A wise priest once told me that, in this day and age, having children seems like an act of insanity. It appears foolishly audacious, he said, to bring new life into such a dark world of suffering, evil, and injustice. Yet, he explained, it is precisely this kind of foolishness that is built on the defiant hope of the Gospel. Without believing that God has not abandoned us, how could one justify having children?
Judging by the existence of BirthStrike, a growing movement of women who are choosing not to have children as a way to protest the climate crisis, it seems that many can’t.
When I heard about BirthStrike founder Blythe Pepino’s decision to be childless in spite of her desire to be a mother, I didn’t find her fear of environmental disaster unreasonable. I’m a millennial. My children’s lives will be affected by the climate crisis. As a mother of four young kids, I would be lying if I did not admit that this reality causes significant dread as I look toward their future. I find the evidence pointing toward climate catastrophe both credible and demanding of a radical response. Still, the question whether or not you should accept the scientific consensus on environmental issues is outside the scope of this short essay.
Instead, I want to explain why—even though I sympathize with the fears of the BirthStrikers—I think their form of protest is deeply flawed. Although they don’t realize it, their movement reveals that our culture is reaching the depths of despair. We are beginning to embrace the suicide of the human race itself. If an environmental crisis will cause humanity to suffer, the reasoning goes, it is better to accept the bleak, dying world of Children of Men than to bring more children into it.
As Christians, we are called to something more. Our response to this disaster must not give in to despair or fall into the utilitarian trap of weighing every choice on the scales of pleasure versus suffering. Instead, we must bear witness to the inherent goodness of existence, which transcends such rubrics. We must give a hope-filled, Christian response to this question whether or not to bring new life into a crumbling world.
Hope: The Christian Response to Suffering
Giving birth has always been an audacious act. Throughout the course of human history, there have always been suffering, disasters, and looming crises—or, as Jesus put it, “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6).
Yet, in the past one hundred years, humanity has faced for the first time not merely great suffering around the globe, but the possibility of complete global destruction. The threat of nuclear war (which at times has been not merely a remote possibility but an immediate danger) and now the climate catastrophe mean that, while suffering has always walked alongside man, the scale of the threat has changed. Thus, dismissing the anxieties of the BirthStrikers by noting there have always been reasons not to have children isn’t a sufficient response. A Christian’s response to the possibility of suffering—whether it manifests as a painful disease, the fall of the Roman Empire, or global environmental crisis—cannot be trite.
In fact, the answer we have been handed down from Christian tradition is deep and rich, but it is not easy to understand. What we must look to is the complicated and often misunderstood virtue of hope.
Of the three theological virtues, I find hope to be the most difficult to define, especially because it is often mistakenly portrayed as a sunny attitude of optimism. It is nothing of the sort. Hope is intimately connected to the virtue of faith. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in the encyclical Spe Salvi, in many biblical passages “faith” and “hope” are used almost interchangeably.
Hope acknowledges that we as individuals and the grand story of God’s redemption of the world are both works in progress. Hope is born out of the reality that we are pilgrims “on the way,” as twentieth-century Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper put it. It is the virtue that recognizes that we are in motion toward our destination but have not yet arrived. We live in the “not yet,” hoping for the completion of what God has promised us. Pieper explains that the proper nature of man is to be created out of nothing and yet to be moving toward existence.
Despair and Presumption
Movement toward nothing, an apt description of BirthStrike’s suicidal nihilism, is the sin of despair. Yet despair is not the only way to miss the mark in cultivating the virtue of hope. True Christian hope is not merely finding the silver lining. It is not found in a failure to accept reality or sticking one’s head in the sand in the face of looming disaster. Such an attitude is presumption, what St. Augustine calls a “perversa securitas.” Or, as Pieper explains in his treatise On Hope, presumption is when “man’s desire for security is so exaggerated that it exceeds the bounds of reality.” As Christians, we cannot ignore reasonable evidence for impending disaster because we don’t want to face the music. And we cannot call our delusions hope.
Imagine J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters Samwise and Frodo neglecting their mission to take the ring of power to destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom and instead staying in the Shire. “After all, Sauron is so far away,” they might say. “Surely nothing bad could happen to us here.” That would be not hope but madness. Instead, hope is the virtue that gave them courage to carry out their mission—which very well might have ended in death and disaster—when the situation was dire.
Unlike despair and presumption, hope is not paralyzing. It propels our movement toward our destination. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, it is the virtue that gives one “the courage to act and to persevere.” As Christians, we are called to authentic hope for things unseen; we are called to faith. This true hope when all seems dark is exemplified by Old Testament giants of the faith. Figures like Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, and Moses had faith in God so great that it was powerful enough to stop “the mouths of lions.” They followed the call to participate in the redemption of the world. They followed even when it was unclear how God would save His people. They fell into neither despair nor delusion. Instead, their faith led them to an active hope.
Love and Responsibility
If we do not accept the reality of Christ crucified and resurrected, how can we navigate a world of suffering? Without belief that Love “moves the sun and the other stars,” as Dante put it, we are resigned to an existence tossed about by the meaningless winds of chaos.
We must trust that, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, “Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will, there is a Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.” Indeed, the only way we can take the leap to bring children into this world of environmental disaster, opioid crisis, abortion, murder, and sexual abuse is by believing that we and our children will never be abandoned by God, regardless of how we may (and will) suffer.
Trusting that we are not abandoned by God saves us from despair, but it does not let us off the hook in our responsibility to care for our common home, the earth, and our call to participate in God’s work in the world. Although we know that God has promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail over the Church, ignoring the Church’s problems and choosing inaction is not faith, but delusion. Instead, we have to work toward improving the Church and bringing renewal. The same kind of action, born from hope rather than paralyzed by presumption or despair, is required of us in facing environmental disaster.
The Courage to Conquer Despair
As we look around us at all the broken things facing our world, we may desperately wish, as Frodo did in The Fellowship of the Ring, that “it need not have happened in my time.” But that is not something we can control. Wise Gandalf responded to Frodo, “So do I . . . and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” We may be grieved to see the evil of the world around us, but the virtue of hope offers the courage to conquer despair and say, as St. Joan of Arc did, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this!”
St. Joan followed Christ to her martyrdom, and as Christians we believe her fate was the result of living a life full of hope. But St. Joan’s relentless pursuit of God looks like madness to the world. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, “The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” The new life he speaks of is, of course, the spiritual life of being raised with Jesus Christ in the glory of his Resurrection. But this gift of new life might also be manifested as a tiny baby, born into a world that seems dark, a world that is dark.
This is the gift that God gave humanity when Jesus was born as Love Incarnate, a helpless infant who would be hunted by a murderous king. This baby would grow to be a man who was executed and tortured although He committed no crime. And yet, the last word of His story was not death. It was written by the hand of Love. This Love makes existence itself truly good, even in a hurting world.
The BirthStrikers’ protest may be inspired by genuine concern for the children they will never have and the world they see falling to pieces. Yet, ultimately, it is motivated by despair. As Christians, we can choose not to accept the suicide of the human race and instead to raise children who will fiercely protect God’s creation. We can live out a protest of defiant hope in our suffering world. What holier protest against evil is there than the glory of new life? Each baby is hope incarnate. Perhaps the most courageous protest we can make in a dark world is to fill the darkness with the light of new life.