In 1968, a Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-seller entitled, “The Population Bomb.” The premise: We have surpassed the ability of the earth to sustain life on Earth with our current rate of population growth. Ehrlich predicted that by 1990, half of Americans would die of starvation because there would be too many mouths to feed and not enough food. India and China would simply die out, as would England, all by the year 2,000. To stave off the population explosion, he argued, forced sterilization was justifiable and necessary. Compulsory abortion, too, was offered as a “solution to the problem.” After all, these things were the only way to prevent the future lives and mouths to feed that would, in his view, so overburden our fragile world. “Coercion?” he wrote, “Perhaps. But coercion in a good cause.”
“Indeed, it has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society.”
I grew up as a very fearful and anxious kid. I worried about everything–breaking down in a car away from home on family vacation, global warming, scarcity of resources, overpopulation — you name it. I was elected our high school’s Environmental Club president my senior year, and spent much of that time raising awareness about the extinction of bison in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s fair to say that I was the kind of young man who was all-too-aware of the kinds of issues Ehrlich wrote about in his book. There was a sense of urgency and panic over all of it unless drastic measures were taken, right now, to save our planet. If you would have asked me if the “solutions” proposed by Ehrlich in The Population Bomb–abortion, forced sterilizations, and population control–were justifiable, well, I would have told you to just look at the alternative. We didn’t really have a choice. As Ehrlich admitted in later years, “I expressed more certainty because I was trying to bring people to get something done.” The book sold 2 million copies, and despite its dire, hysterical warnings about impending doom, there are still a great many people alive today to read it — should they choose to waste their time in that way.
Fear is a strong motivator, and often leads to terrible decision making. We’ve seen this play out in abundance in 2020, but to remove ourselves from the debate over the present situation, it was only a few years ago that the news was streaming with alarm bells about the Zika virus and its threat to pregnancy. In the U.S., according to a Harvard poll, 59% of Americans believed abortion should be permitted after 24 weeks if there is a “serious possibility of microcephaly due to Zika. Demand for abortion more than doubled in Brazil and Equador. Even so, the alarmism outpaced the reality, with tragic consequences: Of the 628 abortion requests in Brazil attributed to Zika concerns, only six to 83 children would have actually been affected. In other words, for every possible child affected with microcephaly, 7 to 113 unaffected pregnancies would have ended in abortion due to fear of the virus. Fear of the unknown was used to justify a fearsome, horrible response.
I came into the Catholic Church at age 18 after a ransoming conversion at the hands of the Lord a year or so prior. I distinctly remember walking down the aisle of the small Byzantine parish in rural Pennsylvania to receive the Lord in the Eucharist for the first time, and likening it to getting married and committing to an unknown and unknowable future. My faith was the size of a mustard seed, it would grow as the years went on; my fear of uncertainty, my anxiety, the depression that was so prevalent in my life before conversion gradually gave way to faith and trust. The Lord would not abandon me, and I, for my part, would not abandon His Bride — ‘til death do we part.
When my wife and I were married, in the same vein as my parents, we established that divorce was never an option for us. There was no concession talk; no recourse to a “Plan B.” I think not having that option on the table has been beneficial for our marriage. Truth be told, we might not have looked at things this way if not for the Church’s teaching on the matter. But because of that teaching, we have faith such a thing is not in God’s plan, for as Jesus said to those asked if it was lawful to divorce one’s wife, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female…therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:4-6). We are in a valid sacramental marriage until death, so we are forced by necessity to work out whatever difficulties we must, because there’s simply no other option we would even consider. Marriage is hard enough without the temptation of divorce when things get hard – and for most people they will get hard, at least some of the time.
This is why we make vows. They are the ropes we use to have our deckhands bind us to the mast when the song of sirens tempts us to run our ship aground. We don’t need vows when we are satisfied, in love, well off, in good health. We need them when everything within is wants to flee what has gone wrong; when we are on our feet and headed for the door. When the option to split, to go around a problem, is taken off the table, we are forced to forge ahead and confront, fight, and even die for what we have vowed to do and be: that is, to remain faithful. To retain fidelity in trying circumstances can feel, quite literally, as if you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23:4). We are, like St. Paul, given the grace that is sufficient for us (2 Cor 12:9), moment to moment, step by step.
There is a reason why we are not shown our lives in their entirety, but only by way of initial deposit: if we all knew what awaited us when we stood at the wedding altar, the trials we would undergo, the disappointments–would we have still said, “I do?” The Lord, when He calls us to Himself, likewise inebriates us with the potency of His love and truth to leave our trifles behind and walk by faith. He counsels us to count the cost of building the tower (Lk 14:28) without knowing exactly what it will be used for or how long it will take.
There was a time in my life, and even early in our marriage, when the apprehension of bringing children into an uncertain and tumultuous world gave me pause. Perhaps this was a residual effect of my early environmentalism and fear about scarcity. God in His mercy did not allow me to stay in such a place, as He is not a God of scarcity, but fills cups to overflowing (Ps 23:5).
Today, even more so, we live in uncertain times. Why is this anything new? We have not resisted unto blood (Heb 12:4); whether we like or not, we are being led out of comfortable complacency so that our faith is a stark choice between extremes: will we deny him before men? Will we trade the worship of the Living God for idols? Will we acquiesce under temptation, or soft persecution, should the political situation we are given is not favorable to us as Christians? Will we surrender our beliefs even if we face red martyrdom?
In many ways, the uncertainty is so dark, so seemingly monumental, that we have no choice but to move through it in deep faith, with eyes rooted on the Cross. Trying to skirt or avoid it will only bring another kind of suffering; worse, if we abandon that Cross, we would be burdened with the added desolation of apostasy. Like a husband or wife who clings to their vows during the dark night of a troubled marriage–one that may be plagued by bankruptcy, illness, the loss of a child, or other seemingly insurmountable obstacles–we are called as Christians to go straight forward through these dark valleys, one foot in front of the other, following Christ. When he withdraws himself even more and seems to have abandoned us to death, it is only to strengthen our faith which must be forged by fire. We can only enter into the unknown because of Who we know.
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Pt 1:6-9)
Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds an MA in Theology from Villanova University. He has appeared on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” and has written for various Catholic publications. He blogs at Pater Familias.