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Declining population, not pets, are the problem

Leaving aside Pope Francis’s recent remarks about pets and selfishness, more to the point was his observation that people without children “are lacking something, something fundamental.”

(Image: Patrick Hendry/

The recent comment by Pope Francis that people who have pets instead of children are, sometimes at least, manifesting selfishness brought predictable howls from pet lovers and those who felt he was treading on their sacred right to do whatever they please. But along with unintentionally giving media the sort of juicy flap over trivia that they relish, the Pope was identifying a grave and growing problem for nations around the globe.

The problem isn’t pets. It’s declining population in places where births have fallen below the replacement rate–2.1 children per woman–required to hold population at a steady level.

On a list of 200 countries, 104 are at or above the replacement rate and the rest below. Here are a few of the places that are in trouble, together with their fertility rates: France–1.870, China–1.696, United Kingdom–1.650, Germany–1.540, Russia–1.504, Japan–1.360, Italy–1.270. And for the United States, the figure was a dismal 1.705, placing it 144th on the list, right after the Czech Republic (1.710) and just before Ireland (1.700).

These numbers are World Bank figures for 2019, but indications are that the declines are continuing. Last year, for instance, the U.S. birthrate fell for the sixth year in a row, while in mid-January China said births there had dropped an eye-popping 1.4 million in 2021, to 10.6 million from 12 million the year before.

Remember the “population bomb” scare of the 1960s and 1970s, when population controllers warned that the number of people in the world would soon exceed the world’s ability to support them? What’s happening now is an implosion–societies collapsing in on themselves–and that’s genuine bad news.

The consequences for places where population is falling will, to say the least, not be pleasant. The most obvious scenario is fewer working-age people to support what is likely to be a growing number of no longer working elderly persons. And that in turn will breed new intergenerational tensions, no doubt accompanied by fresh pressure for legalized euthanasia as a tool of enlightened social policy.

Yet it needn’t be that way. According to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, a knowledgeable student of demographic trends, prosperity remains a possibility in the face of falling population. But although it’s possible, he added in National Review, it is “by no means certain.” The reason being that “dynamism in our economy and society is on the wane” as reflected in areas ranging from new business enterprises and population mobility to life expectancy, educational attainment, and immigration policy.

And now marriages and births.

Says Eberstadt: “Pessimism, hesitance, dependence, self-indulgence, resentment, and division: Do we really think there will be less of these in a 1.5-child America?”

Leaving aside the Pope’s bit about pets and selfishness, which reflected his familiar fondness for off-the-cuff zingers, more to the point was his observation that people without children “are lacking something, something fundamental.”

So what do they lack? Children of course. But also something else. Opting for a child is a way of saying that, despite all its problems, life is a good thing and the future bright enough to want to share it with someone else.

As I was writing this, I came across a statement by New Jersey bishops expressing disappointment at enactment of a highly permissive new abortion law in their state. “We have failed as a society when a response to any pregnancy is fear rather than joy,” they said. Now there’s something worth worrying about.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Rather than counting the population based on individual countries, consider overall numbers. It has been reliably stated that 95% of the world’s population lives in a country with a declining population – an even more ominous reflection.

  2. In Seattle there are more dogs than children: 153,000 to 107,178. And almost as many homosexuals, 10 percent of the total population as compared to 16 percent as children. Connect the dots.

  3. Platitudinous.
    That is a good word to describe the situation of the Catholic church riding to the rescue of the family in 2020s
    By the time this cavalry arrive the homestead will be long since barren
    The time to rally to protect the family was before WW1 not 2020..but it is a popular and now permissible talking point
    A day late and a dollar short

  4. Considerations of whether a person wants to raise children or not aside, the wages for males have not kept up with the cost of living, forcing the females to select work/career over having children in their 20s. Overpriced higher education that results in lukewarm earnings catches a lot of youth by surprise. But obviously since this is a world problem that’s not the only issue. If you watch a commercial on television, there are usually only two children in the advertisement. The cost of housing is very high, with people striving for larger homes than they really need. Millions of larger families were raised in ranch or similar homes post war and they did just fine – now these large homes have much higher square feet per inhabitant — with what often used to be the local church or schoolhouse is now the size of a coveted home. Also, at least in the country, families used to can garden and local produce now we get it off the shelf — which is marked up for all the related costs.

  5. I will just comment on your last paragraph, as I recently also read the New Jersey bishops statement on the passage of their states new extreme abortion bill. They expressed “profound disappointment and deep concern.” No statement of outrage. No statement that those who kill or facilitate the killing of the unborn are seriously endangering their salvation.
    One can’t help wondering whether the bishops even believe that their salvation is in danger.
    The bishops go on to attribute the killing of the unborn to the breakdown of the “economic, employment, social, racial, and emotional barriers.” Did the bishops study sociology or theology in the seminary? It is hard to tell.

  6. Shaw’s comment about life being good and pregnancy showing the unselfish desire to share it with someone else
    might be better used to make a case for the duty(?) to adopt some of the hundreds of thousands of existing children in need of the basics of food, clothing and shelter, not to mention the love of a family, rather than the implication that the duty of every Catholic couple is to have at least two children and more if they want to show how unselfish and generous they are in sharing life. Approached from that perspective couples who adopt seem much more unselfish than those who want to exercise their right to have as many children as they want.

  7. There’s another way of looking at these numbers.

    Divide the fertility rate by the break-even rate of 2.1. The fraction you get is the percentage of the present population that is replacing itself.

  8. An argument concerning “climate change” is that it is the result of human activity. The more humans that there are, the more human activity is begotten. The population of the planet increased from five billion to seven billion people from 1986 to 2O11. That’s an increase rate of a billion people in twelve-and-a-half years. At the end of this year, the population of the planet (currently 7,923,OOO,OOO+) will be at approximately 8 billion people. This current addition of one billion more inhabitants of the planet will have taken slightly over ELEVEN YEARS to manifest. Thus, the reality is that the population of the planet has, overall, gained speed in its rate of increase. The reader ought to be given to understand that.

    St. Pope John Paul II emphasized that parental responsibility needs to be taken into account. If a society is too poor to bring forth children who are destined to be neglected, then that society needs to seek the Providence derived from fervently serving God, and that society collectively needs to reconsider its child-bearing ideas. That society needs to act with more responsibility.

    There needs to be consideration given to cultures that face virtual extinction, owing to their numerical inferiority. Godless modern societies are causing this problem to exist. Demographic pressures exerted on diminishing Western populations are — like abortion — sources of violence. Fairly soon, we might not have any modern societies, nor many inhabitants, if people don’t reorganize their priorities, and reach deeper into the search for God’s presence.

  9. The collapse of Catholic witness has many elements, many phases, many personalities, and torrents of cowardice that refuses to come to terms with its history of cowardice. It’s more than a matter of having ignored all the smug idiot “moral theologians” teaching in the name of the Church at every “Catholic” university on the face of the earth who gave every appearance of believing that the one and only purpose of moral theology was to rationalize sin, to find silly ways to construe what used to be understood as sinful as now acceptable. And if any of them found disciplining by the Church, it was only after the damage was done. No bishop would ever stand up and identify the idiot as an idiot as to announce to everyone they might have influenced not to take them seriously.
    And it was considered especially bad form to not publicly criticize let alone excommunicate a candidate for the papacy itself like the late Cardinal Martini of Milan whose depraved mind, perpetually embarrassed by Catholic truth, insisted, with hysterical urgency, that the Church embrace the sex revolution, including the crushing of the unborn if their pesky appearances became inconvenient repercussions from lots and lots of fornication. No one ever denounced him.
    An ecclesial culture habituated and so immune in its hypocrisy cannot help but ignore more recent phoniness than to affect laughter rather than respect for its moral witness throughout the world: a family synod poised to endorse gay relationships; a youth synod of the world’s prelates swaying in unison to the trash music of the unguided youth; a sex summit, allegedly about child abuse, almost entirely homosexual in nature, where no one was allowed to dare mention the word homosexuality; a synod for primitive peoples where their pagan ways are venerated and acknowledgement of their crimes against humanity, burying children alive, were forcibly repressed under a papal leadership noted for warning “not to be obsessed about abortion” and too consistently bankrupt of overall wisdom to understand its own hand in obscuring the Church’s received truth, while adopting the precursors of moral entropy, makes any showboating a wistful lament over the consequences just another moment of shamelessness.

  10. The very statement itself – people (like me) who have pets instead of children are sometimes manifesting selfishness – how silly.

    That it is the Pope who is making such statements – how sad.

    Question – is there anyone out there who can imagine ANY other Pope in memory making such statements?

    And they’ll come-a-calling for extra bux this summer.

  11. Pope Francis should be happy that people are choosing to have pets instead of children, and that the population is in decline. This trend only helps to reduce the impact of humans on the climate. After all, This is the Popes most preeminent concern. He squandered the opportunity in Laudato Si to emphasize the biblical aspect of human dominion over the earth, and to procreate. So sorry, his message falls flat.

  12. No discussion here of the possibility of living on a lower standard which would relieve pressure on the world’s resources and allow us to focus on the blessings of children and family. If we continue to insist on ‘prosperity’, then it’s a world of competition rather than cooperation, not Christian at all.

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