BUDAPEST, Hungary — Since 2015, Europe seems to have entered the continent’s long-predicted “demographic winter” — and a recent conference held at the end of last month discussed how to counter this population decline and the anti-life and anti-family mentalities that underlie it.
According to statistics provided by Eurostat Agency, Europe’s natural balance — the difference between the number of births and deaths — has been negative for the past four years. In 2017, there were 5.3 million deaths for 5.1 million births. The growing number of inhabitants on the old continent (approximately 1 million every year), is now almost exclusively due (more than 80%) to net migration.
The decline in the number of births is partly explained by the fact that women are more and more delaying childbirth: Between 2005 and 2015, the average age of women at childbirth in Europe rose from 29.5 years to 30.5 years.
Such a situation inspired a two-day international conference entitled, “Shift Towards a Family-Friendly Europe” in Budapest, Hungary, April 29-30, to discuss the different ways of supporting pro-family policies and strengthening the family institution in Europe.
Co-organized by the Maria Kopp Institute for Demography and Families (KINCS) and the Three Princes, Three Princesses Foundation, the event gathered dozens of prominent representatives of international organizations, municipalities, media and policy makers.
While introducing the discussions, Hungarian Minister of State for Family and Youth Affairs Katalin Novák highlighted the fact that Christian culture is the strongest bond that can connect the members of different nations in their cultural and political struggle to preserve family in an increasingly hostile context.
An Anti-Family Bias
“Family is no longer seen as the basis of society,” KINCS Vice President Balázs Molnár told the Register, when questioned about the causes of the demographic crisis befalling Europe, which most speakers at the conference view as a result of a deeply entrenched mentality in Europe, especially among its social elites.
“I think there is at least a bias, and sometimes even hostility, toward family,” Martin Kugler, Austrian founder of the Catholic dating website kathTreff, told the Register. “Even Christian deputies at the European Parliament often forget their original Christian-inspired values when they go to Brussels.”
That sentiment is shared by Regina Maroncelli, an Italian who serves as the president of the European Large Families Confederation. She told the Register she was advised not to use the word “family” when she went to speak to the European Parliament for the first time in 2006 on behalf of her association, as it was considered a “controversial term.”
Maroncelli also mentioned as an example of family-hostile policies that, in Italy, baby diapers are considered a luxury product and consequently have a “Value Added Tax” rate of 22%, whereas truffles, the luxurious food item, are taxed at 5%. “This hostile mentality comes from a cultural behavior which goes back to the ’60s and ’70s,” she said. “Whereas in several parts of the world, people have started understanding the crucial dimension of family to shape a social fabric, Europe seems to be frozen in that old 1968 ideology.”
According to most speakers at the conference, one of the side effects of the “individualistic culture” deriving from the sexual revolution of 1968 is that people tend to see family as a burden. This attitude is especially prevalent among young women, who are constantly encouraged to focus on their careers before thinking of having children. They then may find themselves delaying motherhood for so long that they may only conceive one child, if they conceive at all.
But the roots of such a culture go back further than that, according to Antoine Renard, the president of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe, who sees part of their origin in the very influential United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
“The Church that took part in the drafting of the declaration, through Jacques Maritain notably, wasn’t able to introduce the notion of transcendence as the foundation of human dignity,” he said, adding that the 1952 European Convention of Human Rights made things worse.
“Today, the European Court of Human Rights says it has the mission to interpret the convention in light of the evolution of society. So we have an incredibly individualistic interpretation of human rights nowadays, and family bears the brunt of it, as it has less and less room in European policies,” Renard said. “In 1965, the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes already warned us of the fact that if human rights were not enlightened by transcendence, they could become a threat to the human person.”
The link between the anti-family bias and the progressive weakening of Christian culture in Europe underpinned the reflections of most panel discussions of the conference. More specifically, the “anti-spiritual” approach of many European authorities is said to have caused the loss of the family institution. “We are the only animal species that tries to stop reproducing itself, the only species that doesn’t think about its survival and even tries to disappear,” Maroncelli said. “Those who believe in family have faith in a future, a transcendent future.”
Indeed, as Stéphane Buffetaut, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee and on the board of the Thomas More Institute, points out, policies promoting higher birth rates that lack a spiritual foundation can also be dangerous, as it is the case for some dictatorial regimes that use children as economic or military cannon fodder.
“The only alternative is an authentically human vision of society — that is a Christian vision,” he told the Register. “Only the Church can re-evangelize and thus restore a sense of family. And if there definitely is a pervading Christianophobia in Western Europe, it is not the case in Central and Eastern Europe. This is why we truly need international synergies” to achieve this Christian vision for all of Europe.
Continuing Desire for Children
According to recent surveys, the desire for children in Europe is still high, and women actually have fewer children than they ideally would like to have because of social, economic or cultural constraints. “I believe it is possible to make things change and to introduce new policies,” said Raul Sanchez, secretary-general of the European Large Families Confederation.
“A wind of change and renewal is blowing across several countries like Hungary, Poland, Italy and now Lithuania, and even in the Balkan countries, and I am sure other countries will follow, because we know things must change to ensure the future of our continent,” Sanchez told the Register. “The 21st century will certainly be the century of the family revolution, and the current political reactions across Europe are a natural consequence of this lack of space for families at a time of demographic winter and welfare system crisis.”
But if Christianity is the best antidote to postmodern individualism and relativism, it is necessary for Christians to be more represented in influential spheres of society, in order to better promote the beauty of its message on the meaning of life. In the opinion of Martin Kugler, the re-emergence of a strong Christian cultural elite in Europe is a real priority to face the anti-family bias of the current cultural elite. These people, according to Kugler, don’t represent the majority of European people — who long for a change in the paradigm.
Indeed, as Kugler points out, Christians know better than anyone that independence cannot be the aim of human existence, but Christians are also usually quite reluctant to enter the public square or take the political stage.
“They prefer to take care of their families and businesses, and perhaps they don’t understand that doing politics is not limited to a parliament,” he said. “Being on the public stage can also mean being more present in public debates, in the media, as a teacher, a journalist or as an artist, for instance.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.