Scott Yenor

What to expect when nobody is expecting: population decline and the birth dearth

Scott Yenor
By Scott Yenor
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March 5, 2013 (thePublicDiscourse) - All Western countries have birthrates below the replacement rates, suggesting that soon all countries will experience a graying of, and a decline in, population. Jonathan Last asks why this has happened in his new book, the cleverly titled What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, putting demographic decline in a broader context.

Before we get to Last’s argument, we should revisit a debate between two great Enlightenment philosophers: Montesquieu and David Hume. In Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argues that ancient republics had more people than modern ones. Catastrophes aside, this lack of fecundity shows that a country is plagued with “internal vice and bad government.” The internal vices can range from a proud celibacy to a self-indulgent libertinism.

Montesquieu argued that population trajectory is partly the product of marriage laws. Ancient republics encouraged men and women to marry, and penalized bachelorhood. “Old Roman laws sought to induce the citizens to marry,” and censors were established to mind marriage mores. Roman law penalized parents without children and rewarded those with children with special honors and exemptions.

Hume accepts Montesquieu’s comparison of ancient and modern republics, but questions the reliability of the evidence from the ancient poets and historians. “In the flourishing age of the world,” he writes, “it may be expected, that the human species should possess greater vigour both of mind and body, more prosperous health, higher spirits, longer life, and a stronger inclination and power of generation.” Inventiveness and creativity and hope in a genuinely better future move human beings to live and generate. All things being equal, Hume contends, “it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there is most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be the most people.”

Giving birth, much like educating students, requires some sort of faith or hope in the future, a belief that the human condition is worth experiencing, and a confidence that one can nurture a proper environment for the education of a new life. Welcoming new life reflects openness to the gifts of life, and appreciating these is itself confirmation of a life worth living.

Hume concludes that conditions in the modern world are much better than those of the ancient world. He observes that modern political communities oppose slavery, govern by the rule of law, establish commercial relations, encourage more consensual and relatively egalitarian sexual relations, afford general protection to private property, and encourage progress in the arts and sciences. All these factors make life freer and better, and all point to the steady growth of actions leading to an increase of population. With the numbers he has access to, Hume shows that modern communities are indeed much more populous than their ancient counterparts.

Interestingly, both Hume and Montesquieu argue that Christianity tends to suppress population growth. Neither blames Christianity directly for slow growth, but each equates it with a world-denying celibacy that did much to dampen sexual interest and fecundity in late Roman and post-Roman times; modern fecundity, they seem to suggest, comes in part from embracing a worldliness that the waning of Christianity, as they see it, allows.

Enter into this debate Jonathan Last. Last synthesizes scholarly research with an engaging blend of statistics, anecdotes, and judicious observations. His is very much a book for contemporary readers, as he sympathizes with many of the advances that have, in turn, fostered population decline. I imagine Last at a coffeehouse in a toney urban neighborhood, looking out at his mini-van and wondering if he and his wife should have more children. He appreciates the pull of post-family culture, but he is still a human being in the old sense of seeing himself as part of an intergenerational compact. Neither Cassandra nor fuddy-duddy, his tone is one of detachment from the conflicts in his soul and in the American soul.

Last makes two central claims. First, he argues that declining birthrates are longstanding. At one time, most places in the world had total fertility rates of well over five children born to the average woman, but that rate has been in almost inexorable decline for hundreds of years. In part this long-term trend is due to the salutary decline in infant mortality, but Last’s second claim is that the trend has now moved way beyond that.

Today’s total replacement rates are headed dangerously south, he argues, and population decline has turned into a birth dearth. The rates are below replacement in many countries: Singapore’s is 1.1; Japan and Poland’s 1.3; Germany, Austria, and Italy’s 1.4; Russia’s 1.6; France’s 2.08; the United States’ 1.9. The number of childless women has increased dramatically over the past forty years, while families with more than three children are increasingly rare. The global nature of falling birthrates means it defies easy characterization and cannot be explained with simple causal arrows. We have a dangerous fall (to below the replacement rate) within a much larger long-term decline. Are the two declines related? Is the birth dearth merely “finishing off” what the population decline has started, or is it a new phenomenon on top of population decline?

The urgency of addressing these questions becomes evident every time we consider the wealth of nations today. Declining populations are at the root of many of our policy and social problems, Last shows. The welfare states throughout the Western world are based on the idea that the young will fund the benefits for the old, but the dearth of the young means that as debts and deficits keep rising, something has to give. Either benefits will be trimmed, or the young will have to pay an even higher portion of their income to fund their older relatives.

And as taxes rise, productivity declines. The modern economy depends on innovation and increased productivity, but, as Last argues, the few people being squeezed more and more are much less likely to take daring acts to improve our lives. There you have the contemporary American crisis of government in a nutshell.

We don’t have to travel too far to see these consequences playing out. Japan’s economic “lost decade” (still underway nearly twenty years later) is partly the result of its graying population and shrinking labor force. This same shrinkage is happening in many European countries and, probably, in the United States, where a larger proportion of our workforce is entering its post-creative years. The current “fiscal crisis” will be nothing in comparison to what it will be when our country is sustaining more retirees on fewer workers.

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Last makes a strong argument for seeing the population decline and birth dearth as intimately related. Since birth rates have been falling for at least two hundred years, we can’t simply say that innovations of the past fifty years (such as accessible contraception, legal abortion, or even the modern welfare state) are responsible. While China’s “One-Child” policy and Singapore’s feminist indoctrination programs have lowered birthrates more dramatically than American child safety seat laws (which make it harder for an average family to have lots of young children at the same time and still drive an affordable car) or the price of American homes, no particular explanation would seem to suffice if all nations are caught up in the same tide. There must be some general explanation if tyrannical control (China) and free choice (the United States) yield the same general population declines.

Last’s effort to explain this situation is provocative, especially in light of the Hume-Montesquieu debate. Whereas Hume believes modernity and its political customs foster population increase, Last blames modernity for population decline and the birth dearth. Recent population declines coincide with recent developments in family experience, loosely labeled the “decline of marriage.” As marriage rates and the marriage culture decline, divorce rates, cohabitation rates, and living-alone rates rise. There is a snowball effect as these alternatives become more attractive and marriage less normative. Childlessness is much more accepted than it once was, as are the alternatives to marriage. Birthrates are at their lowest in places where, generally, trends away from marriage are most pronounced.

This seems to be the modern tide. For Last, America’s fertility problem and the world’s fertility problem is “the result of an enormous, interconnected web of factors that constitute something like the entire framework of modern life.” Marriage and fertility are “pulled along by massive, invisible cultural undercurrents” and “disparate parts of modernity evolving independently.” Precisely what Last means by “modernity” is not clear, but while summarizing an argument from the late James Q. Wilson, he suggests that “when reason replaced religion and custom as the lodestars for human thinking, it became natural for the sacramental view of marriage to be replaced by the contractual view.”

Think of population decline and the birth dearth as aspects of this modern project. The “First Demographic Revolution,” Last shows, was one of modern science’s great accomplishments: Beginning in the 1750s, the mortality rate, and especially the infant mortality rate, started declining, a trajectory that accelerated through the 1800s. As more infants survived and life expectancy surpassed forty years, more people had longer “fertility” periods. This, as Hume observed, created what Last calls “demographic momentum,” as larger generations begat larger generations, even as each generation had, on the whole, fewer children. This, according to Last, is the population decline that most of today’s developing world is currently experiencing, as improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine span the globe.

Is there a point when such birth rates level off? Is there a natural limit to thedeclines characteristic of this “First Demographic Transition”? Last’s answer is that the First Demographic Transition started a second, one directed at controlling birth instead of limiting death and reconstructing marriage to favor individual autonomy. Here, Last intimates, the modern project turned more than a little on itself and caused a genuine demographic problem; the First Transition was mostly salutary; the second caused a much more dangerous and destabilizing plunge.

Yet those demographic transitions are united in principle, as Last’s general comments suggest. His suggestive comments force us to understand with greater depth the meaning of modernity. The heart of the modern project lies in conquering nature, in making “nature” obey the creative wills of human beings. First in defying death. Second in controlling life and in redesigning marriage, the institution capable of generating life. Contraception (which asserts a power to control birth), abortion (which asserts a power to define life), the constructivist revolution afoot in marriage (which asserts a human power to define marriage or “relationships” as whatever we wish them to be) are thinkable only in a time when we are preoccupied with making ourselves, in Descartes’s phrase, “Lords and Masters of Nature.” The Transitions are united in their aim and understanding of the world and human power.

The most respectable reason for undertaking this project is, as Last thinks, to allow individuals to actualize themselves or experience the conscious making of their own lives and life plans, which Last sees as the hallmark of the “Second Demographic Transition.” Yet the demographic collapse suggests that our mastery of our situation is not as complete as we think, which should suggest to Last the limits of modernity. Our search for autonomy and mastery over nature has led to a species of revenge from nature. Or, perhaps, our attempt to design and “control” birth can only be successful if we also must rely on nature (i.e., the natural desire for procreation), and nature in this respect seems to be letting us down, as Pierre Manent has argued. This is a problem of technology and its way of thinking; its prominence in our way of thinking is the most compelling reason to see the birth dearth as a consequence of modernity’s general population decline.

Last’s provocative book raises questions about what can be done about population decline and the birth dearth. Initial findings on efforts across the Western world to raise birthrates suggest that there is little we can do to move the needle. The most promising developments in this respect are connecting fecundity with the revitalization of faithful religious practice, as seen in Last’s fascinating discussion of the former Soviet land of Georgia. Swimming against the modern tide seems to require embracing institutions appreciative of such limits.

Scott Yenor is the department chair and a professor in the Department of Political Science at Boise State University. He is author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor University Press, 2011). This article reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse


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Hilary White Hilary White Follow Hilary

Growing ‘Women Against Feminism’ movement draws fury

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By Hilary White
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Critics of feminism have long said that it is entering the final stages of its long career, with more of its assertions about the nature of human sexual and social relations being contradicted by the evidence and fewer young people following its dictates every decade. But in the last few weeks, it seems that feminism’s last gasp is being used to direct insults at young women who are lining up to publicly reject and ridicule it.

The Tumblr site Women Against Feminism has started a social networking trend in which thousands of young women photograph themselves holding signs bluntly denouncing feminism, giving a sharp indication that the feminist brand has become poison to young, hip, and internet-savvy women.

Mainstream and journalistic feminists have lashed out at the site and its followers, entering into an online spat over the increasingly popular photos. The signs say, “I am not a victim,” and “This is what an anti-feminist looks like.”

They continue: “I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for myself and my actions. I define myself and derive my value by my own standards. I don’t need to be ‘empowered’. I am not a target for violence and there is no war against me. I respect me and I refuse to demonize them and blame them for my problems.”

The messages held by the women pinpoint with pithy and acerbic precision exactly the reasons given by many critics that the movement has lost favour with young people. They call it a creed of double standards that promotes victimhood and endorses bullying of anyone who critiques it.

The site’s explanatory page, which was taken down for unknown reasons in the last two days, said, “Feminists are the only people who lose their minds with rage when you tell them that women already have the same exact rights as men. That’s not good enough. They want more. They desperately want to be victims. They want a privileged social position.”

The author goes on to accuse feminism in general of systematic censorship, discrimination, elitism and “policing other women” who do not toe the line – as well as baseline misandry. The anonymous creator denounced feminism’s adoption of “abortion as ‘empowerment’”:

This opinion is unpopular, but I don’t agree that I need to have my baby scraped out of my uterus in order to feel empowered. But the abortion industry (i.e. Planned Parenthood) makes a ton of money off this perversion of empowerment. ‘Abortion as empowerment’ teaches women to see their wombs as nothing but garbage bins full of disposable waste.

One of the contributors wrote, “I don’t need feminism because my self-worth is not directly tied to my victim complex. As a woman in the western world I am not oppressed, and neither are you,” says one. Another: “I don’t need feminism because I don’t need to bully someone to share my opinions with others.”

Some come right out and say that feminism promotes exactly the evils it purports to fight against: “I don’t need feminism because I believe in equality, not entitlements and supremacy.”

Although the site and its contentious photos have been running around the internet for many months, arguments among journalism’s feminists started breaking out this week after a mocking Buzzfeed feature helped the site gain momentum on social media outlets.

Some feminist journalists simply flung insults. Lillian Kalish sniffed on Ryot, “These Women Who Think They Don’t Need Feminism Don’t Know What Feminism Is.” “Did these posters ever think to look up the actual definition of feminism?”

Nuala McKeever, in the Belfast Telegraph, called the women posting the photos “silly, ignorant, vacuous wee girls with absolutely no thoughts beyond their own self-absorbed inanities.”

Time Magazine’s Sarah Miller said, “I Really, Truly, Fully Hate ‘Women Against Feminism’—But…” Miller wrote, “[T]he tendency to see sexism everywhere is proof that feminism is healthy and vigilant, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, because misogyny is insidious and rampant… We need feminism.”

But Miller added, “Still, the pain that we experience as women—even physical—does not give us the right to tell people there’s one way to think or feel, or to assume that we have some god-like understanding of everyone’s motivations.”

Cathy Young, however, responded in Time, saying, “Stop Fem-Splaining: What ‘Women Against Feminism’ Gets Right.” She writes, “The charge that feminism stereotypes men as predators while reducing women to helpless victims certainly doesn’t apply to all feminists—but it’s a reasonably fair description of a large, influential, highly visible segment of modern feminism.”

The site, Young says, “raises valid questions about the state of Western feminism in the 21st Century — questions that must be addressed if we are to continue making progress toward real gender equality.”

Sarah Boesveld wrote in the National Post on Friday that the site shows that feminism has become “complicated” and “sometimes alienating.” She quotes an email sent to the paper by 22 year-old Australian Lisa Sandford, who “believes in equality for the sexes” but firmly rejects feminism as “rude and nasty” and intends to be a stay-at-home mother. 

Sandford wrote, “If feminism really accepted equality, they would not tell me my views are wrong, they would accept it and let me be.”

Browse the 'Women Against Feminism' archives here (warning: occasional strong language).


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Welcome Baby Filipino 100 Million!

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By Steven W. Mosher and Anne Roback Morse

Population Research Institute welcomes the birth of little Chonalyn Sentino. Baby Chonalyn was born this past Sunday to parents Clemente and Dailin, and was feted in the Philippines as “Baby 100 Million.” PRI welcomes Baby Chonalyn as well, saying that she will be a blessing to her family, her community, and her nation.

The Philippines is one of the largest Catholic countries in the world, and its people value children. For this reason, it has been a target of the population controllers for decades. It was one of the countries singled out by Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council in 1974 for special “attention” and, more recently, has been bullied by the Obama administration into passing its first population control law. 

The bill, which was touted as being all about promoting “reproductive health,” was actually intended to drive down the birth rate. For example, section 15 requires that all couples receive a “Certificate of Compliance” from the local Family Planning Office before becoming eligible for a marriage license.

Some in the Philippines are decrying Chonalyn’s birth, repeating USAID’s talking points about the “dangers” of overpopulation. They welcome Chonalyn as an individual little girl, while simultaneously calling for future little girls and boys to be removed from existence.

The Philippine Star wrote that the birth symbolized a “large population that will put a strain on the country's limited resources.” Another paper cited the executive director of the official Commission on Population who bluntly said “We'd like to push the fertility rate down to two children per (woman's) lifetime.” And the Global Post cited “concerned advocates” who thought the current population was not a “complement with the country's economic growth.”

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But many other Filipinos aren’t buying into the anti-people hysteria. Francisco Antonio, a Filipino Chemical Engineering graduate student at Yale, adamantly rebutted the notion that there are too many Filipinos, saying: “I celebrate life because population control is defeatism disguised as pragmatism. And because human creativity holds more potential for protecting this planet and its inhabitants than any other resource I know of.”

A Filipina currently living in California told PRI that she welcomed the transition of her country to 100 million persons: “Filipinos are not a burden to the world population, because we not only care for our own but also for others in the world. One of the greatest and most sought after exports of the Philippines is our skilled, motivated, and exemplary workforce. And these workers tirelessly cultivate their family and community abroad and in the Philippines. We are a very social and civic minded people. We care and share because it is part of our culture and we do it with a smile.”

 Ed, a Filipino accountant, also celebrated the birth of Baby Chonalyn: “The typical Filipino does not associate a baby with ‘cost’ or ‘expense’ but rather as a ‘blessing’ and a ‘gift.’ This is because Filipinos recognize that true happiness does not come from the accumulation of material wealth or prestige, but rather, from true, genuine, and strong relationships with other people. [Filipinos] value life, not because the Church says or the Pope says so, but because they recognize it to be true. And the truth about the value of life, will continue to shine, long after the debates are over.”

It goes without saying that we at the Population Research Institute also welcome Chonalyn’s birth. We need more Filipinos, not fewer. 

Reprinted with permission from Pop.org.


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Two very different ways to respond to Pope Francis’ unrecorded interviews

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By John-Henry Westen

In the last few weeks another series of interviews with Pope Francis surfaced and have again left many Catholics scratching their heads.  Headlines all over the world had the Pope saying that two percent of priests are pedophiles, but is that what he said?  Even though the Vatican spokesman did issue a clarification, that question and others remain unanswered.

Critical reactions to these interviews have been interesting not even so much for their contents as from whom they arise.  These are the observations of some of the most faithful Catholic Church watchers today.  The folks pointing out these concerns are not, as many would assume, ‘“far right-wing-holier-than-the-Pope” types, but mainstream Catholics known for their loyalty to Pope Francis.

Phillip Lawler is the founder of Catholic World News, the first Catholic news service operating on the Internet. In part of his criticism of the most recent interview, he states: “Why was Pope Francis speaking with Scalfari without having first established clear ground rules for the conversation—rules that would certainly include recording and verification of any quotes?”

(To comprehend the situation accurately it is necessary to have an understanding of the man whom the Pope has allowed to interview him.  Eugenio Scalfari is relatively unknown in the West even after the fanfare of his papal interviews. LifeSiteNews has produced this piece to assist that understanding.)

Lawler recalls: “Back in October the Vatican had been embarrassed by an ‘interview’ in which [Scalfari’s] reconstructed quotes caused an uproar, and the Vatican press office was forced to issue an awkward ‘clarification’ which only added to the confusion.”

In addition to that clarification of the October Scalfari interview, the confusion and uproar got so bad that the Vatican removed the interview from their website, where they had it posted in the section containing the Pope’s speeches. Interestingly, that interview resurfaced two weeks ago on the Vatican website only to be removed again after a new round of criticism.

A blogger at the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register offered an observation similar to Lawler’s but with a little more bite. Pat Archbold writes, “The internet is once again abuzz with the second-hand hearsay of an unrecorded Papal interview.” Archbold advises his readers with characteristic sarcasm, “So pay no attention to those crazy and outlandish anti-Catholic headlines tearing up your RSS feed.  Just ignore them and hope they will soon go away, just like unrecorded Papal interviews.”

A second unrecorded conversation with the Pope makes news

Another write-up of an encounter with Pope Francis also caused a stir.  Brian Stiller, an Evangelical leader from Toronto was part of a delegation of Evangelical Christians who met with Pope Francis earlier this month. In his July 9 account, Stiller puts in quotes this statement he attributes to the Pope: “I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community.  There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s not spend our time on those. Rather, let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”

That led noted priest-blogger Father Dwight Longenecker to first caution that the quotes are “Brian Stiller’s memory of the conversation.” 

Then with the caveat of not actually knowing the whole conversation, Fr. Longenecker says “it would not be unusual for a Catholic priest of Pope Francis’ generation to feel that way.”  He explains that he has “heard from numerous convert clergy over the years who said when they went to their local Catholic priest and expressed the wish to become Catholic the priest told them it wasn’t necessary and that they could do much more good to Christ’s kingdom and the Catholic church by staying where they were and evangelizing within their own denomination.”

“Now this strikes me as rather troublesome on several levels,” says Longenecker. He notes he had himself once used that line with a Protestant friend, to which his friend replied, “You don’t want to convert me? Why not? I don’t have much respect for your religion if you think so little of it that you don’t want me to share it!”

“He basically called me out on what was a little lie on my part. I wanted to be nice to him [so] I said I didn’t want to convert him. He said our discussion would be much better if I admitted that I did want him to become Catholic. He was right. I did. I still do.”

Inside the Vatican

Vatican journalist Edward Pentin has reported that unnamed “Vatican officials are uneasy and perplexed” about the interview. Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002 and has since covered the pope for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times.

“The officials’ discomfort also extends to the Pope’s spontaneous telephone calls to strangers, a couple of which implied he deviated from Church teaching but, being private and unrecorded conversations, are difficult to verify,” he wrote for Newsmax.

From the outset of the Francis pontificate, there were these unrecorded and yet published interviews – the first was from a meeting with Latin American religious leaders in June 2013.  That was the one that had Pope Francis speaking of the existence of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican and also about being concerned about Catholics who would count rosaries to offer prayer bouquets.

At the time LifeSiteNews published nothing on that first unrecorded interview even though almost all other news services did.  Shortly thereafter I was at the Vatican inquiring about that unrecorded but reported-on encounter and was assured by various Vatican insiders that the communication was not accidental but intended – to me at the time a rather startling revelation.

But that same assessment came later from another Vatican quarter, a man who speaks German as does the pope and also shares the pope’s religious order.  “Francis knows exactly how power is spelled,” said Bernd Hagenkord, a Jesuit who is in charge of German programming for Vatican Radio in a May interview with The Atlantic. “He’s a communicator in the league with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. They say he’s being unclear, but we know exactly what he means.”

Two different ways to respond

One of the most disturbing outcomes of these ‘interviews’ is that the words and interpretations of what is being said by the Pope, while they may be clear for the German Jesuit, are remarkably unclear for the vast majority of Catholics.  Catholics who know well their faith, its moral teachings, and the reason for them are few and far between. They are able to discern that the Pope cannot mean to undermine Church teaching; that those teachings are unchangeable.

But most people are taken in by the media’s false interpretation that ‘who am I to judge’ involves a new acceptance of homosexuality; the false possibility for legitimately-married Catholics to divorce and remarry outside the Church and still receive Communion; the idea that the Church should quiet down on her teachings on abortion, contraception, and same-sex “marriage.”  All of those false conclusions were drawn from previous Francis interviews.

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There are two ways forward for faithful Catholics in such a situation.  One way – a way that is most tempting - was recently recognized as a growing tendency by blogger Father Ray Blake. “Most Catholics but especially clergy want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church,” he said.  “Today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.”

In leading up to that observation, Blake noted that in the previous pontificate “there was a solidity and certainty in Benedict's teaching which made discussion possible and stimulated intellectual honesty, one knew where the Church and the Pope stood.”  He added, “Today we are in less certain times, the intellectual life of the Church is thwart with uncertainty.”

However, Vatican Cardinal Raymond Burke suggested a different approach recently. According to Burke, who serves as head of the Vatican’s highest court, the Apostolic Signatura, the pope has made a strategic decision to focus on making the Church appealing, and thus bishops and priests “are even more compelled to underline these teachings (on life and family) and make them clear for the faithful.”

He told EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, “The Holy Father has said on different occasions that he expects that bishops and priests are doing this teaching while he’s trying to draw people closer and not have them use [these doctrines] as their immediate excuse for not coming to the faith.”

Cardinal Burke’s strategy confronts the culture head-on even on the most difficult issues.  He sees that the often-used but failed tactic of avoiding difficult situations, of obfuscating or compromising on moral issues as worse than useless.

When truth is pushed aside for political correctness, to fulfill ideals of civility or to achieve false unity and false peace, the world is harmed by the lack of truth the Church is called to bring to it.

When truth is boldly proclaimed and held to, despite persecution, even the enemies of truth are forced to see that the opponents of their secular or liberal ideologies truly believe their teachings and are willing to suffer for them. This eventually generates a degree of respect from some of the critics and an openness to re-consider their own flawed positions.


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