Decreased birth-rate: A crisis of civilization

by card. Gualtiero Bassetti

According to recent data given by the Italian institute for demographic research, ISTAT, in 2019 there has been one more decreased birth-rate in our country, meaning – again – a negative “Guinness record” from the time of the National Unification onward. The datum, that strengthens the alarming figures provided by the European Commission, highlights that our Continent is getting older and older, while less and less children are born. The decreased birth-rate has actually become a national emergency; and possibly, the greatest one in Europe. It is not a matter of right-wing or left-wing politics, nor simply a matter of money or tax reliefs, however needed. It is a matter of civilization. Such a decrease, in fact, is a sign of a cultural crisis deeply rooted in our recent past.

I was born during World War II, in a world in ruins, very poor and yet rich in human values, still. That world taught me that being ready to share is a source of development, and that life is not only gift and mystery – key issues for any Christian believer – but also a source of richness. Richness sometimes not in material things, but in relationships and morals. Positive richness, implying a exchange between generations in solidarity; a need to make, a development of consumer goods, and economical dynamism. In the Italy of postwar reconstruction, both the young and the old people had their own duties and functions, different but complementary. They all played a role in the “common home,” the oikos mentioned by Pope Francis in Laudato siʼ.

In 1954 Giorgio La Pira, the Catholic thinker who was the mayor of Florence, delivered the keys of the first new houses along the Arno River. On that occasion he expressed three fundamental concepts about the city/home relationship. First of all, each home (according to a popular Italian saying) is an “abbey,” that is, a “garden with good land, producing flowers and fruits.” Secondly, the children, who are the “new shoots,” must be “defended as the apple of your eyes, and the main treasure of the whole city.” Finally, the old people should always find “serene comfort, and a serene end, full of love” in their own home and town.

These words, not to be mistaken for old-fashioned romanticism, maintained all of their modernity. Under those phrases, that may sound obsolete to our ears, lies a whole worldview, a philosophy of history, and above all, a most ancient historical and cultural deposit that has been too hurriedly put aside in Europeʼs everyday life.

Today we undoubtedly have a problem with the political and economical organization of our society as a whole; but, especially, a great existential and cultural issue is involved. In all Europe, or we might say in the whole western world, having a family and children is often considered nothing else than a weight, a huge obstacle against the affirmation and self-determination of the individual, against oneʼs career, or even oneʼs wealth.

At the basis of the current crisis of civilization, as I see it, there is therefore a change in the common mentality, which transformed and finally overturned the very concept of birth: no longer a form of richness for a family and a society, but rather a cause of poverty, a hindrance to oneʼs success and, sometimes, a source of distress. So, today it has become absolutely necessary to change this pattern.

Facing a self-pulverizing society and a political power that gets more and more fragmentary and feudal, we must be aware that, when a baby is born, it means richness for all, not a weight for few people. We must restart to announce – in simplicity, joy, and without detrimental political exploitations – the Gospel of Life. That is, to “pour onto the souls” what La Pira called “the living, regenerating water of Grace, of truth, and peace.”

(translation by Dario Rivarossa)