The age-old and the old-age dilemma

Isn’t it true that it is people who form the age-old dilemmas that have always faced humankind?   Everything to do with people is a concern.   Their age, health, happiness, relationships, economic wellbeing, interaction with other people and intelligence matter.   In recent times, however, other matters have become a greater concern or matter of interest. e.g. people and the environment or artificial intelligence which is still inanimate although it imitates human characteristics.  As someone commented, we can clone people from their DNA, even possibly Jesus if a DNA sample can be obtained from the Turin Shroud, always assuming that it is the true burial cloth.   But a separate debate asks, “can we clone a soul?”

A major people concern in 2019 is the balance between an ageing population and children.  I was struck by an article from the BBC  It states that in the world today there are 705 million over 65 year olds, and 680 million 0-4 year olds. This is the situation mainly in developed first-world countries where already for many years countries such as Japan have been dealing with this dilemma. It is not the reality in Africa, although the birthrate has also been dropping.  Reasons for the changing balance between young and old are interesting.

  • Growing affluence, which could have meant people can afford more children, has actually reduced the desire for children.
  • A decrease in infant and child mortality, which also could have meant more children surviving, has actually resulted in a reduction in births because families no longer need all those children to support parents in their old age.
  • A major factor is the availability of birth control. This has allowed families a choice and most often it has meant reducing the number of children.  Abortion has reduced the number of babies born around the world by many millions.  In South Africa alone more than 1,5 million babies have been aborted since 1997 when abortion on demand was legalised.

Both of these realities have bowed to a particular attitude.  Can we see this as growing selfishness instead of generosity in the human family as the Church would be inclined to say?  Twenty five years ago at the 1st World Meeting of Families in 1994 which my late husband and I with a fellow family minister, Fr Francois Dufour attended, this demographic issue was first raised for me. Pope St John Paul II and Mother Teresa were present there.  His message was not to reduce the number of guests at the banquet but to increase the table and the food on offer. Has that message been accepted? Why or why not?

For some decades already there had been concern about a population explosion and genuine fear that the earth would not be able to sustain the expected population. While that concern remains, students of demographics are also seeing a different picture.  A decrease in children born and an increase in life expectancy would result in an ageing population that would no longer be as well supported by the reduced number of younger people. An example is China which because of its 1 child policy for decades to limit the population, now has a shortage of women in the child-bearing years to add to the number of children.

The imbalance of an ageing population is being experienced mainly in the more developed countries where the replacement figure of 2.1 children per woman is not being met. Migration towards these more affluent countries is a current response.  In developing countries the birthrate has dropped but is still much higher while poverty continues to exist.  Pope Francis addresses this reality in detail in his encyclical in Laudato Si. He  focuses mainly on the needs and experiences of the poor who make up the largest portion of the world population.  He writes, “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment it must be recognised that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.” LS50     

Clearly these are multifaceted concerns which the Church addresses in its social justice as well as its family life teaching. Clearly too this age-old desire for the best quality of life on the part of everyone rich and poor, young-age and old-age, underlies the dilemma the world faces more than ever today.  Clearly too it is a Lenten question. How much am I willing to share?  Would Jesus agree with Pope Francis?  TR  Family Weekly 10 April 2019

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