Declining religious participation coincides neatly with the trend to much smaller families, though we can argue about the exact relationship between empty pews and empty cradles. One recent study stresses the wide-ranging social effects of the decline in vocations, and especially the shrinking cohort of nuns. According to this argument, fewer school and parish activities, fewer social services, and less of a Catholic support network meant that young couples faced much higher "shadow costs" in child-raising, and most decided to limit their families. This approach is broadly convincing, although it is difficult to separate cause from effect in such matters.42
While the shrinking number of children reflected social change, it also had its own powerful impact on religious life and thought. Only by taking children out of the picture can we appreciate how much of the institutional life of any religion revolves around the young. At the height of the baby boom in the 1950s and 1960s, churches of all shades devoted immense effort to teaching and socializing the young, whether in Sunday schools or classes for first communion or confirmation. While teenagers and young adults might drift away from religious practice, they were likely to return when they had young families of their own, to whom they hoped to pass on values and a sense of community. When adults returned to church life, they judged religious institutions by the quality of their programs for the young.
But without the children, very different attitudes prevail. Imagine a region like the Italian province of Ferrara, which for most of the past century bustled with children. Since 1986, though, the birth rate has fallen below 0.9 in every year, with the consequence of closing schools and worryingly quiet streets. A priest who in the 1970s might have guided 1,200 children through the confirmation process in a year now deals with perhaps a tenth of that figure, with all the consequences for diminished family interest and involvement in the life of the local church. The linkage between low fertility and secularization is not perfect. Though Catholic loyalties still thrive in Poland and Slovakia (and clergy and nuns are both abundant), these countries are marked by characteristically low European birth rates. Yet in the absence of countervailing cultural and historical trends, religiosity often declines alongside family size.43
The absence of children has more subtle long-term consequences. George Weigel remarks on the striking European reluctance to discuss or acknowledge death and thus to explore its spiritual dimensions. Partly, this reflects a growing trend to medicalization, as people die in hospitals rather than at home, but German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski also stresses the role of low birth rates:
In the past, it wasn't possible to ignore death. Living in large families meant that people learned to deal with death as a matter of course. An atomized society of singles, on the other hand, will suppress thoughts of death, and this will create an underlying sense of panic. All this results in a dramatic lack of maturity in the way people choose to live their lives. ... for childless singles, thinking in terms of the generations to come loses relevance. Therefore, they behave more and more as if they were the last and see themselves as standing at the end of the chain.
Without a sense of the primary importance of continuity, whether of the family or the individual, people lose the need for a religious perspective.44
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