National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Where Have All Italy's Children Gone?

The country most associated with the Church now owns the world's lowest birth rate

BY Jim Cosgrove

May 10, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/10/98 at 2:00 PM


ROME—When one thinks of Italy, one thinks of the family, but Italian families have been getting smaller and smaller. Italy, according to recently released U.N. statistics, has the lowest birth rate in the world:

1.24 children per woman. Such a low birth rate, coupled with one of the world's highest life expectancies, could produce very disturbing consequences for Italian society, according to demographers. One of these is the reversal of the “age pyramid,” which means that people older than 65 are becoming much more numerous than those younger than 18. This means that a small population of young people will have the burden of meeting the needs of a large elderly population in terms of pensions and health care. In addition to economic consequences, social scientists are worried that an increasing ratio of elderly could produce a less vibrant society and a decline in creativity.

According to demographic studies, every woman needs to bear an average of 2.1 children in order to renew the generations. In the 15 member countries of the European Union, however, the average birth rate is only 1.46.

Why is it that most Italians only have one child? It is a complex question that both Church and lay authorities have been debating for years now. According to Father Gino Concetti, theologian and columnist for the Vatican newspaper L‘Osservatore Romano, one of the factors contributing to Italy's low birth rate is its increasing affluence in recent decades. The priest said this has caused an increase in consumerism and hedonistic behavior.

“People want everything these days: fashionable clothes, vacations, a nice car. They think they'll have to give up too much if they have more than one or at most two children,” Father Concetti told the Register.

“Italians also want to give their children more than they themselves had,” he continued. “They don't want them to lack anything or to have to struggle. Naturally, this causes them to limit the number of children they have.”

Another factor, said the priest, is a pessimistic view of the future due especially to economic uncertainty.

“People are afraid of what the future will hold for their children. This is due in part to a kind of psychological terrorism by the mass media.”

Lastly, Father Concetti explained, there generally has been a lack of family-friendly public policies, though the current government has begun to remedy the situation.

The current center-left government, led by Premiere Romano Prodi, which includes the Catholic Popular Party, has been trying to make up for the policies of past governments which were hostile to families. One government decree currently under consideration would provide a pension to homemakers, effectively rewarding women who decide to be full-time mothers.

Additionally, the Italian Parliament is discussing a bill that contains measures designed to help families reconcile family and work. Among the proposals are lengthening the amount of time granted for maternity leave, providing paternity leave, and introducing more flexible work hours.

The difficulty with all these measures is that Italy has curbed government spending to better conform to the parameters established by the Maastricht Treaty for the European Monetary Union.

On a strictly local level, some city councils have offered monetary rewards to families choosing to have more than two children. For many Italians, however, such action tends to be an eerie reminder of the Fascist era in which large families were rewarded as part of Mussolini's effort to provide “more heroes for the nation.”


Bishop Giuseppe Anfossi, president of the Italian bishops’ commission for the family, told the Register, “The Church has long been warning Italy of the perils of zero population growth and has tried to encourage the government to enact policies that provide incentives to families. Parish priests and nuns try to dissuade people from having only one child. Unfortunately, people are not listening to the Church as much as they used to, at least as far as having children is concerned. It is sadly ironic that two such Catholic countries as Italy and Spain have the lowest birth rates in the world.”

There is, however, a minority of Catholics who seem to have little difficulty raising large families. The fact that members of Catholic movements such as charismatics or the Neo-Catechumenate have five, six, or more children represents a powerful challenge to the belief that having a large family is impossible in this day and age, according to Father Concetti.

“These families,” he said, “are living proof that even in these times of economic uncertainly, it is possible to have a large family and to give children what they need most, which is their parents’ love and faith.”

For many couples, though, being open to having a second child is difficult. First of all, young people often put off becoming married until they have stable jobs that pay well — not an easy task in a country with a 12% unemployment rate. The high cost of living is also commonly cited as a cause for delayed nuptials, because couples cannot afford to set up house together.

As a result, women are bearing their first—and frequently, only— child later in life.

Paradoxically, maternity benefits in Italy are quite generous, by U.S. standards. Women stay home two months before giving birth and three months after at 80% of their salary. Many even manage to take unpaid leaves until their child's first birthday.

Similar to their U.S. counterparts, however, Italian women face the challenge of juggling work and family. There are not many government-subsidized day care centers, and private day care is expensive. Some women are fortunate enough to have mothers or mothers-in-law willing to help with child care. A small percentage who can afford it turn to nannies or au-pairs.

It is not uncommon though for a woman, upon returning from maternity leave, to find that her desk has been assigned to someone else and she has been transferred or demoted. Those who have had such an experience after the birth of one child are reluctant to do it again.

There are, of course, women who decide to leave their jobs and become full-time mothers, though the cost of living often precludes this choice. Unlike in the United States, where it is possible for a woman to quit her job, be a full-time mother for a few years and later re-enter the work force, leaving a good job in Italy often means never finding another one.

Pope John Paul II addressed this problem in 1996 in one of his many appeals in favor of the family: “It is very serious that young women can actually deny their vocation to motherhood for fear of losing their jobs.”



Not everyone in Italy views the low birth rate as a problem. Many point to the fact that, while the number of babies being born is low, the population has increased in recent decades. One of the reasons for this is the steady stream of immigrants from Third World countries.

Environmentalist Fulco Pratesi recently said that Italy should stop sounding the alarm and simply accept the fact that, like many other parts of the world, it is destined to become a multi-cultural society.

“What difference does it make if the babies that are born here are Filipino, Bolivian, Polish, or Ethiopian as long as they are able to help pay our pensions?” wrote Pratesi in a recent article in the Corriere Della Sera newspaper.

It does make a difference to some, however, who are worried that the precariously low birth rate, coupled with an increase in immigration, could lead to a loss of cultural and even religious identity. The reason for this concern is that most immigrants come from places like North Africa, Turkey, or Albania, where Islam is the dominant religion. In an article entitled “When Half of Italy is Christian and the Other Half Muslim,” sociologist Francesco Alberoni imagined the consequences of a country divided along religious lines in the not-too-distant future.

When the Italian Church first began sounding the alarm about zero population growth, it was accused of being irresponsible about the problem of “overpopulation” in the world. A recent article entitled “Babycrack” in the left-wing cultural magazine Reset, however, said “the facts have contradicted the common hypothesis that claimed that the low birth rate would have beneficial effects on the economy and especially on the unemployment rate.” On the contrary, said the article, zero population growth could result in an economic catastrophe because it will become impossible to guarantee a pension for everyone.

“Evidently, the Church is right once again—even from an economic point of view,” said Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini, one of the Vatican's most respected theologians. “As Pope Paul VI used to say, “we must set more places at the table, not eliminate the mouths to feed.”

Berenice Cocciolillo writes from Rome.