Monday, January 19, 2015

Why aren't Italians having babies?


I recently came across a startling fact:  If present trends continue, by the year 2050 roughly 60% of Italians will no longer have the experience of having a brother, sister, aunt, uncle, or cousin.  How can this be?  Like many countries in Europe, the birth rate is well below the replacement rate.  And when couples are having children, they are only having one.  Fast forward to the next generation – if I’m an only child and I marry an only child, then neither of us know what it means to have a sibling.  And it follows that our children will not have aunts, uncles, or first cousins. 

Dennis Jarvis, "Italy-2516-Taormina" is licensed under CC by 2.0
Why aren’t Italians having babies?  Is it true that their cultural and civilizational morale is  truly so low, their hope for the future truly so bleak that they do not have the collective desire to raise up a new generation?  Following St. John Paul II’s line of thought, how is it possible that an entire culture can come to view children as a threat rather than a gift?

To find an answer, I need look no further than my own heart. 

When my daughter was 11 months old, my husband and I conceived again.  Mary Claire, my beloved little girl, was still so dependent on her mama.  Due to medical problems early on, she was just beginning to catch up developmentally.  Anticipating the demands made on a mother by an infant, I admit that several times throughout the early weeks of my second pregnancy I found myself thinking things like this:

“Mary Claire’s not showing any signs of walking soon – what on earth will I do if I have to carry two babies around wherever I go?” 

“Poor Mary Claire!  With another baby around, I won’t be able to respond as quickly as I am now when she needs me. What if she’s crying and I can’t comfort her?”

Though it is truly insane, I admit that the notion that this new child was somehow a threat to me, but moreover, a threat to my firstborn, was very real.  Gratefully, through the life of grace, a wonderful husband, and good friends, I was able to recognize these passing thoughts for what they were and ask Jesus to send them back to hell where they belong. 

Thank God for the experience. It affirms for me the answer to this question: How do the “structures of sin” John Paul II spoke about become embedded in a culture?  Always and only and evermore through individual acts of spiritual decision – through the human heart.  Hearts like yours, and hearts like mine. 

After loving my husband, a sibling is the greatest gift I can give my daughter.  By God’s grace, I’ll be able to introduce her to her brother or sister in the next few weeks, and her education in the little “school of love” that is our family will begin a new chapter. 

May grace be at work in Italy and everywhere, one human heart at a time.


  1. I had one brother and three cousins I rarely saw growing up. My mother was an only child; my father had three siblings but only one had children. When I married a man with three siblings and more than 100 cousins, I had no idea how to relate to such a big family. Was I supposed to learn all their names? Memorize a family tree? I was always taught that responsible people had two children, it was just the way things were. My husband's family was not irresponsible, just different, and I was fascinated by it but not enough to have a big family of my own. It was never even a possibility I considered. Not until many years after my marriage, when my own two children were enjoying their many (but nowhere near 100) cousins, did I hear Pope John Paul II talk about this very subject. Although he was referring to France, he said that one-child families led to exactly this situation, no aunts or uncles or cousins: a poverty of love. That is when I realized that the secular ideas I'd been raised in had left me with a poverty of love, and that I had given my children the same thing. My children have a bigger extended family than I did, but just one sibling. Catholic thinking about marriage and family is not the same as the general one in the West, which is the air we live and breathe. Yes, it's from fear and a certain kind of selfishness, but they aren't overt. They are just the way we live, part of the assumptions we make about what a "good parent" does, how a "responsible person" lives, what it's "possible to do," etc. The average American woman, married or unmarried, rich or poor, has 2 children. If it's that common, there are underlying assumptions that are emotional and cultural, things that undergird all conscious thought. It is difficult to change ideas you don't even know you have, because they are the unquestioned basis for the ideas you know you have. Figuring out how to deal with that is a major task for the Church today, but I don't think many people have realized it yet.

  2. It's interesting to see how this ethic of sterility is affecting everything, not just perhaps the obvious things (like children having no siblings or extended family). For example, in Mandarin Chinese, there are different words to represent the different relationships a child has with his cousins and aunts and uncles, depending not only if they are paternal or maternal, but also if they are an in-law, and where they are according to age. 姨 = Aunt, mother's sister; 姑母 = aunt, father's married sister. It goes on and on.

    But, given China's one child policy, these words are being wiped out in a generation or so. Language is deeply tied to culture (what we can and choose to name and articulate indicates directly what we value as a people), so I would venture to say the death of language is a very strong indicator of the death of a culture. Or at least its revaluation (see of course, 1984 amongst others).

    I think we tend to think of these things as a matter or choice, which doesn't affect us beyond our own little nuclear families, but like you mention Ms. Finke, there are a lot of other issues at stake, even if they are not surface level.

    By the way Katie, that is a MOST professional picture!

  3. Gail this is said so rarely and I think it hits the nail on the head, especially with the New Evangelization: "It is difficult to change ideas you don't even know you have, because they are the unquestioned basis for the ideas you know you have." This is our culture today.


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