Mark Regnerus
Professor of Sociology, University of Texas (USA)
President, Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture*



Greetings. Just last week, Pope Francis stated that «we live in a social climate in which starting a family is turning into a titanic effort, rather than a shared value that everyone recognizes and supports». It was a bit of a change from his words in Amoris Laetitia, where he claimed that «the desire to marry and form a family remains vibrant, especially among young people».

We are trying to get people to do four things that they have almost always done without really needing much encouragement. That is, (1) to marry (and stay married), (2) make babies, (3) enjoy friendships, and (4) care for aging parents. We’re talking about what was long understood as the most elemental ‒ and therefore, expected and commonplace ‒ aspects of human social life. But all of these indicators have slipped. And the young are increasingly stressed and depressed. (I’m not surprised.)

What can one say about this topic ‒ the recession in marriage and childbearing ‒ that hasn’t already been said? What can scholars offer that could possibly motivate or alter a trajectory that almost everyone can perceive as a problem but can do nothing about? Too many talk about policy. Even the Holy Father last week spoke of the need for “forward-looking policies…” We do so because it would seem that here is the one thing that can change behavior and affect everyone. Maybe, but I doubt it. Nations are far better at legislating their way into a culture problem, not out of one. Policies aimed at boosting a population have almost always failed to deliver, always cost a great deal of money, and typically become politically expedient ‒ meaning they garner votes more than they solve problems. Let me discuss one example of this.

In Poland, a country I admire, the ruling party (PiS) proposed the “500+ program” to subsidize a second and subsequent child, only to find that it was politically popular, which convinced them to shift toward subsidizing all families at a per-child rate:

What the Polish policy has going for it is that it is a direct subsidy…straight into the accounts of parents. That is optimal. What undermines it is its inefficiency. According to the Polish government:

The number of babies born in 2016 was approximately 13,000 higher than in 2015. This increase in the number of births can be, at least in part, ascribed to the Family 500+ program[1].

But from 2019 through 2022 , their fertility rate has risen from 1.44 to 1.47 births per woman ‒ hardly a surge. Basically, Poland is paying 2.6 million families while claiming that one-half of one-percent of them might have been motivated in part by the Family 500+ program to have an additional child in the past year. That amounts to five additional children across 1,000 families of childbearing age. It’s expensive. It’s nice. It helps families. What it will not do is grow the population in a significant, sustainable way.

So…how does a nation grow its population in a significant, sustainable way? That is the challenge. To those who believe that life with children is a fuller, richer one, no money is needed. To those who are skeptical, no amount of money is ever enough.


If you are able to visualize the fertility rates of nations in eastern, southern, and central Europe, as in the above slide, you’re able to understand something of why there is a culture problem. This result is not due to COVID, a bad economy, a lack of direct subsidy, or war. Those don’t help, of course, but they don’t hurt as much as people think. No, people are technologically able to suppress their own fertility and have done so for decades and will continue to do so. Fertility is a biological process but one that is very sensitive to cultural and technological forces.

Look at how an entire set of nations coalesced into essentially one fertility culture in the years after 1990, and have tracked tightly together since 2000, with only a bit of spread of late. It cannot be blamed on post-communist or free-market capitalist economies. Both are exhibited in this cluster of country-specific rates.

The French, not portrayed here, have a slightly better situation. Some wonder whether it’s only due to immigration. Census data there reveal that native-born and immigrant women had, on average, 1.8 and 2.6 children. But since the former far outnumber the latter, immigrant fertility adds very little to the birthrate there[2].

Fertility preferences ‒ not displayed here ‒ come in two forms: the number of children a woman thinks she wants, which is typically more than she ends up having[3]. This is the one that scholars talk about. But there’s another form of fertility preference that is almost never discussed. It’s the number of children women can be convinced to have ‒ even to desire ‒ if they are part of a community comprised of likeminded women who show each other the way. In other words, fertility preferences are not fixed, but rather malleable. It is context-dependent. Prudent nations should be skeptical about spending money on fertility directly because the cost of doing so is excessive compared to the benefit it yields. Rather, it is the culture around childbearing that matters. But you cannot pay for culture change.

And it’s not just me that thinks so. Brown University demographers, seeking to understand the lowest-low Italian fertility rates, compared economic and cultural explanations, and demonstrably sided with the cultural. They conclude:

«…the clear importance of regional differences and of secularization suggests that such an explanation is at best incomplete and that cultural and ideational factors must be considered»[4].

And…«theorists pointed to a shift in cultural values linked both to a move away from familism toward self-realization and a shift from religious attachments toward secularism».

This makes sense. Having children is about believing in something higher than the self. So there’s a religious aspect to it.

And yet there’s the technology to prevent and end pregnancy decisions about the availability of which is in turn political in nature. (In the US, BC is about to be made available OTC…) And we’re pretty proficient at helping enable pregnancy later in a woman’s fertility career. So a mindset of fertility limitation dominates.


Parents, once an elemental part of aiding their children’s own family formation, are now most commonly part of the problem rather than a resource. This (slide) is a stunner to me in the United States.

Parental priorities are now material and economic, not family. It suggests we parents have become utterly ideologically captured by the market and by the piece of conventional wisdom that without a college degree, you’re economically doomed and apt to be profoundly unhappy.

So…what else slows marriage? Endemic uncertainty among couples: a psychological phenomenon. Where did that come from? In theory, uncertainty could just as well urge couples forward toward commitment as slow them down. The prospect of relationship security, sharing living expenses, and boosting collective income should help[5]. In other words, committing should diminish uncertainty. But this is not how most men and women perceive marriage anymore. Delay is a far more common response to uncertainty than acceleration, and it is happening, notwithstanding generally improved economic conditions, the dramatic reduction in extreme poverty worldwide, diminishing family size, and an enduring longing to know and be known[6]. Why?

Because marriage is now widely understood as a “capstone” rather than a “foundation”[7]. (See slide below.) Our common mentality about marriage has actually reversed. Marriage is now something individuals aspire to, rather than something a couple enters in order to help them fulfill their aspirations. It sounds noble, but it signals a profound reversal of confidence in what marriage does. My 24-year-old son is getting married two weeks from tomorrow, and while I’ve always known he has potential, I’m quite sure that marriage and children are the two things that will call him forth from service of self to that of others. They will struggle, but we can help out if needed. They’re an increasingly rare example of a foundational marriage, not simply because of their age but because of what they will do together rather than apart.



The terms themselves are illustrative: A capstone is the finishing touch of a structure. It’s a moment in time. A foundation, however, is what a building rests upon. A foundation is essential; a capstone, not so much. A foundation is necessarily hard-wearing. A capstone is an accessory that can be replaced if necessary. When marriage was considered foundational to the adult life course, more people entered into matrimony and did so earlier than they do today (typically by several years). There was an emphasis on building something together: a family, a household, perhaps career and financial success. Foundational marriages were commonly characterized by love but were intended to be practical.

Now parents advise their children to finish all of their education, launch their careers, and to become financially independent, since dependence is understood as weakness. We now get ourselves ready for marriage, rather than marrying in order to accomplish common objectives. Instead, marriage itself has become one of those objectives, an accomplishment in itself, signaling that they have “made it.” This perspective is now by far the most common today in the West and has made significant inroads past the West.

Julia, a 24-year-old we interviewed (for last book) worked in the legal department of a manufacturing company and was emphatic about the new model of marriage: «People don’t want to get married until they have a well-paid job….You have to gain credentials, a well-paid job to make your family happy. Happiness is fully based on the economic factor». In Julia’s experience, it’s not just your finances but your very character that is reflected in your job position: «It is said that a mature person has to be self-reliant. Self-reliance is synonymous only with a good post [job]. A minor post in civil service, in the office, is not so much appreciated anymore». To which I wonder: so should a man or woman in a minor post never marry? It would be unthinkable of us to say so, and historically unheard of, but it’s what we are implying.

The new model doesn’t mean people are better at marriage. If anything, it may be the other way around. One of my interviewees asserted, «In the past, in my opinion, relationships were more mature than today». Julia herself, too: «My father has always told me that he started with my mother from the beginning. They’ve achieved something». It rubbed off on her: «You mustn’t wait with that [marriage] till you’re 30 and get your dream job. I think it’s worth going through next stages with that chosen person».

Thinking of marriage as a capstone to a successful young adulthood is considered a safety mechanism, reinforcing the independence of the spouses rather than encouraging their interdependence. These are two adults who don’t need each other. But they want each other.

I cannot overemphasize how monumental, consequential, and subtle this cultural shift is. Marriage is morphing away from being a populist institution ‒ a social phenomenon in which most of the world’s adults participated and benefitted ‒ to becoming an elite, voluntary, consumption-oriented, temporary arrangement. As one demographer observes, «owning a home, a car, or having some savings becomes a way to cross a symbolic boundary and qualify for marriage»[8]. If you can’t afford these things, the thinking goes, then you aren’t ready for marriage. As another demographic study’s authors put it, «Marriage, but not cohabitation, requires economic and residential independence, which boils down to having enough money»[9].

It is no surprise, then, that we observe growing inequality in the West, prompted in part by the marital divide between rich and poor. The advantaged consolidate their wealth and income by a marriage between two successful people, while the disadvantaged are left without even the help of each other. The capstone vision has turned marriage into an unaffordable luxury good. It may sound outlandish, but it’s not: marriage is the real social justice issue of our time.

The capstone vision of marriage has become a Western export, too. But the capstone vision doesn’t travel alone. It arrives ‒in the words of demographer Arland Thornton ‒ as part of a cultural and political “package of ideas” that imply that prosperity and power will follow upon the adoption of Western family ‒ and marital ‒ expression norms, timing, and forms[10]. Such developmental idealism, Thornton notes, can collide with powerful indigenous social and cultural systems with competing visions for family and social life. Pope Francis reserves harsh words for what he calls “ideological colonization”. “There is a global war trying to destroy marriage”, he claimed in 2016, one fought not “with weapons, but with ideas[11].

In step, material expectations have surged in a rapidly globalizing world in which media readily displays how the other half lives. In some places, unreasonably high lifestyle standards are framed as the result of Western exports: new, nonnative norms increasingly corrosive to marital life. One Lebanese man we interviewed noted, «People are trying to apply the European lifestyle», which he claimed concerns the pursuit of money and pleasure. He impugns his fellow Lebanese Christians who «think this lifestyle is the correct one», «We want to imitate the West», he observed, «thinking the Western people are right and we are wrong». Magdalena, a 21-year-old recently married woman, echoed his thoughts, saying that «Western ideologies that are imposed on our system of beliefs are trying to destroy our concept of family»[12]. Likewise, Paweł ‒ a 24-year-old graduate student there ‒ had little love for relationship advice coming from the West (i.e., “the U.S., U.K., and France”): «A lot of Catholics (in Poland) don’t realize this, or even if they do, they think those patterns that come from the outside are good», John, a 20-year-old Catholic college student in Lagos, blames globalization for the marital recession he perceives in Nigeria: «People are getting accustomed to the culture of other people so well that they are adapting so easily to them» and in so doing, “forgetting” their own cultural heritage. He went on to highlight America as an example of an exporter of relational norms that were never native to Nigeria. In other words, the Pope was right about ideological colonization.

Men and women have historically responded to temporarily tough economic times by delaying marriage and childbearing. What today’s couples seem uninterested in doing, however, is lowering their material expectations. If you can achieve it, you should pursue it—this is the mentality, and it’s a sign of the capstone standard’s primacy. In the foundational vision, being newly married and poor was difficult, expected, and (typically) temporary. In the capstone standard, being poor is a sign that there’s something wrong with you; you’re not yet marriage material.

The pathway to families ‒that is, to marriage and children ‒ is being delayed, disregarded, and disparaged. In other words, it’s being lost. The world’s population values marital childbearing because women naturally understand that stability is best for their children. Hence, marriage is pivotal to reproduction, and reproduction is essential for the thriving of nations.

These developments are occurring despite ‒ or maybe because of ‒ how positive modernity has been. Until very recently, the West has enjoyed higher average incomes, better health, longer lives, and certainly more rapid communication. Each of these are good things, even though these still greet us with seeds of unintended consequences. We can search widely and quickly for a mate now, and relationship possibilities are far more numerous. And yet these do not appear to reliably contribute to more settled relationships and higher marriage rates. On the contrary, they make for pickier, choosier people who are being given the false impression that there are scores of potential good fits out there. And ‒ for the manipulative ‒more sexual opportunity well short of commitment.

Now, the low-fertility trap has not yet sprung. (And anyways, the trap is a theoretical construct; it is not guaranteed.) It is, rather, a projected scenario in which a full generation of a country’s citizens experience high levels of childlessness and fertility postponement in such a way that the mentality becomes more difficult to break out of because an entire generation has been socialized to think that way. Not impossible, but difficult. Thankfully, the sex act remains generative, fertile. That helps.

In Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen documents the near “evisceration…of generational customs, practices, and rituals that are grounded in local and particular settings”[13]. It is the free market that has brought the middle class to so much of the globe, raising many out of poverty. And yet how can we not conclude that the free market has also encouraged the masses to become consumers more than they are mothers and fathers (who are “producers”). This monoculture, evident in the convergence of fertility rates at nearing lowest-low levels throughout much of southern and eastern Europe, promises something it fails to deliver. It promises salvation through meaningful work and career, but the underlying market has no loyalty to the most important things: family, community, faith. In my research I came to find that Lebanese sound like Mexicans and Spaniards, who sound like Russians and Americans. Even Poles and Nigerians seemed increasingly like Americans. In the end, distinctive cultures are receding, and a dominant, standardized monoculture has emerged, criticism of which is framed as nationalism or, ridiculously, fascism. Don’t let such accusations go uncontested.

Modern secularization has nothing to do with the inability to believe. It is not irrational to pursue a family. You want irrationality? Try tricking your body into believing it’s pregnant for years. Declare yourself a member of the opposite sex. Spend hours staring at TikTok. Secularization has everything to do with digital distraction. But don’t look to the market to contest such irrationalities. The market has capitalized on irrationality and unreality, and it is agnostic about the human person, the family, and how we might flourish. You must not be.

The West needs a cultural institution that offers hope, promotes marriage, criticizes sexual recklessness, prioritizes chaste behavior between men and women, esteems families and celebrates children, and helps people toward these ends. Not a policy, but a pathway. I know of one. You know of one: the Church. So perhaps we need to renew attention to such an institution that already exists. We must lead by example.

*Testo originale della relazione del Prof. Mark Regnerus.



[2] S. Volant, G. Pison, F. Héran, La France a la plus forte fécondité d’Europe. Est-ce dû aux immigrées ?, Population & Sociétés, vol. 568, no. 7, 2019, pp. 1-4.

[3] In the United States, underachieving fertility desires is more common among women with higher levels of education and those who delay first marriage beyond their mid-20s. See N. Nitsche, S.R. Hayford, Preferences, Partners, and Parenthood: Linking Early Fertility Desires, Marriage Timing, and Achieved FertilityDemography 1 December 2020; 57 (6): 1975–2001. doi:

[4] D.I. Kertzer, M.J. White, L. Bernardi, G. Gabrielli, Italy’s Path to Very Low Fertility: The Adequacy of Economic and Second Demographic Transition Theories. Eur J Popul. 2009 Feb; 25(1):89-115. doi: 10.1007/s10680-008-9159-5.

[5] G.S. Becker, A Theory of Marriage, Part I.

[6] According to the World Bank, «In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the extreme poverty rate dropped an average of a percentage point per year – from nearly 36% to 10%…The World Bank’s preliminary forecast is that extreme poverty has declined to 8.6 percent in 2018». See Decline of Global Extreme Poverty Continues but Has Slowed: World Bank, The World Bank, September 19, 2018, The quotes are from paragraphs 6 and 8.

[7] See A. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Vintage, 2010); Andrew Cherlin, Marriage has Become a Trophy, The Atlantic, March 20, 2018, See also the work of sociologist Kathryn Edin, including Kathryn Edin and Joanna M. Reed, Why Don’t They Just Get Married? Barriers to Marriage among the Disadvantaged, The Future of Children 15 (2005): 117-137.

[8] D. Schneider, Wealth and the Marital Divide, American Journal of Sociology 117 (2011): 627-667. The quote is from page 633.

[9] P.J. Smock, W.D. Manning, M. Porter, Everything’s There Except Money: How Money Shapes Decisions to Marry among Cohabitors, Journal of Marriage and Family 67 (2005): 680-696. The quote is from page 688.

[10] Ibid., 68. See A. Thornton, Reading History Sideways: The Fallacy and Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). The quoted phrase appears on page 136.

[11] I. San Martín, Pope Calls Gender Theory a ‘Global War’ Against the Family, Crux, October 1, 2016,

[12] The matter of “Western ideologies” hits close to home for Magdalena. Her only sibling, an older sister studying for a PhD in a city several hours from Lublin, «has completely different views than mine….(O)ur relation has never been a cordial one. My sister is an LGBT activist and she’s an atheist, so it can have a huge influence on our relations». How different are their perspectives? Very. Magdalena elaborates: «I believe that Western ideologies which are imposed on our system of beliefs are trying to destroy our concept of family so that we will think that there is no difference between a sacramental relationship, cohabitation, homosexual or heterosexual relationship….However, I cannot make those relationships equal. I think that a sacramental marriage is something completely different and incomparable. I think that due to such ideologies, the concept of marriage changes among people who are not well-grounded in religion, uncertain of their beliefs. I know many people who state that they are religious, yet they change their views depending on what somebody tells them. I know many people who state that they are religious, yet they think that there’s nothing wrong with homosexual relationships and adopting children by such couples. I think that these ideologies exert a huge influence on how people perceive marriage».

[13] Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, pp. 64-65.