Of the 6,000 languages now spoken on this planet, half will disappear by the end of the present century. Speakers the languages of the West, including Italian, German, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian, will suffer a catastrophic decline in numbers. The Poland of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic redoubt of the West whose resistance did so much to win the Cold War, is a tragic case in point. The average Polish woman bore between three and four children in her lifetime just after World War II. Now the average is close to one.

Polish total fertility (lifetime live births per female)

Source: United Nations

Poland’s adult population will shrink in consequence by nearly three-quarters over the course of this century. What waves of invaders over the centuries and the Nazi and Soviet occupations failed to accomplish, the Poles are doing to themselves.

Polish population aged 15-64

Source: United Nations

The depopulation of the industrial world stands as a diabolical reproach to the mainstream of American conservative thought – the alliance between Catholic natural law philosophy and classical rationalism, prominently (but not exclusively) represented by the school of Leo Strauss. “I’ve buried so many,” complained Goethe’s Mephisto, “and new, fresh blood keeps circulating.” Mephisto wanted there to be nothing at all, and the world is on the way to fulfilling his desire; today he must fret for his future employment prospects, like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s last demon marooned in the ruins of a Polish shtetl.

To be educated as a conservative intellectual in the United States during the past generation meant to learn natural right theory from Straussians like Harvey Mansfield at Harvard (or non-Straussian classicists like Yale’s Donald Kagan), or natural-law theory from Catholics Hadley Arkes at Amherst or Robert P George at Princeton.

If national suicide by infertility has become the new normal, though, what sort of nature is at work? How can we speak of political rationalism when most of the world’s nations will themselves out of existence? Has Duns Scotus triumphed at length over St Thomas Aquinas? The will trumps reason, when the will chooses nonexistence and preempts the opportunity to employ reason.

First Things, the monthly journal of religion in the public square, has for a quarter century provided the most serious intellectual platform for the conservative consensus. I had the privilege to work there from January 2009 to March 2011 when the eminent Catholic writer Joseph Bottum was chief editor. I still contribute on occasion (including to the current issue).

First Things rode the coat-tails of the John Paul II papacy. Quite reasonably, it saw in the late pope’s native country a special hope for a guiding role for religion in a modern liberal democracy. Its founder Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in 1994:

It is possible that in the new world of Poland they will get the questions of religion and society – including church-state relations – more nearly right than we have succeeded in doing here. The world, and not least of all Americans, should watch with keen interest as Poland makes its way toward a society that is both Christian and free – the more securely free because it is Christian, and the more authentically Christian because it is free.

“If not in Poland, then nowhere was it possible to build a modern state in Europe based on Christian values,” Fr. Neuhaus wrote two years after the death of John Paul II. I cite these particular statements because two Catholic intellectuals, Artur Mrowczynski-Van Allen and Aaron Riches, quote them as a reproach to the American Catholics who advocated the secular democratic model for Poland after the fall of Communism. I mention the controversy simply as a gauge of disquiet about Poland’s future.

I do not think that Fr. Neuhaus or his collaborators at First Things bear any responsibility for Poland’s sad decline. I published a quite different analysis of the demographic decline of several Catholic countries in my 2011 book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). The doctors may argue about the diagnosis, but there is no doubt that the patient is slowly dying.

In many respects, things turned out very differently than Fr. Neuhaus anticipated. These disappointments are the subject of a symposium on the future of First Things just posted on the journal’s website, with comments by its editor R R Reno, the Catholic writer George Weigel, the Protestant theologian, Ephraim Radner, and Eric Cohen, head of the Tikvah Fund.

Reno wants to abandon the magazine’s conservative roots, arguing that the roots themselves are dead:

The Reagan coalition has run its course. Today, American conservatism is often angry or despondent rather than optimistic. A McCarthyite mentality has emerged that insists the progressive tradition is alien and un-American. A hard-hearted libertarianism is replacing the warmth of Reagan-era patriotism and its affirmations of national solidarity. An apocalyptic mentality (national bankruptcy, demographic decline) promotes policies less as opportunities for renewal than as bitter necessities that follow from this or that collapse. More broadly, as the Reagan coalition has unraveled, the Republican party has become undisciplined and its political culture exotic, often to the point of embarrassment.

That is unfair in my way of thinking, but it’s a point of view. What he calls an apocalyptic mentality about demographic decline is entirely appropriate for most of Western Europe. Reno offers cheerfully that a new conservative consensus will emerge and that First Things will be part of it. Really? Fr. Neuhaus helped to forge the old conservative consensus; his successors seem content to wait for a new one to amble along.

When Reno writes about theological liberalism, though, his argument is hard to follow. He notes that the magazine was founded to combat theological liberalism, and concludes:

Today theological liberalism is no longer a force in the churches. We have in that sense won, and won decisively. In the Catholic Church, most theological liberals argue for their right to exist rather than assume they will determine the future direction of Christianity. Circumstances differ in Protestantism and Judaism, but for the most part there as well theological liberalism is in decline.

Yet in the next paragraph he avers that “theological liberalism sadly dominates Catholic colleges and universities. Elsewhere academic theology has morphed into religious studies with little or no relation to actual communities of faith. We must promote changes that help these schools return to their founding commitments.”

The Catholic universities (as George Weigel observes in a response to Reno) have trod a “trail of tears” as progressives have marginalized the orthodox. The evangelical universities seem headed in the same direction. For that matter, the core institutions of classical rationalism – such as St John’s College of Annapolis and Santa Fe, probably the best liberal arts program in the country – remain isolated and beleaguered centers of humanism, like Rivendell in J R R Tolkien’s stories. Classical political rationalism can’t find students willing to read Plato in Greek. Catholic orthodoxy has been exiled to a few small holdouts (for example Thomas Aquinas College and Ave Maria College). And even these few, small institutions of traditional learning cannot find enough qualified students.

Demographics is the elephant in the parlor, and among the contributors to the First Things symposium, only Eric Cohen mentions the subject, proposing that the magazine

… should begin with our deep belief in the dignity of family life, our appreciation of the relationships of piety and fidelity across the generations, our celebration of the virtues of parents, and our recognition of the dangers of demographic decline. Building from there, it might move to a sophisticated case for what can be done, at a policy level, to strengthen family life – including a tax code that rewards procreation, encourages family responsibility for the care of young children and aging elders, and enshrines the right of parents to provide as best as possible for the rising generation. Here’s a slogan: More kids, lower taxes; no kids, higher taxes.

I could not agree more: In 2009 I published an essay in First Things entitled Demographics and Depression, which among other things offered a set of pro-family tax proposals. Sadly, the sort of proposals I drafted four years ago do not suffice. It is not economics but faith that persuades people to bring children into the world. Social engineering isn’t enough. In the Spring 2013 issue of Claremont Review of Books, I compare two books on demographics written, respectively, by the Weekly Standard writer Jonathan Last and the Catholic intellectual Mary Eberstadt, showing (among other things) that attempts to explain fertility through economics simply do not work.

Evidence for the link between faith and fertility is overwhelming. And there is no better indicator of this than the fact that 74% of all Jewish children in the greater New York metropolitan area are in Orthodox homes. 40% of Jews in New York identify as Orthodox. We have detailed data on the New York area, the largest concentration of Jewish population, thanks to a recent survey by the New York United Jewish Appeal; national data is still lacking.

Cohen struggles to balance secular rationalism with biblical religion. He argues that “the older secularism of Hobbes and Locke has played a crucial role in civilizing the West … Even God needs his allies, and the ungodly Hobbes and Locke … are indeed allies … [but] we also need to recognize that this older secularism of Hobbes and Locke is a problematic ally. The secularism of the wise contains in itself the secularism of the decadent en route to the secularism of the degraded and the nihilistic … biblical religion offers, perhaps, the truest account of who we are.”

Cohen’s “perhaps” is startling: it is a qualification that we never would have heard from a Christian writer in First Things. I mean no criticism of Eric Cohen: as a bioethicist and foundation leader he is a national treasure. As a late-in-life returnee to Jewish observance, I can identity with his efforts to reconcile faith and secular philosophy. But this is not what Christians need to learn from Jews.

Christians should learn from the Jews how to be a minority. It may be possible that Orthodox Judaism may represent the greatest concentration of religious study in America today. This fountain of religious passion and intellectual effort is indifferent to the efforts of First Things. This was not inevitable.

I thought it one of the few real accomplishments of my brief editorship at the magazine to persuade Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University to contribute a meditation on the Song of Songs, as well as contributions by Professor Michael Wyschogrod, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, and other leading Orthodox writers. First Things has stopped soliciting the sort of work that would reach an observant readership. I have directed my own writings on Jewish topics recently to Jewish outlets such as Tablet or Hakirah, because First Things simply is not read in my own religious community. That is an error, for the future of Judaism is to be found in the yeshivas, and not in the Jewish Studies departments of universities.

Christians are not a minority in America, to be sure, but they are a minority in its intellectual centers where First Things fights its battles. They surely are a minority in Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI advocated over a half a century a deliberate retreat of the Catholic Church into smaller groups that would work more intensively for the good. Against the secular tide, I cannot envision what other strategy might succeed. A prominent German theologian once observed that Benedict was the first pope since St Peter to read the Gospels as Hebrew documents. In a more fundamental way, I long thought of Benedict as the most Jewish Catholic I had encountered: he understood that Christians will in some respects need to emulate Jews.

There was for a brief while the hope that a different school of Western thought might arise. It traced back to St Augustine, the decisive influence on Benedict. His papacy, I hoped, might provide a moral and intellectual pole for a new kind of conservative thinking. I wrote in First Things in 2010:

Nations fail, Augustine argued, because peoples fail, and peoples fail because they love the wrong things. A people defines itself by what it loves, and false love produces a frail and fragile nation. America’s exceptional history as the only nation in the world with two centuries of political continuity stems from its people’s love for individual rights, which they hold to be inalienable because they are granted by a power that no human agency dare oppose.

Americans selected themselves out from among the nations of the world to enter into the political covenant that is the American constitutional state. It succeeded because it is “a country with the soul of a church,” as G.K. Chesterton observed. Individualism founded on God-given rights has triumphed over the alternative-the collectivist premise for the state in its various manifestations: Rousseau’s “will of the people,” for example, or Marx’s proletarian dictatorship, or the blood-and-soil nationalism that led Europe and Japan into the world wars of the twentieth century. The only form of collectivism still embraced by a large part of the world’s population is integralist Islam, which dominates most Muslim-majority countries.

Other great nations have adopted some parts of the Western principles that define America and therefore something of what America loves. India, for instance, has become the world’s largest democracy by co-opting the parliamentary system of its former imperial overlord, and China is trying (though in service of a one-party state) to harness the free market. What the fall of Communism showed to be true remains true: States that suppress individual rights on behalf of some expression of the collective will fail, even as globalization and technological advance accelerate the pace of state failure. Those that support individual rights have some chance of succeeding.

What we might call “Augustinian realism” is this premise, borne out in the world around us. To the extent that other nations share the American love for the sanctity of the individual, they are likely to succeed. To the extent they reject it, they are likely to fail. Our actions in the world can proceed from American interest precisely because American interest consists of allying with success and containing failure.

My 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too) expanded this thesis into a survey of civilizational success and failure past and present. It calls into question both classical political philosophy and natural law theory, the twin pillars of American conservative thinking. What can political philosophy tell us when the citizens of a polity refuse to bring a next generation into the world? The Greeks who invented “classical political rationalism” virtually disappeared during the half-dozen generations after Aristotle.

Where shall we find answers to an even more fundamental question: what makes human life worthwhile such that we choose to perpetuate it? Augustine’s famous first sentence in Confessions – “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and we are restless until we come to you” – is a starting point. From there the religious existentialism of Franz Rosenzweig, Karl Barth, Joseph Soloveitchik and Joseph Ratzinger offers answers where natural law theory and classical rationalism must remain silent. The Orthodox theologian David Hart has run his own guerilla war against natural law theory for some time in the pages of First Things. But there is a great deal more to do.

In its days of woe, religious conservatism in America needs re-thinking, and a return to sources (what Ratzinger and his teachers among the “new theologians” called ressourcement). I still think it is worth doing, and I know of no other venue better suited to the task than First Things.