Pope Francis, the Synod and the Declining Italian Family


(photo: Shutterstock)

It’s fitting that the Catholic Church is meeting in Rome for its Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. The reason for the location is obvious — the Vatican being physically where it is. But the location is especially appropriate given the decline of the family in Italy. Of course, Italy is hardly alone. What I’m going to say here could be said about almost any Western-European country, but I’d like to focus my thoughts on Italy, based on study and recent experience.

One of the most compelling statistics on the decline of the Italian family was reported several years ago by George Weigel in his excellent The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America and Politics Without God. Weigel cited a projection estimating that (according to present trends), by the year 2050, 42% of Italians will be over the age of 60 and nearly 60% will have no brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts or uncles.

That is a stunning statement. It’s utterly contrary to our perception of Italy and of what Italy was and is. Sadly, the “old country” image of Italian men and women surrounded by teeming masses of playing, shouting and laughing children — running, singing, tossing bocce balls, partying away, going to Mass, holding giant weddings and Communion celebrations and (most of all) having loud dinners with lots of food — is gone. That Italian image was a wonderful reality that I, whose American mother is 100% Italian, experienced growing up here in America. And it has virtually vanished.

Not until I finally visited Italy myself, this past summer, did I observe this firsthand. We were there for two weeks. We rented cars and drove around quite a distance. We saw a good portion of the country; we weren’t limited to Rome.

To be sure, we plainly loved the country. It is a gorgeous, splendid place. The inspiration of the saints is all around you, as is their presence. The Italian people are wonderful. I can’t imagine a nicer, more hospitable people. I felt tempted to stay there, to move there — to never leave. I can’t wait to return.

Yet one thing really struck me: Most of the Italians I met had no children. My wife and I have seven kids. The elderly Italians we met — those who fill the churches — were thrilled to see our large family. They excitedly told us that they had a bunch of children of their own: six, seven, eight kids. But their children had one, two or three. Their grandchildren aren’t having any; in fact, they’re not even marrying, overall. The old image of Italy, of huge families thriving with kids, is just that: old. It’s gone.

So are many of the moral values that produce fruitful families. One night at dinner in a village outside of Rome, a kind, gregarious woman who recognized my wife from a coffee shop earlier in the day stopped by our table and asked if we’d come meet her husband and friends for dessert. We did. There were four of them. The woman, roughly 50 years old, was married to a Frenchman. They were childless — as was the couple with them: two “married” men.

All of them were very nice and outgoing (actually, the Frenchman was blunt and a little rude, but I’ll leave that aside), and all of them were childless. In fact, they were really family-less. What they didn’t lack in kindness, they lacked in children. The woman and her husband had no intention to procreate, and neither do (nor can) the two homosexual men.

Speaking of which, we saw that as well in Italy: publicly open homosexuality. My wife pulled me aside one day and told me about the two young girls who were playfully looking at her and our kids while they splashed and kissed one another in the water at a beach. She was unsure of how to react.

One day, I caught an Italian music video on TV: A leading pop artist was singing passionately and emotionally about two lesbians persevering after a lovers’ quarrel. The video dramatically played out the narrative, with the women arguing, fighting, splitting and then reconciling. I’ve seen nothing like it on American music-video channels (not yet). I believe I later saw this same music artist in Assisi, of all places, where he was recording another video outside of the Basilica of St. Francis. There, the context wasn’t the spiritual virtue of Francis, but the physical virtue of his church as a nice backdrop for a video.

Given what I saw in Italy, I wasn’t surprised when Pope Francis, while I was there, warned Europe generally and Italy specifically of a “throwaway culture” in which “children are thrown away” and family life is disregarded. The devil, said Francis, wants to attack the family. He exhorted Italian families to place God and children at their center. The Holy Father was clearly alarmed at the lack of family life he was witnessing in this country that birthed his own family.

Italy is a magical place, but like the rest of Europe, it is embracing a secular/post-Christian lifestyle that neither promotes nor produces children. Pope Francis is right to be alarmed at the consequences for family life.

And the bishops gathering in Rome for the synod that begins on Oct. 5 need not look far for evidence of the problem.

The Roman Catholic Church is holding its synod on the family in precisely the right place.


Paul Kengor, Ph.D., is professor of political science and executive director

of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.