The head of the Italian Catholic bishops’ conference said this week that Italian society is being “seriously mutilated” by its negative growth birth rate. Angelo Bagnasco, cardinal archbishop of Genoa, said at a Mass in Liguria this weekend that Italy, and Italian democracy, is facing a “serious cultural catastrophe” from its low birth rate.
The Italian birth rate has climbed slightly from an all-time low of 1.23 in 2004 – which made Italy the second most infertile country in the industrialized world – to 1.32 this year. It is estimated that 25 percent of Italian women do not have children and another 25 percent will have only one child. The Italian region of Liguria in northwestern Italy now has the highest ratio of elderly to youth in the world and has closed ten percent of its schools since 2000.
The Catholic Church asserts, Bagnasco said, that “demographic balance is not only necessary for the physical survival of a community – which without children has no future – but is also a condition for that alliance between generations that is essential for a normal democratic dialectic.”
“It is not only parents that, having children, must change their points of view and styles, they must plan and organize themselves in relation to the children in their various ages.”
“A society without babies and children,” he continued, “just as a society without the elderly, is seriously mutilated and unable to function.”
While government officials are attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to shore up the birth rate with cash payouts, Cardinal Bagnasco looked into the deeper cause of the crisis, saying that falling birthrates are linked to a massive shift in cultural values.
Holding up the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and Jesus – in the context of life in the small village of Nazareth as the ideal model, Bagnasco said, “In the cultural climate of today, couples and families seem to collapse before the blows of life and of relationships.”
“The efforts of every day seem tedious and without meaning, hence unbearable,” he said. “The future loses value and polish, the present is emphasized for what it promises of immediate satisfaction.”
In the current materialistic context, he said, “fidelity is understood as something repetitive, tedious, deprived of thrills.”
Italy has been spared the astronomical growth in abortion that has struck other countries that followed the trend and legalized the practice in the 1960s and 70s. In recent decades, the abortion numbers have actually significantly fallen, from a high point of 231,061 in 1983 to 121,406 in 2008, according to the office of national statistics and other researchers.
While visitors to Italy who bring small children attest that Italians still love children, they are not having their own. Contraceptive use, in this still overwhelmingly Catholic country, is considered routine and some have cited the fulfillment of the demands of the consumerist mentality, that requires that women go out to work, as the reason for the disappearance of the traditional large Italian family.
A 2004 survey by Letizia Mencarini, a professor of statistics at the University of Florence, found that women who work outside the home, and receive little help from their husbands with household chores and childcare, are more reluctant to have a second child. The women, she concluded, cannot face the “dual burden” of going out to work and looking after an extra child.
Read related LSN coverage:
Italy’s Last Catholic Generation? Mass Attendance in “Collapse” among Under-30s