships with students going on missions to Russia and other difficult countries.

It was then that God burned in my heart a desire to serve our brothers in persecuted countries. Certainly Sudan is on that list.

I know I can’t do much alone, but when God calls, he does the work. In this beautiful work, he makes his love felt.

Q: Your work, as a nurse practitioner and a consecrated woman, was relatively independent of support from a specific group. How did you manage, both with regard to safety and basic necessities?

Gesto: The bottom line for me — for any of us — is “God, what do you want me to do? Where do you want me to serve?”

After getting a good sense for the country by serving as a nurse with a relief organization, Medair, I felt God wanted me to serve a bishop directly since the bishops know what the real needs of their people are.

I then contacted a Catholic bishop in Sudan and offered myself, telling him: “I’ll find five volunteers, we’ll raise our own money and come serve wherever you see fit.”

Well, two years passed while completing my masters and I didn’t find anyone, so I went in faith and served in that diocese for two years with two Ugandan priests and some sisters who were nearby.

I was very happy and grew tremendously both spiritually and from the experience with the people.

Q: While in Africa, you discerned your vocation. What was your general experience of prayer in this dangerous desert, especially at times when you feared for your life?

Gesto: I have grown tremendously since starting my service to Sudan in 1996. It is a blessing to be in a place where one never knows if they will return home.

I was prepared for this by my many years of hospice service and as far as I can tell, I am willing to die today if God wills it. As my friend who is a missionary in Somalia says, “I just hope they know how to shoot well.”

One time when I was told a commander wanted to kill me because I told the bishop that I suspected him of something dishonest, it did make me nervous.

A possessed man, however, who had speared a few people in our village and who didn’t like me made me even more nervous since he lived next door to the house where I slept alone. But after a few days of restless nights I said, “Enough of that! Jesus, you are more powerful than those forces! Give me the grace to let you have those fears.”

For the most part these threats didn’t bother me too much after that, particularly once the crazy man moved far way and the commander cooled down!

But the willingness to die for our faith is a grace we can all pray for and receive. For most of us, it won’t happen physically, but for all of us it will happen spiritually if we want to grow to be like Jesus who was martyred.

I was able to hear clearly my call to be a consecrated virgin when I was in Sudan because of the lack of distractions there — it’s only me and the Lord.

I could see that God allowed me to spend extra time with him in prayer, and to be free to be sent wherever he leads and to develop a deep spousal relationship with him.

Q: What did you find to be the most pressing need among the Sudanese people?

Gesto: Unity, learning how to respect each other, and healing from the past trauma.

The more than four-decade-long war has broken down good cultural values and the sense of dignity as persons. People have learned to often just fend for themselves, which has opened the door to corruption, tribal fighting, witchcraft and other detrimental things.

When, through the Gospel, they learn to care for each other in simple ways, they begin to heal and also want to educate their kids — particularly their girls who are so in need of education.

As this process continues, they will then hopefully work as a community to build the Church and culture and economically provide for each other.

Q: Upon returning to the United States after your time in Africa, what is most difficult in your transition back to everyday life?

Gesto: Time. Everyone is in such a hurry and worried about such petty things. There is a lack of simplicity evidenced by constant spending of money on useless things.

People don’t seem to have time for talking, laughing, or “being.” I have to watch myself to keep from getting swept into this rat race.

All these distractions seep inside me and I have to work at creating an environment that supports interior silence so that I can “be” with Jesus — a much easier challenge in Africa!




A Light in the 21st Century’s “Dark Night”

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, AUG. 30, 2007 (Zenit.org).- As a respected Boston lawyer once remarked of recent biographies, “It’s tough times for the dead.” A case in point was the cover of last week’s Time magazine. Splashed across the front page ran the headline “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa,” accompanied by the gloomiest picture you ever saw of the saintly nun.

With its sensationalist title, Time magazine not only descended to the level of tabloid journalism, but betrayed a woeful ignorance of the meaning of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s spiritual journey.

Capitulating to the fad of finding the sordid behind the glitter, where titles like “Britney’s Breakdown” or “Lindsay in Crisis” are guaranteed to boost sales, the article itself feeds into the mentality that things are never as pretty as they seem. In our age of masking our own shortcomings by pointing out the flaws in others, it suggests that Mother Teresa’s joyous love of the poor hid a darker, almost sinister side.

Recent interest in the extraordinary founder of the Missionaries of Charity stemmed from the recently published book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.” Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator for the cause of canonization of the saintly nun who died in 1997, compiled her letters and writings, including a number that revealed Teresa’s spiritual trials.

By releasing these documents, Father Kolodiejchuk sought to grant readers a window into the intimate spiritual life of Mother Teresa, and to offer inspiration and hope by recounting her challenges in following Christ.

Instead, some have twisted her doubts about her faith, which she confided in letters to her spiritual director, into an indictment of her sincerity and personal holiness. Time author David Van Biema writes, “Perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain.”

These terms relate Mother Teresa’s life to that of a comic actor, suggesting that her professional persona and her private self were separate. Yet Teresa did more than just smile for cameras; she demonstrated joyous love, through her every action, gesture and expression.

The predatory glee with which news services leapt upon word of Mother Teresa’s “dark night of the soul” resembled the same relish with which they report celebrity arrests. Questions such as, “Can she still be made a saint?” demonstrated an utter lack of knowledge regarding the Church’s idea of sanctity while attempting to sow division by casting doubts on her holiness.

As a side note, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is blessed, which means that she is officially recognized by the Church as being in heaven. When she becomes a saint, worldwide devotion to Mother Teresa will be permitted, i.e. church dedication, invocation during the liturgy etc.

A different standard

The standards of the media are not those of saints. While Teresa herself feared falling into a sort of spiritual hypocrisy, the fact was that she, like many saints, possessed an especially keen sensitivity to how she fell short of Christ’s example.

Celebrated atheists leapt to recruit the nun to their cause. Christopher Hitchens, who penned a vicious biography of Mother Teresa, was quoted extensively in the article. Seizing the opportunity to reach millions, Hitchens eagerly made his bid to turn Teresa into a poster child for nihilism.

Time also consulted psychologists to posthumously analyze Mother Teresa from her letters. It seems strange that so many people who do not believe in the soul felt themselves qualified to probe that of Mother Teresa’s.

Although many have already rushed to quell these sparks, Mother Teresa obviously needs no defense. Happily situated in heaven along with other doubters like, well, St. Thomas, she is probably beseeching Jesus with her characteristic compassion to forgive Hitchens and the others “for they know not what they do.”

Paradoxically, the divisive aspect of the stories has done what many Church synods couldn’t. Liberal and traditional Catholics have joined forces to correct the record and to recognize Mother Teresa as an example for all people who suffer spiritual loneliness.

Her doubts and suffering, far from being a source of shame for those who love and admire this great woman, should make us proud to discover that she is an even greater hero than we thought.

For anyone seriously interested in the cause of Teresa, her spiritual difficulties come as no surprise. They were made known after her beatification in 2003. Discussing the subject at Roman dinner tables at the time, people spoke with awe of Mother Teresa’s exceptional perseverance in the face of what would have crumbled anyone less attuned to God’s grace.

Mother Teresa’s experiences are not scandal, but a mirror of our own lonely age. While people today try to dispel feelings of loneliness with analysts, medications or pop spirituality, Teresa embraced her loneliness and clung to her faith in Jesus, which, though often devoid of feelings, was solid and profound. What many have failed to notice, in fact, is that a good number of her expressions of solitude are addressed to Jesus himself.

“Feeling it”

Carole Zaleski in “First Things” wrote that Teresa converted “her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God.”

In many ways, her own sense of marginalization from God helped Mother Teresa to recognize loneliness in others. She proclaimed that there was “more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread.” She realized that rejection and abandonment was not only the province of lepers, but present even in the inner life of those who appear to be successful and privileged.

How many times have we gone to Mass, not “feeling it,” as modern speak would put it. Our lips moving, our gestures mechanical, but we remain distant from the reality of God and his love for us. In that emptiness, temptation raises its head, suggesting that rather than practice this “hypocrisy,” we should forego Mass and go out for a round of golf instead.

Mother Teresa lived her doubts, not for an hour on Sunday, but every day as she tended the poor and dying in utter, relentless squalor. Her example reaches across from Christians to non-Christians.

Benedict XVI, as Father Joseph Ratzinger, made the interesting point in his 1963 “Introduction to Christianity” that “both the believer and the unbeliever share each in his own way, doubt and belief.” That led him to notice that doubt could be a possible “avenue of communication” between the two.

Time and time again, saints show us that when they suffer, the solution is to look outside oneself, not further within. St. Alfonso Liguori and St. John of the Cross both overcame their own troubles by focusing on their calling. As one religious sister acutely observed, when Teresa couldn’t find Jesus in her prayer life, she found him in the faces of her fellow human beings.

Teresa eventually came to give a meaning to her trials. She saw them as a privilege, the gift of sharing in Christ’s loneliness on the cross.

In his film “The Passion,” Mel Gibson painted a wrenching image of Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Amid oppressive darkness, the sight of Jesus, abandoned by his apostles, struggling to continue with his mission, confronts viewers with the sense of desolation that accompanied his sacrifice.

Saints like Blessed Teresa, who faced loneliness in their self-sacrifice, experienced a unique sharing in the mystery of Christ’s passion. Like the purest gold, they have been forged in hotter fires.

Particularly in our era that gives more weight to feelings than facts and to sensation rather than sense, Mother Teresa teaches the world to persevere through doubt, pain and loneliness. In the dark spiritual night of the 21st-century, Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s example is a shining beacon to us all.




New Studies Reveal Close Relationship

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JUNE 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The fortunes of family life and religion may well be linked, say experts in recent studies. W. Bradford Wilcox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is the author of a research brief published in May by the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families.

“Churches are bulwarks of marriage in urban America,” he affirmed in the brief “Religion, Race, and Relationships in Urban America.” Wilcox started by observing that in spite of widespread concern over the breakdown of marriage and family life in contemporary society, so far little attention has been paid on religion’s influence for the family.

His attempt to remedy this omission is based on a reading of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FFCW), sponsored by Columbia and Princeton Universities.

The dramatic changes in family structures are graphically illustrated by Wilcox.

— From 1960 to 2000, the percentage of children born out of wedlock rose from 5% to 33%.

— The divorce rate more than doubled to almost 50%.

— The percentage of children living in single-parent families rose
from 9% to 27%.

Poor and minority families have suffered even more. In 1996, for example, 35% of African American children and 64% of Latino children were living in married households, compared to 77% of white children.

Wilcox argued that religion can influence family life in four ways.

— Religious institutions promote norms strengthening marriage, for example, the idea that sex and childbearing ought to be reserved for marriage, and broader moral norms that support happier, more stable marriages.

— Religious faith endows the marital relationship with a sense of transcendence.

— In many religious groups there are family-oriented social networks that offer emotional and social support, plus a measure of social control that reinforces commitment to the marital bond.

— Religious belief and practice provides support to cope with stresses such as unemployment or the death of a loved one. A greater psychological resilience, in turn, is linked to higher quality marriages.

Paradox

Wilcox does, however, admit that religious participation is by no means an automatic guarantee of a happy family life. In fact, what he termed “one of the paradoxes of American religious life,” is the contradiction between the high level of religious practice among African Americans — the highest of any racial group — and the reality that they have the lowest rate of marriage of any racial or ethnic group.

Turning to an analysis of the data from the FFCW survey, Wilcox argued that it shows how religious attendance — particularly by fathers — is associated with higher rates of marriage among urban parents.

Moreover, churchgoing boosts the odds of marriage for African American parents in urban America in much the same way it boosts the odds of marriage for urban parents from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Paternal church attendance is particularly important for urban relationships, Wilcox maintains. If a father goes to church regularly, then he is more likely to enter into marriage and also to have a relationship of higher quality.

Benefits of belief

The arguments raised by Wilcox are similar to those put forward by Patrick Fagan in a paper published by the Heritage Foundation last December. In “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Fagan argued that “religious practice promotes the well-being of individuals, families and the community.”

“Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages and well-behaved children,” he pointed out.

Numerous sociological studies, Fagan continued, show that valuing religion and regularly practicing it are associated with greater marital stability, higher levels of marital satisfaction and an increased likelihood that an individual will be inclined to marry.

Among other points, these studies reveal that:

— Women who are more religious are less likely to experience divorce or separation than their less religious peers.

— Marriages in which both spouses attend religious services frequently are 2.4 times less likely to end in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse worships.

— Religious attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability, confirming studies conducted as far back as 50 years ago.

— Couples who share the same faith are more likely to reunite if they separate than are couples who do not share the same religious affiliation.

Moreover, Fagan pointed out, religious practice is also related to a reduction in such negative behaviors as domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse and addiction.

Losing God

Mary Eberstadt looked at the other side of the coin in the relationship between family and religion in an article published in the June-July issue of the magazine Policy Review. In the article “How the West Really Lost God,” she reflected on the causes of secularization, a phenomenon particularly notable in Western Europe.

The thesis often put forward, Eberstadt observed, is that secularism came first and that this had a negative impact on family life in Western Europe. She argued, however: “At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families.”

In support of her case Eberstadt pointed out that European fertility in general dropped well before the dramatic demise of religious practice observed in recent decades. Within Europe she cited the example of France, which saw fertility decline much sooner than in many other European countries, and is also a nation where secularism is stronger.

Ireland, by contrast, withstood the winds of secularism until a short time ago, and it was also a country with strong families. The recent erosion of religion in Ireland was preceded by a collapse in Irish fertility, Eberstadt added.

Turning to the United States she commented that the higher level of religious practice could be due to the greater number of children.

Evangelicals and Mormons, who unlike Catholics are not prohibited from using contraceptives, also have larger families. Maybe, Eberstadt posited, there is something about the family that inclines people toward religiosity.

She then examined the dynamic that exists between family life and religion. The experience of birth leads parents to a moment of transcendence. As well, the practice of sacrificing oneself for the good of the family and children may lead people to go beyond selfish pleasure-seeking. In addition, the fear of death, in terms of losing a spouse or child is a powerful spur to faith.

As for the well-known fact that women tend to be more religious than men, maybe Eberstadt argued, this is due to their more intimate participation in the birth of their children compared to a man’s role.

While fertility rates in Europe and many other countries are now very low, this could change as the disadvantages of single motherhood and the social and economic consequences of shrinking populations weigh more heavily.

“There is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too,” Eberstadt contended. While quick to admit that, “merely having families and children is no guarantee of religious belief,” a resurgence in family life could well strengthen religion.

The authors of the studies cited here would probably be the first to admit that the interaction between religion and the family is complicated and that many other factors play a part in the strengthening or weakening of both. No doubt more research is needed, but these initial efforts point to some interesting relationships.

The natural family, Ebserstadt concludes, “as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people.” A symphony unfortunately marred by many discordant notes today, but whose return to harmony would be of immense benefit.