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Pope Francis calls on Italy to boost birth rates as Europe weathers a "demographic winter"

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Rome — Pope Francis warned Friday that Europe is mired in a "demographic winter" and encouraged Italians to have more children. The leader of the Catholic Church urged Italian politicians to take concrete action to tackle financial uncertainty that he said had made having children a "titanic effort" feasible only for the rich.

Speaking at an annual conference on birth rates alongside Italy's right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Francis called on politicians to find solutions to social and economic issues preventing young couples from having children.   

Pope Francis delivers a speech next to Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, May 12, 2023, during a two-day "General States of Birth" conference in Rome. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty

"Difficulty in finding a stable job, difficulty in keeping one, prohibitively expensive houses, sky-high rents and insufficient wages are real problems," said the 86-year-old pontiff, adding: "The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities."

Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe. The country recorded a new record-low number of births last year, at just 392,598. That number is of particular demographic concern when put in the context of the overall number of deaths in the country during 2022, which was 713,499.

Experts say at least 500,000 births are needed annually to prevent Italy's social security system from collapsing. The Italian economy minister warned this week that the country's gross domestic product (GDP) could drop by 18% over the next 20 years if the trend is not reversed. 

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Meloni's government has proposed measures to encourage families to have more children, including lowering taxes for households with kids, helping young couples buy first homes, and urging communities to provide free daycare so parents can return to work.

Francis said the people most impacted by the economic circumstances were young women facing "almost insurmountable constraints" as they're forced to choose between their careers and motherhood. He said many women were being "crushed by the weight of caring for their families."

"We must not accept that our society gives up on generating life and degenerates into sadness," he said.  "When there is no generation of life, sadness steps in, which is an ugly and gray sickness."

Not for the first time, Francis criticized people who chose to have pets instead of children. He told a story of a woman who asked him to bless her "baby," then opened her bag to reveal a small dog. 

"There I lost my patience, and I yelled at the woman: "Madam, many children are hungry, and here you are with a dog!" 

In January of 2022, Francis argued that people choosing to have dogs or cats rather than children "diminishes us, takes away humanity."

Francis has taken part in the annual birth rate event for three consecutive years, appearing in person in 2021 and sending a written message in 2022. He sounded the same alarm on both previous occasions, too, calling on leaders to address low birth rates in Western countries immediately.

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