Jim was kind enough to point out my commentary this week, "Debt and the Birth Dearth." I posted a follow-up as well over at the Acton PowerBlog, where I point to the famous section of Luther's sermon, "The Estate of Marriage," in which he lauds parental vocation as service done to the glory of God.

In the commentary I make some comparisons with the demographic trends in Europe. These latter are well-documented and dire indeed. The United States isn't quite at that point yet, but as I note in 2010 the total fertility rate dipped below replacement levels. The Gapminder Trendalyzer tool lets us visualize some of the data. Here's the graph for total fertility in the U.S. over the last 200 years (up to 2009). If you follow the link you can use the tool to add comparative data for nations all over the world.

 Visualizing the Birth Dearth

Hunter's post yesterday reflects well on these topics, too, albeit from another angle. It's important to remember that as critical and foundational marriage and family our to our society, they too can become idols. We all have that "God-shaped" gap in the center of our existence, and no creaturely reality, no matter how wonderful in its own right, can fill that gap. Marriage simply isn't designed to bear that kind of burden. Only God can bear that burden, and Christ did so on the cross.

So as much as we rightly emphasize the central importance of the family, we must be careful not to absolutize it. Marriage and family are simply not, in and of themselves, the answers to our social and spiritual problems. We must balance, better yet relativize family as penultimate and oriented toward our love for God. This has implications too for how we treat natural institutions like the family, which are based on our natural relationships, with the institution of the Church, in which those who do the will of God become our brothers and sisters.