On May 14, 2021, Pope Francis delivered a notable opening speech to the Forum of Family Associations. The Forum was founded in 1993 as an umbrella organization embracing 500 associations, which Pope Francis calls a “family of families” that promotes and supports the family. In a nutshell, Francis’ message was pro-life, pro-family, pro-women, and pro-birth, addressing Italy’s demographic winter and the drop in births in that country.
The event reminded me of an advertisement in 2018 by Chicco – the famous Italian brand of baby products, widely known in the USA – calling for a baby boom in Italy. Even if one does not know Italian, the enthusiasm of the speaker in the ad inviting people to multiply is contagious. The advertising reads:
2018: for the first time in sixty years, Italy does not play the world championship. A tragedy, [for] the great Azura, conqueror of four world championships! Every goal, every shout of joy, every world championship won, has always ended with a baby boom, a punctual explosion of birth rate, an abundance of newborns flooded us [Italians] with optimism, making Italy an extraordinary nation. However, today, the reality is different, but the solution is obvious: let’s have another baby boom! We need children! Thousands, millions, trillions of children! Children who will help us grow, bringing Italy to the right place to be. Let’s do it for Italy!
The ad was so popular with the Italian public that it attracted as many enthusiasts as critics, with some of its critics going so far as to compare the Chicco baby boom campaign to Mussolini’s battle-for-births and the fascist pro-natalist movement, which stressed the importance of numero come forza (strength in [birth] numbers) as a strength of the fascist state.
Unlike Chicco’s advertising, Pope Francis’ pro-birth and pro-family speech did not make headlines. Many Vatican observers wondered why his speech received little press, and several others speculated about Francis’ loss of credibility with the pro-life movement. My recommendation to the critics and skeptics is this: read what Pope Francis had to say. It is a short, but a good read.
What Francis’ message and 2018 Chicco commercial both evidence is Italy’s loss of pro-birth culture, which is a plague not only for Italy but also for several other European countries, including Malta, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and others. Those who thought that the lockdowns and COVID-19 quarantine restrictions would increase the number of births must be disappointed, as the reverse has happened. On May 3, the ISTAT (Italian Institute of Statistics) reported that the population continues to decrease rapidly everywhere in Italy. On January 1, 2021, there were 59,258,000 residents in Italy, 384,000 less than in the previous year (the population of Florence, for context, is about 382,000).
Italy registered a historic minimum of births since the 19th-century Italian Unification and a maximum number of deaths: 7 newborns and 13 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants. The old continent is shrinking; Europe has entered what scholars call the second demographic transition, which started in 1965. The principal feature of the second demographic transition is the decline in fertility from above the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, which ensures that births and deaths will be balanced, and the population will remain stable in the long run, to a level well below replacement (see “Europe’s Second Demographic Transition”).
From the start of the of his address, Francis positions himself on the side of women, valuing their contribution to the workforce. However, he recognizes that women, unlike men (who are mostly rewarded for being a parent), are penalized when they are pregnant. Francis stated:
I also think, with sadness, of women at work who are discouraged from having children or have to hide their pregnancies. How is it possible that a woman should feel ashamed of the most beautiful gift that life can offer? Not the woman, but society should be ashamed, because a society that does not welcome life stops living.
Women hiding their pregnancies from employers even when they are already in the workforce? Yes, this is real, even in the United States, although federal law prohibits discrimination against pregnant job applicants. How many women cover up their baby bumps under loose clothes when they interview for jobs? And how many women wait until the last minute to disclose their pregnancy to their bosses? Or worse, how many women renounce motherhood altogether because of fear of losing their jobs and their careers?
Pope Francis’ speech focused on three concepts—gift, sustainability, and solidarity—as possible remedies to overcome the demographic winter overwhelming Italy and contemporary society in general. Life is a gift: the greatest gift one receives gratuitously, living proof of a free and mutual gift of the parents. According to Pope Francis, the gift of life is not to be kept to oneself; it is a gift to be shared, transmitted – a gift that we are called to pass on:
… a child is the greatest gift for everyone and comes first. To a child, to every child, is attached this word: first. Just as a child is awaited and loved before he or she is born, so we must put children first if we are to see the light again after the long winter.
The Church has always taught that children are the supreme gift of marriage (cf Gaudium et Spes, 50) and the gift of life. Francis is critical of the indifference to the gift of life which has particularly plagued the affluent countries. The second pillar in Francis’ speech is sustainability: handing down the gift of life or, as he calls it, generational sustainability:
We will not be able to nurture production and preserve the environment if we do not pay attention to families and children.
Francis is making a case for sustainable growth, which cannot be possible without sustainable births and without confidence that people will be able to find sustainable employment. The models followed by youth are far from the Christian vocation of welcoming life. Instead, money, success, individualism, and good appearances come first. The penalization of families, the culture of abortion, and the use of contraception have created the demographic cliff. Instead, Francis is calling to turn attention to firsts, to priorities: children.
Sustainability, however, comes with a great deal of responsibility for parents, who have the natural vocation to educate children so they may grow up to be responsible for themselves and for others. As Francis explained in his March 20, 2015 General Audience. But, sustainability has also a soul, which in Francis’ observation is structural-societal solidarity. The pontiff is calling on societies and governments to invest in family policies, to give stability to families, which in turn will encourage births:
There is an urgent need to offer young people guarantees of sufficiently stable employment, security for their homes, and incentives not to leave the country.
In sum, Francis is encouraging governments to put the natural family in the center of economic and social policies, to defend and strengthen the family as the cornerstone of society. The pontiff is reaffirming the goodness and centrality of the culture of life, of the family and children. His message is pro-all of these: family, birth, and ultimately life. Francis’ speech was indeed good pro-life and pro-family news that was not reported by the media. We can hope that his address will bear fruit, and that contemporary society value the gift of life, providing sustainable options for families, and sharing solidarity with those who care for others. Most certainly, Chicco and other baby product companies would not be the only beneficiaries of such a baby boom.
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