- Sophia Peteza
- BBC News, Rome
4 hours ago
Pope Francis has warned that starting a family in Italy has become a “tremendous effort” that only the rich can afford.
Speaking at a conference on the demographic crisis in Italy, he said that pets replace children in many families.
Dozens of young people wearing T-shirts bearing the words “We can do this” also stood on stage, referring to persuading people to have more children.
Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in the European Union, and the number of births fell below 400,000 last year, a new low.
In his speech in Rome, Pope Francis said that the low birth rate indicates a lack of hope for the future, as younger generations feel uncertain, fragile and unstable.
“The difficulty in finding a stable job, exorbitant rents and insufficient wages are real problems,” he said.
The pope warned that pets were taking the place of children in some homes, and recounted how a woman opened her bag and asked him to “bless her child”.
Except it was not a child, but a little dog.
He added, “I lost my patience and said to her: There are many hungry children and you are bringing me a dog?”, which sparked a wave of applause from the crowd.
Birth rates are slowing in many countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Puerto Rico and Portugal.
But a shrinking population is a major concern for Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest country.
The country could lose nearly a fifth of its population by 2050. Meanwhile, the population is aging rapidly. The number of centenarians in Italy has tripled over the past 20 years.
Italy is often called “the country of empty cots”. Even Elon Musk tweeted last month, “Italy is disappearing!”
Experts warn that the population crisis will impoverish the nation. Economy Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said that by 2042, Italy’s low birth rate would reduce GDP by 18%.
There are many reasons why women in Italy are having fewer children.
Young people struggle to find stable jobs and the childcare support system is often inadequate, making it difficult for mothers to balance work and family life.
Six out of 10 mothers do not have access to nurseries, according to the charity Save the Children.
Many pregnant women are forced to resign, and some are fired when they become pregnant.
Speaking alongside Pope Francis, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said Italy’s low birth rate was a “national emergency”.
The image of the two leaders, dressed from head to toe in white, conversing together was highly symbolic in Italy, to show that the issue was so urgent that it transcended politics or religion.
“Solving the problem is an absolute priority,” she said. “We want Italy to return to have a bright future.”
Meloni, who won the most women’s votes in the September election but does not consider herself a feminist, made mothers and families an essential part of her rhetoric.
She set up a dedicated ministry to address the issue of declining birth rates and her government has hinted at encouraging people to have children by exempting them from paying income tax.
Pope Francis called on politicians to find “forward-looking solutions to avoid Italy’s descent into grief”.
At the end of his speech, several pregnant women lined up on stage for Pope Francis to touch and bless their stomachs.
Soon after, a group of children encircled the Pope in a group hug, something likely orchestrated by the event’s organizers.