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Can the Vatican Save Social Security?

Have you ever wondered about the Pope’s influence on U.S. social security?

October 11, 2000

Have you ever wondered about the Pope's influence on U.S. social security?

For a nation to have an increasing population, it is generally necessary for its citizens to be, well, having sex and making babies. Since the last of the Baby Boomers were born in the mid-1960s, the United States as a whole, while probably doing plenty of the former, has been doing increasingly less of the latter.

The result: Social Security will be pushed to the brink of insolvency by the 2030s, because relatively few workers will be around to support the aging Boomers in retirement. Naturally, the current proposals to shore up Social Security do little to address this underlying demographic shortcoming. In the post-Monica Lewinsky era, no candidate in his right mind would come out for a “pro-sex” initiative. Besides, it is probably overestimating the candidates’ persuasive abilities to assume they could actually influence such an intimate part of people’s lives.

Thus, enter the Vatican. The leaders of the Catholic Church in Rome have enjoyed considerable influence over how Americans think about sex. After all, about a third of the U.S. population is Roman Catholic — and most Americans, regardless of religion, look upon the Church as a important moral authority.

For its part, however, the Vatican seems to have a rather ambivalent position on the matter — at least when you take a very long view of history.

Certain things, such as adultery, have of course always been taboo. But the Church, from its beginnings, made no official statement on sex for three centuries. The axe finally fell at the Council of Elvira in Spain in the early 300s. There, the Church cracked down on a troublesome practice among its priests. In its Canon XLIV, the Council stated that a priest who slept with his wife the night before Mass would be defrocked.

Since those early days, the Church’s influence over sexual practices has become far more pervasive and controversial. During the last century, the Vatican had to deal with increasingly efficient forms of birth control, including the pill and mass-manufactured condoms. As recently as 1993, in the encyclical Veritas Splendor, Pope John Paul II strongly reaffirmed the Church’s opposition to the use of artificial contraceptives.

Nevertheless, it would appear that Spain and Italy — countries with predominantly Catholic populations — have chosen to ignore the Pope’s proclamation. Spain and Italy have the lowest birth rates in Western Europe — so low that their populations are projected to shrink dramatically over the next fifty years. That makes one suspect that the notion of birth control is alive and well in these countries.

Or, as an alternative explanation, it could simply be that Italians and Spaniards rarely ever have sex. But that is hard to, well, conceive. After all, these are the countries that gave the world Casanova and Don Juan, the most famous paramours in history and literature.

That leaves the Catholic Church in a rather awkward position. But a turn of history some 500 years ago may yet pay off for the Church — and for the United States’ beleaguered Social Security system. The Spanish colonization of Latin America may well been a boon for both.

For the Vatican, the prospects of losing more and more of its faithful in Europe might actually be offset by increases in Latin America and the United States. The United Nations projects that the populations of Italy and Spain will decrease significantly over the next fifty years (and France, Europe’s other predominantly Catholic country, will stay level). The story is so different in the New World that the colonization of the Americas (which began with Spain in the 15th century) could almost be seen as a well-conceived gambit to keep the flock growing.

In the United States, Hispanics — who are overwhelmingly Catholic — represent the most rapidly growing segment of the population. Between 1995 and 2000, the Hispanic population grew by 19% — a rate 17 percentage points higher than the non-Hispanic white population. It would appear that Hispanics, unlike their cousins in Europe, do indeed pay heed to the Pope’s words — in deed if not in spirit. Be fruitful and multiply? No problem!

For both the leaders of the Church in Rome and the politicians in Washington, this trend should provide a bit of relief. Rome won’t need to fret so much over its dwindling flock in Europe. And with a future supply of workers and taxpayers, Washington will have one less thing to worry about when it finally gets around to fixing Social Security.