As Italy Hits Record Low Births, Is There a Future for the Family?

What has caused the 50 years of steady decline in births across Europe, and especially in Italy, and is there any hope of reversing the trend?

Empty cradle.
Empty cradle. (photo: Pixelate / Shutterstock)

ROME — Italy’s national statistics institute is predicting that the country will see a significant decline in births in the years immediately following the coronavirus pandemic.

In a July report, Istat said that the climate of uncertainty and fear caused by the coronavirus may result in 10,000 fewer births in Italy in 2020 and 2021. It also predicted that if unemployment rises as expected, the birth rate could drop even further.

In 2019, births in Italy already hit a historic low since Italian unification in 1861. Across Europe, countries are facing what has been dubbed a “demographic winter.” 

Pope Francis has described this as the dramatic result of a “disregard for families.” Europe’s devastatingly low birth rate “is a sign of societies that struggle to face the challenges of the present, and thus become ever more fearful of the future, with the result that they close in on themselves,” the pope said in 2018.

That year, Italy’s birth rate was 1.29 children per woman — just ahead of Malta and Spain’s rates of 1.23 and 1.26 respectively for the lowest rate in Europe. 

What has caused the 50 years of steady decline in births across Europe, and especially in Italy, and is there any hope of reversing the trend?

The faith factor

According to Philip Jenkins, a historian and professor at Baylor University, it is impossible to isolate with precision one or more causes of a country’s birth rate, but there are some qualities that low fertility societies tend to have in common.

Setting causation to one side, he said, “if you look at countries around the world, low fertility societies are low faith; high fertility societies are high faith, regardless of the particular faith.”

“That could mean that A is causing B, B is causing A, or they are both caused by something else. But whatever way you go, the two seem to be very closely linked,” he told CNA.

Jenkins researched the topic of religion and demographics in his 2020 book “Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions.”

He said that the research showed that, with few exceptions, as religious practice in the West declined in the latter half of the 20th century, so did the number of births.

The reason that the correlation cannot be narrowed to a cause is that societal and cultural changes “are happening so fast” in that period, Jenkins said. “It’s very hard to figure out what’s influencing what.” 

Italy is a great example, he explained. In the early 1970s, Italy was still a high faith, high fertility society. But by the middle of that decade, the culture started to shift, and by the early 1980s the changes really took off.

These changes can be measured in different ways, Jenkins said, such as by fertility rate, church attendance, or religious identity.

Despite Italy’s strong cultural Catholicism, the practice of the faith has been waning for some time.

Jenkins pointed out that in the mid-1970s to early 1980s, a number of political referendums were introduced in Italy which showed a willingness to go against Church teaching. Traditionally Catholic countries, like Italy and Spain, legalized divorce, abortion, and contraception despite Church opposition.

At the end of the 20th century, major societal changes continued, including the acceptance of other policies opposed by the Church, such as assisted suicide and gay marriage, Jenkins noted.

Family crisis

One Italian demographer ties Italy’s low fertility to a crisis of the Italian family, beginning with the legalization of divorce and the breakdown in religious marriage that followed.

In the year 1970, 97.7 out of 100 Italians married in the Catholic Church. But since the introduction of legal divorce in 1974, not only did the number of marriages in the Church dramatically decline but so did marriage overall.

National statistics show that in 2018 just under half of marriages in Italy took place in the Church. The rise in civil marriage is partly attributed to the increase in second and subsequent marriages, which are overwhelmingly contracted outside of the Church as they usually follow divorce.

Aside from an increase in premarital cohabitation, the number of free unions quadrupled in Italy between 1997 and 2017. Nearly one in three children was born to unwed parents in 2017. 

“Divorce weakened the understanding of marriage, especially the religious understanding of marriage, which dominated in Italy until that time,” demographer Roberto Volpi argued.

He added that with legal divorce, the assurance that marriage provided — a “guarantee that it was forever” — lost its strength.

“Indisputably, the central point, however, is this: in Italy, a profound crisis of the family began when the idea of marriage, the centrality of marriage, crumbled. And undeniably divorce contributed to this,” Volpi said.

He suggested that, because couples usually decide to have children within the stable relationship of marriage, if there are fewer (and later) marriages, there will be fewer children.

Jenkins, instead, said he believed that the issue was too complicated to boil down to this single cause, even if the correlation exists. The same cultural changes which influenced Italy to legalize divorce and to value marriage less could also be behind the declining birth rate.

He pointed out that, for example, other European countries legalized divorce before Italy. Yet the decline in births in those countries started around the same time as in Italy.

Referring back to the correlation between religious practice and fertility, the professor noted that it could be that as a society loses its religious belief and practice, it also chooses to have fewer children. But it could just as easily be that as a society has fewer children, it loses “the glue which binds families to religion.”

“When you take children out of the picture, the links binding people to churches or to institutions decay quite rapidly,” he said.

As the connection to the faith declines, people also become more willing to vote in favor of issues opposed by the Church, such as contraception and abortion, he observed.

“So maybe fertility drives the faith decline. You could also argue that a decline in institutional religion makes people less prone to follow traditional ideas of what children are for, having lots of children to carry on the faith and so on.”

Do pro-family policies work?

In Europe, some countries are trying to address the low fertility problem by introducing policies offering financial incentives for women to marry younger and families to have more children.  

Hungary is one country leading the way in these kinds of policies, and it has had minimal success: its national statistics office estimates it has raised its number of births per woman from 1.23 in 2011 to 1.48.

Jenkins agreed that pro-birth policies can work at raising fertility rates, but he said they work very slowly and are very expensive. In the past, oppressive policies under dictatorships have shown the most impact, he explained. But in a democracy, the incentives to have children are financial and it is “phenomenally expensive to promote any significant change in the birth rate.” 

Italy has introduced some less aggressive policies, such as a “baby bonus” and subsidized parental leave, but one family policy expert said the truth is that they have not had much success in increasing births.

Vincenzo Bassi is a professor of law, economy, and political science in Rome. He is also the president of the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE), an umbrella organization that gives support to Catholic families and promotes discussion of family policy issues within European institutions and local governments.

FAFCE tries to show policymakers “that the family is crucial for economic development,” Bassi said. “Also demographic policies must be regarded as an investment because without children, without future workers, we cannot maintain the generational balance which is essential for the future, the economic future of Europe, of my country, and of the whole world.”

Pro-family policies are only minimally effective, he said, because “if you don’t have any vision, a vision pertaining to the role of the family in society, of course, these policies are just social policies, welfare state policies, emergency policies, but they don’t have any real impact on the birth rate.”

“If you don't realize the function and the role of the family in society, all of these policies are something OK, they can be useful,” he continued, “but I don’t decide to have more children because I’ll have a [financial] bonus.”

Having children requires a lot of sacrifices, Bassi noted. If we want to encourage people to take on that sacrifice, the family needs to be valued by society at large, he said: “I have to be happy, I have to feel important, having a family.”

A very different world

In Bassi’s opinion, where Italy should go from here is a complex question, but the family needs to have a greater role in both society and Catholic parishes and communities.

FAFCE promotes the formation of associations of families in parishes, as a means of providing mutual support and friendship.

“We need the generative power of the family not only within the family but also outside,” he said. In a time when people no longer have the support of living close to extended family, “the first community is the parish.”

“If we will start [making] this change also in the Church, we can hope that we can export the model outside the Church,” he said.

As demographics continue to shift over the coming years, religious groups have to figure out “how to deal with a different demographic profile, of a society with a lot of lone adult singles of all ages,” as well as a “very sharp increase” of old and super-old people, Jenkins said.

Religions have to recognize “the very different social and demographic world” they are operating in. “For many years, consciously or otherwise, churches, especially in the United States, have presumed that the normal population they are serving is based on families, nuclear families,” but this just is not the case anymore, he said.

The Italian demographer Volpi was not optimistic about stopping or reversing the fertility trend, but he said that the Catholic Church should encourage reflection on how to exit the crises of marriage and the family.

“Because if you don’t overcome the crisis of marriage, you don’t overcome the crisis of the family, that is the discussion a bit,” he said. “And you don’t recover from the crisis of fertility either.”