Pope Francis lamented Italy’s drastically declining birth rate at the opening of an initiative by the Forum of Family Associations.
Since the start of Covid pandemic last year, the Pope has avoided public engagements outside the Vatican. But two days after resuming General Audiences “in the presence of the faithful,” the Roman Pontiff made his way up the Via della Conciliazione to take part in the opening of the General States of Birth initiative, aimed addressing Italy’s demographic winter. Among the participants in the meeting, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who along with Forum President Gigi De Palo, both of whom spoke ahead of the Holy Father.
In his address for the opening of the General States of Birth, Pope Francis confronted the issue head on, noting that the Italy has long had the lowest birth rate in Europe. In 2020, Italy saw the fewest number of births since national unification in the 19th century. Although young people want to have children, the Pope said, “their dreams of life, buds of rebirth for the country, clash with a demographic winter that is still cold and dark: only half of young people believe they will be able to have two children in their lifetime.”
Putting families at the centre
To turn the situation around, Pope Francis insisted that it is necessary to care for families, especially by providing opportunities for work and hope that they will be able to bear the cost of raising children. He praised Italy for providing a universal allowance for every child born and encouraged further social reforms “that put children and families at the centre.” “If families are not at the centre of the present,” he said, “there will be no future; but if families start again, everything will start again.”
He then proposed three key ideas that could contribute to “the hoped-for spring, which will lift us out of the demographic winter”: gift, sustainability, and solidarity.
The first involves recognising that life is a gift that all have received, and that all are called to pass on. He complained that modern societies – and especially affluent ones – tend to be centred on self, leading to greater indifference and less solidarity. To combat this tendency, he said, “Let us help one another not to lose ourselves in the things of live, but to rediscover life as the meaning of all things.”
His second “idea” involved the concept of sustainability, “a key word for building a better world.” Sustainability refers not only to the economy or the environment, but also to generational sustainability. Sustainable growth can only occur when the children and families are cared for. He denounced a modern mentality that finds fulfilment in wealth and success, and sees children only as a distraction that “hinders one’s personal aspirations,” describing it as a “cancer” in society that “makes the future unsustainable.”
The “soul” of sustainability, he continued, is solidarity. In addition to generational sustainability, there is a need for “structural solidarity,” the Pope maintained. Although spontaneous support for families in times of crisis is important, he argued that the world cannot remain indefinitely on an emergency family. Instead, he called for far sighted family policies, based on a broad view of the common good, rather than simply on immediate consensus. In particular, he insisted that young people need “guarantees” of stable employment, security in their homes, and incentives to stay in the country.
He also called for businesses to promote life and not focus exclusively on turning a profit: “how wonderful it would be to see an increase in the number of businesses and companies that, in addition to producing profits, promote lives, that are careful never to exploit people with unsustainable conditions and hours, that are able to distribute part of the profits to workers, with a view to contributing to an invaluable development, that of families!” The Pope said this is a challenge, especially in countries that are “often rich in resources, but poor in hope.”
He also tackled the issue of information, insisting that providing information must serve human growth. He called for a “family-format information” that treats others with respect and dignity, as if they were relatives. The sharing of information, however, must also “must bring to light the interests and plots that damage the common good, the manoeuvres that revolve around money, sacrificing families and individuals.”
Concluding his remarks, Pope Francis called on participants in the General States of Birth initiative not to lose hope. “Sometimes you will feel as if you are shouting in the desert, tilting against windmills. But go on, do not give up, because it is good to dream, to dream well and to build the future. And without a birth rate there is no future.”
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