As a Little Sister of the Poor my life is devoted to the care of the needy elderly. As such I may seem like an odd person to comment on any aspect of Humanae Vitae, and yet that is just what the Napa Institute has asked me to do! I have been invited to reflect on no. 23 of the document, which takes the form of an appeal to public authorities to safeguard the common good by respecting the family as the primary unit in the state and enacting laws that will assist families.
I am not directly involved with families at their conception, but as an advocate for the elderly, the quality of family life is of great concern to me. Due — at least in part — to the wide use of both contraception and abortion, the birthrate in many Western nations has dropped to historic lows. The United States is hovering at the point where we are just about replacing ourselves as a society. It is widely recognized that low birth rates lead to a decreased labor supply and increased entitlement and social welfare expenses. As average household size decreases, so does the ability to care for the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable, “nonproductive” members of our families and society.
In this scenario the state needs to step in to safeguard the welfare of vulnerable individuals and family structures. And yet, in many areas we are witnessing an upsurge in legislative efforts to limit benefits to the elderly and disabled and to legalize physician assisted suicide. We can be certain that euthanasia is not far behind. This should be of concern to us all as our population rapidly ages. As Little Sisters we are acutely aware of the shortage of trained geriatric health professionals and services, especially for the disadvantaged. This situation will only worsen as more Baby Boomers age — unless programs for family caregivers are supported and individuals are given incentives to pursue careers in understaffed specialties and in geographically and economically underserved areas.
Aside from these economic realities, of equal, if not greater concern to me, are the effects of what many call the “contraceptive mentality” on our family values and human relations more generally. The contraceptive mentality fears new life as an obstacle to prosperity and personal fulfillment. It says “no” to inconvenience, pain and suffering, while promoting materialism and a self-centered concept of freedom as ultimate goods. Such a view of life is impoverished because it is ultimately closed to others. It leads to a society where we are blind to life’s deeper meaning, where we fail to embrace every individual as worthy of our support and our love simply because they are human, where we no longer know how to share in the sufferings of others through solidarity and true compassion, and where, far from offering our best efforts and resources to those in the greatest need, we look for ways to eliminate them. This is the “throw-away society” against which Pope Francis so often exhorts us to expend our best energies. Let’s do it!
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“Jesus Christ is not just a book. He was and is our brother, our Lord.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said these words to me in Rome in Nov