Pope Francis joined Italy's conservative premier on Friday in encouraging Italians to have more children, denouncing the financial precariousness facing young couples and "selfish, egotistical" choices that have led to a record low birth rate that is threatening the country's economic future.
Francis urged concrete political action to invert the "demographic winter," which in population terms resulted in the disappearance of a city the size of Bari last year. Blasting couples who have pets instead of children, Francis called for resources to be dedicated to helping couples grow their families, saying it was necessary to "plant the future" with hope.
"Let us not resign ourselves to sterile dullness and pessimism," Francis told an annual gathering of pro-family organizations. "Let us not believe that history is already marked, that nothing can be done to reverse the trend."
Italy recorded a record low number of live births last year, 392,598, which combined with an elevated number of deaths, 713,499, has accelerated the demographic trend that threatens to crash the country's social security system. The government of Premier Giorgia Meloni is backing a campaign to encourage at least 500,000 births annually by 2033, a rate that demographers say is necessary to prevent the economy from collapsing by growing the wage-earning population as retirees draw on their pensions.
Meloni came to power last year on a pro-family campaign of "God, family, fatherland" and her government has proposed a host of measures to try to encourage families to have more children, given Italy's fertility rate of 1.24 children per woman is among the lowest in the world. Numerous studies have pointed to a combination of factors that discourage women from having children, including a lack of affordable child care spots, low salaries and precarious work contracts, and a tradition of women often bearing the burden of caring for older parents.
Meloni, who has a daughter with her partner, told the family association congress that it was time to reverse the trend. But she said it must be done without resorting to surrogacy, hitting on broader political talking points that have surrounded the demographic debate in Italy as well as the government's crackdown on migrants and aversion to registering children of same-sex couples.
"We want a nation where it is no longer scandalous to say that — whatever the legitimate, free choices, inclinations of each person — we are all born of a man or a woman," Meloni said to applause. "Where it is not taboo to say that motherhood is not for sale, that wombs are not for rent and children are not over-the-counter products that you can choose on the shelf as if you were in the supermarket and maybe return if then the product does not match what you expect."
Speaking in religious terms, Meloni concluded by saying that her government wants to begin by "respecting the dignity, the uniqueness, the sacredness of every single human being, because each of us has a unique and unrepeatable genetic code. And this, like it or not, has something of the sacred."
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