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“The birth of children, in fact, is the main indicator for measuring the hope of a population. If few are born it means there is little hope,” said Pope Francis to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during a large forum held in Rome on birth rates this May 12, 2023.
Like the Pontiff, the head of the Italian government called for a “demographic spring” and defended the “subsidiary approach” that has been taken by the policies her administration has been putting in place to support families. Meloni also denounced the “straitjacket of ideology” that tries to challenge the foundations of the family.
For the third year in a row, Pope Francis participated in the “General States of Natality,” a forum aimed at finding solutions to the demographic winter in Italy. According to The World Factbook, with only 1.24 births per woman, Italy has the worst fertility rate in Europe and the 6th worst globally. The 2023 birth rate in the country was 7 births per 1,000 people.
Important figures from the Italian political, economic, and social sphere are invited to speak every year at the forum. On the stage of the “Auditorium Conciliazione,” a concert hall a few meters from the Vatican, Pope Francis met the Italian Prime Minister and each gave a speech before an audience of schoolchildren, activists, and journalists.
Giorgia Meloni was elected in October 2022 and is part of the right-wing Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party.
“Children are not individual assets, they are people who contribute to the growth of all, bringing human and generational wealth,” the Pope said in his speech. He noted his alarm at the “historically low” birth rate in Italy in 2022 – only 393,000 newborns, compared to 576,000 in 2008 – seeing it as a sign of “great concern for tomorrow.”
A culture that has become “hostile to the family”
Pope Francis warned against a society that promotes the idea that everyone has “to rely solely on one’s strength” or where “only the wealthiest can afford […] the freedom of choosing what shape their lives will take.”
“This is unfair, as well as humiliating,” he insisted.
The Pontiff denounced “a culture that is unfriendly, if not hostile, to the family, centered as it is on the needs of the individual, where individual rights are continually claimed and the rights of the family are not discussed.”
“Nowadays, bringing children into the world is perceived as an undertaking to be borne by families,” Francis said. “This, unfortunately, affects the mindset of the younger generations, who grow up in uncertainty, if not disillusionment and fear. They experience a social climate in which starting a family has turned into a titanic effort, instead of being a shared value that everyone recognizes and supports.”
More policies to help young people
The Pope also stressed the “feeling of precariousness” felt by younger generations. In particular, he highlighted the “real problems” of youth unemployment, the difficulty of young people in finding affordable housing, and insufficient salaries. In January 2023, youth unemployment in Italy was at 30%.
The Pontiff also highlighted the “almost insurmountable constraints on women,” who are often “forced to the crossroads between career and motherhood, or crushed by the burden of caring for their families.”
“Of course, there is Providence, and millions of families testify to it by their lives and choices, but the heroism of so many cannot become an excuse for all,” the Pope emphasized. “Therefore, forward-looking policies are needed. […] It is necessary to address the problem together, without ideological fences and preconceived stances. […] The family is not part of the problem, but is part of its solution.”
Meloni: subsidiarity rather than “welfarism”
Giorgia Meloni, borrowing many of the Pontiff’s expressions, highlighted the aid policies that her government has promoted, for example in terms of housing assistance or parental leave. The politician, mother of a 6-year-old girl, also acknowledged the difficulties faced by women who wish to be mothers while continuing to work.
She then defended a “subsidiary,” rather than “imposing” approach marked by “welfarism.” She said her government wants “a state that accompanies and not directs,” as they “want to believe in people.” Meloni explained that the low birth rate is not just a material problem but also that of “the ability a society has to perceive itself as vital.”
The Prime Minister asserted that she would do everything to fight the demographic winter, and said this issue is her government’s “absolute priority.” Then, turning to the Pope, she assured him: “Your Holiness, we love our families, we love our homeland, we believe in our future. And we will do our part until the end.”
Birth rates and immigration
The Pope and the Prime Minister seemed to be in perfect harmony during their speeches, with the possible exception of when the Pope called for not opposing births and the “welcoming” of migrants. He described them as “two sides of the same coin” as they “reveal to us how much happiness there is in society.”
“A happy community naturally develops desires to generate and integrate, to welcome, while an unhappy society is reduced to a sum of individuals trying to defend what they have at all costs,” the Pontiff insisted. Meloni’s party is conservative when it comes to welcoming migrants.
In his speech, the Pontiff once again criticized those who treat “little dogs” as children. He also denounced “private and mediocre substitutes” proposed to young couples, such as “making money, aiming for a career, traveling, jealously guarding leisure time …”