Cross-posted from LifeSiteNews.
The latest birth rate record, released last week by the Italian government’s statistical agency, Istat, has shown that in the first four months of 2013, 8,000 fewer children were born in Italy than in the same period of the previous year. With a total fertility rate standing at about 1.41 children born per woman, Italy’s birth rate is ranked 203rd out of 224 countries of the world.
As of this year too, Italian deaths have outstripped births, with 10.01 deaths per 1,000 population and 8.94 births per 1,000. And the gap is widening. The numbers for 2012 showed about 12,000 fewer births than the previous year and about 19,000 more deaths than in 2011.
Moreover, Italians are increasingly reporting that, despite their nation’s reputation for natural beauty, good food and an easy-going lifestyle, they are not happy. According to a survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the OECD Better Life Index, asked to rate their satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Italians placed their own happiness at about 5.8, lower than the OECD average of 6.6.
While some secular pundits are pointing the finger at the economic crisis, Christian observers have warned that the collapse in the birth rate, and its accompanying social and psychological malaise, have nothing to do with either the post-war economic booms or the current recession. Indeed, the drop in fertility has been a feature of Italian life for four decades, following a post-war population and economic boom. The country legalised contraception, divorce and abortion in rapid succession in the 1970s.
Riccardo Cascioli commented on the statistics, writing in the Christian opinion website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, that the loss of children is a consequence of Italy’s loss of its religious identity. “Actually you stop bringing children into the world not for lack of money but out of a lack of confidence in the future, and it is no coincidence that the collapse of births in Italy have accompanied the rapid process of secularization, which from a social point of view and from the legislature, resulted in the spread of contraception, the introduction of divorce and abortion with all that this implies.”
While the country is still identified strongly with Catholicism, with about 80 per cent of the population being at least nominally Christian, weekly attendance at Mass has never been lower. An on-the-ground survey in the archdiocese of Milan in 2007 showed that the commonly quoted statistic of 30 per cent was wildly over-optimistic. On the spot surveys showed that only about 15 per cent said they had been to Mass on all of the previous four Sundays.
After a trend of growth in both population and the economy following World War II, the Italian population leveled out and remained essentially unchanged between 1981 and 2001. With increasing immigration, the population again started showing an increase in the beginning of the 2000s.
As of January 2011, Italy’s total population was 60,626,442 inhabitants. The population has grown in the last year, at a rate of about 0.5 per cent. As with most developed nations, however, the only demographic factor keeping Italy’s population from actually shrinking, is immigration. According to 2012 statistics, about 4.3 million or about 7.4 percent of the population are foreign born, up from 6.8 the previous year.
Also with the slow birth rate has come an increase in the average age, with people over 65 now accounting for one fifth of the population. Italian demographer Giancarlo Baliga said last year that by 2041 “The age group most represented in the structure of the Italians will become the 70s.”
With the fertility rate standing at one of the lowest in the world, can be paired the median female age of 45.3 years, a combination from which, demographers say, its is all but impossible to recover. This can be compared with a country of similar population size, the Democratic Republic of Congo, with a median female age of 17.9 years and a total fertility rate of 4.95 children born per woman.
Italy’s population decline is not being slowed even by its immensely superior medical care and consequently longer life expectancy. With only 3.33 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, Italy has one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world, compared with the Congo’s 74.87 deaths per 1,000 live births. The Italian average overall life expectancy is 81.95 years compared with the Congo’s 56.14 years.
Commenting on the latest Istat figures and the loss of social confidence, Ernesto Galli della Loggia wrote in Corriere della Sera, “This is the Italy of today. A country whose so-called civil society is immersed in modernity, with 161 phones for every hundred inhabitants, but a population who do not read books… and who hold the European record for hours spent each day in front of the television (just under 4 hours each, according to statistics).” “All these things together are our crisis. And all these things feed discouragement that gains more ground, the feeling of mistrust that resonates today in countless conversations, in the most minute daily commentaries and between different stakeholders. The idea grows increasingly insistent that for Italy, there is no more hope. Increasingly a singular notion is spreading: that we have arrived at the end of a race that began a long time ago between a thousand hopes, but which now is ending in nothing.”
Galli della Loggia blamed political corruption and the economic crisis, saying that the low fertility rate is a consequence of people having less money and less job security. But Riccardo Cascioli countered that while this may seem like “common sense,” its “reasoning is contradicted by reality”. The trend to lower birth rates, Cascioli said, has been a feature of Italian life for four decades, “when the fertility rate of Italian women fell well below the European average, which is currently around 1.5 children per woman”. “In other words, the collapse of births is prior to the economic crisis and, in fact, is a cause of the latter, indeed the root cause.” “We must recognize,” Cascioli wrote, “that this is a crisis of identity for all Italian people, who have long stopped believing in the future and in life, and who therefore are condemned to a slow extinction unless a new factor intervenes.”