My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
The people of ancient Sparta were known for their valor, virtue and devotion in the Greek Golden Age. When I was in high school seminary, I learned about the notion of arete as taught by the ancient Greeks. In its basic sense, arete means excellence of any kind. This notion of excellence was ultimately related to one’s sense of fulfillment of purpose or function. Sometimes translated as “virtue,” arete can also be understood in the sense of “being the best you can be,” or “reaching your highest human potential.”
Unfortunately, these noble people also had a dark side. The Spartan government was founded on the principle that the life of every individual, from the moment of birth, belonged absolutely to the state. In their quest for physical perfection among their citizens, the elders of Sparta inspected the newborn infants and ordered that the weak and unhealthy ones be left to die. By this practice Sparta hoped to ensure that only those who were physically fit would survive.
Why did the great civilization of classical Sparta disappear? One of the reasons was that Sparta suffered for years from what historians called oliganthropia, or having too few men. We should keep that in mind as western cultures in Europe and North America currently are not producing enough children to replace those who die. This fact is somewhat ironic in the face of popular misconceptions that the problem is overpopulation.
In the 1990s, European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the continent largely due to a sharply falling birthrate. A 2002 study by Italian, German and Spanish social scientists reported that birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. This number had a special mathematical significance. The figure of 2.1 is widely considered to be the "replacement rate" — the average number of births per woman that will maintain a country's current population level. Below that rate, a country's population would diminish to a point from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. Some countries, such as the United States, have been able to maintain population stability or even growth despite the low fertility rate because they have relatively high rates of immigration. But this can't last forever. Ultimately fertility rates will have to rise or population will begin to fall.
We ignore these trends at our own peril. The people of ancient Sparta, the classical Roman Empire, and Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs probably thought their civilizations would last forever. But recent trends of dissolution in our American culture our disturbing. A report issued last December said that more than half of the children born in the United States to women under the age of 30 were born out of wedlock. This is troubling because a civilization needs a strong family life to survive. This means families with a married mother and father.
The recent mandate from the federal Department of Health and Human Services that will require the inclusion of contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs to be covered in all health insurance programs has brought the Catholic Church's teaching about contraception to prominent attention. While the real issue involved in this mandate is government interference with religious liberty, this national attention to the subject of contraception provides us with a good opportunity to look more closely at what the church teaches about this and why.
The Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraception is wrong, but planning the size of one's family can be done with natural family planning. In his 1968 encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), Pope Paul VI wrote that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. ... The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life — and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman."
Pope Paul made four predictions about what would happen if the church's teaching on artificial contraception were ignored: infidelity and moral decline, lost respect for women, abuse of power by government authorities mandating contraception and sterilizations, and the misconception that men and women have unlimited dominion over their own bodies. Unfortunately, these predictions have all come true!
But Pope Paul VI also had some positive predictions as well. He acknowledged that spouses might have difficulty in acquiring the self-discipline necessary to practice the methods of family planning that require periodic abstinence. But he taught that self-discipline was possible, especially with the help of sacramental grace. He wrote that "the discipline which is proper to the purity of married couples, far from harming conjugal love, rather confers on it a higher human value. It demands continual effort yet, thanks to its beneficent influence, husband and wife fully develop their personalities, being enriched with spiritual values. Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace; and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility."
Lent is a time to turn our hearts to the Lord. It is time to embrace the church's teaching about the transmission of human life with greater fidelity. Our future depends on it.
May God give us this grace. Amen.