he 86-year-old pontiff opened the second day of a Rome conference involving politicians, business and social leaders focused on the steeply declining birthrate in Italy – a figure that experts warn will lead to the impoverishment of the country.
For the first time, last year Italy’s births fell below the threshold of 400,000, at 393,000, according to national statistics institute Istat.
That compared to 713,499 deaths, in a population of around 58 million.
Francis, who received a standing ovation as he appeared onstage to address the conference alongside Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, said that young people today “live in a social climate in which starting a family is turning into a Titanic effort”.
He cited the difficulty of trying to plan for the future amid low salaries and high rents in Italy, where the population is ageing and where many young people struggle to find stable full-time jobs.
“The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities,” he said.
He acknowledged the “almost insurmountable constraints” on young women who are effectively forced to choose between a career and motherhood.
Given the high cost of raising children, people were revising their priorities, he added.
“We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realise their family dream and are forced to lower the bar, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, jealously guarding leisure time,” he said.
#Birth rates and a welcoming attitude reveal how much happiness is present in society. A happy community naturally develops the desire to generate and welcome others, while an unhappy society is reduced to a group of individuals defending what they have at all costs.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) May 12, 2023
“We need to prepare fertile ground for a new spring to blossom and leave this demographic winter behind us,” Francis said, calling for “forward-looking policies” to avoid Italy “(degenerating) into sadness”.
“Reviving the birthrate means repairing the forms of social exclusion that are affecting young people and their future,” he added.
“Have you ever imagined a world without babies?” was the provocative question used in publicity for the conference, organised by the Birthrate Foundation, a group with links to Catholic associations that advocate for families.
Despite the religious ties, conference speakers mostly steered clear of some of controversial issues related to Italy’s declining population, such as abortion, surrogacy and migration.
Speakers concentrated primarily on discussing possible solutions including welfare, more childcare and tax relief.
Still, Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida, a key figure in Meloni’s far-right, nationalist Brothers of Italy party, took the opportunity on Thursday to say that the birthrate issue was of concern “because we want to safeguard the culture, languages of Italy”
Meloni, who won the largest share of the women’s vote in September elections but does not consider herself a feminist, has made mothers and families a central part of her discourse.
Her government has not however introduced any concrete policies aimed at addressing the issues faced by young people and families in Italy which experts say are closely tied to the plunging birth rate.
Italy’s population was on the rise until 2014, when it began reversing.
On Thursday, Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti warned that by 2042, Italy’s declining birthrate would end up reducing its gross domestic product (GDP) by 18 percent.
“I think that it should be strongly reiterated that the economic system is closely correlated to births,” Giorgetti said.