Those ghosts in the empty Italian cribs

There are, of course, no references to religious faith in the recent Atlantic Monthly business section report that ran under this promising headline: “Europe’s Real Crisis — The Continent’s problems are as much demographic as financial. They won’t go away soon.”

It would be very easy for religious issues to show up in this story, blended in with its discussions of pensions, budget deficits, worker productivity and the current economic crisis in the euro zone.

However, this is not The Atlantic Monthly of 2000 and thereabouts, during the tenure of the late, great Michael Kelly.

This is not, alas, The Atlantic Monthly that spotted crucial religious trends in America and around the world before everybody else was paying attention and defined those trends in balanced, accurate and often stunning cover stories and essays.

This is a business story — alone. That means it has to deal with real forces that are shaping Europe and its future and that, I am afraid, leaves the power of religion on the journalistic sidelines. Thus, we have a religion ghost in this important story.

The key is demographics, which means, of course, birth rates. Thus, in the center of this lengthy report, readers are introduced to the crisis in Italy. As Italy goes, so goes Europe.

Italy, you see, is a symbolic nation — kind of like Greece. That leads us to this lengthy passage:

Strong growth by Europe’s troubled debtor nations would of course offer a different, and less painful, way out. After all, if you make $30,000 a year, a $10,000 credit-card balance is crippling; but if you make $300,000 a year, it’s fairly trivial. The faster Italy’s economy expands, the more manageable Italy’s debt becomes.

But that’s where the dearth of workers comes into play. Everyone agrees that rapid growth would be much nicer than higher taxes and slashed pension payments. The hitch is that over the past five years, growth in the Italian economy hasn’t averaged even 1 percent a year. Soaring growth will be tough to achieve, because more and more Italians are getting too old to work—and fewer and fewer Italians have been having the babies needed to replace them.

Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. And then, one by one, the rest of Europe’s nations will follow. Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population. Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.

Since the invention of birth control and antibiotics, country after country has gone through a fairly standard shift. First, the mortality rate drops, especially among the young and the aging, and that quickly translates into a bigger workforce. Then, birthrates drop, as families realize that they no longer need to birth a basketball team to ensure that a couple members will survive to adulthood. A falling birthrate means that parents can invest more in each child; with fewer mouths to feed, more and better food can nourish each of them, and children can spend more years in school, causing worker productivity to rise from one generation to the next. As the burden of bearing and rearing children lightens, mothers can do more work outside the home, boosting both household resources and the national economy.

And so forth and so on. At this point, we are left with some interesting questions: Why is the birth rate so low in Italy? Might this have something to do with changing norms among Catholics? What is the birth rate for Italian Catholics, these days?

This leads to another question or two: If Italy’s birth rate has ticked up a bit in the wake of recent waves of immigration, where precisely are these immigrants coming from? Would Morocco be a likely source?

To answer either of those questions, journalists will need to ask some religious questions. The answers to those questions will lead to a final pair of questions: Is there a connection between high birth rates (or even normal, sustaining birth rates) and religious faith? What is this connection?

I know that this would be hard to work into a business report, even one that pivots on the reality of falling birth rates in post-Christian Europe. That’s a big story. It’s the kind of story that would require the in-depth reporting that, in the past, during a certain period of time, could be found on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly.

Will there ever be another Michael Kelly?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    Ah, the usual GetReligion reader concern about religion trends abroad.

    Honestly, folks, have you ever seen a study of birth rates that did not involve religion?

  • Jim B

    Is the birthrate decline congruent with the decline of church attendance throughout Europe? If it is, are the two facts correlated? It is an interesting question. Along the same lines, does that drop in religious fervor coincide with medical advances? Do people no longer cling to God because they are living healthier, longer lives and see no need for God in this environment. (A great biblical allusion to this mentality can be found in Deut. 6:10-12 where easy living can drive people away from God)
    I have a question, though. If only an extremely small percentage of a population is observant, when do we stop looking for a religious angle? It would seem to me that looking for a religious angle in a region that is largely moving away from a religious footing in culture is complicated. For a growing percentage of the European population, the move to have fewer children is completely separated from any religious motivation. They would argue that God has nothing to do with their decision.

  • carl

    The ghost is a mirror image. The question that should be asked is “What is the connection between Secularism and low birth rates?” How does a secular worldview change one’s attitude towards children, and how does that altered attitude affect birthrate? Jim B is right. It’s pointless anymore to ask questions about the effect of theistic religion in Europe. What isn’t there simply isn’t important to the outcome. But the absense of theistic religion hasn’t left a vacuum. You have to start asking questions about the effect of the non-theistic religion that dominates the continent.


  • Jerry

    The birth rate is declining all over the world including in the middle East. To look at Italy in isolation is to miss the real trend. The question is important, including the religious aspects, but it really needs a global view to try to understand why this trend is occurring. Some parts of this, such as China’s one child policy, are clearly part of the picture. But there are many other nations involved. So the question for me is to understand what is going on globally after taking local factors into account.

    David Brooks wrote a piece in the NY Times that has been syndicated elsewhere about this world-wide trend. Note that Brooks’ does mention religion but note that his report is counter-intuitive:

    …over the past three decades, the Arab world has undergone a little noticed demographic implosion. Arab adults are having many fewer kids.

    Usually, high religious observance and low income go along with high birthrates. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Iran now has a similar birth rate to New England — which is the least fertile region in the U.S.

    The speed of the change is breathtaking. A woman in Oman today has 5.6 fewer babies than a woman in Oman 30 years ago. Morocco, Syria and Saudi Arabia have seen fertility-rate declines of nearly 60 percent, and in Iran it’s more than 70 percent. These are among the fastest declines in recorded history.

    If you look around the world, you see many other nations facing demographic headwinds. If the 20th century was the century of the population explosion, the 21st century…is looking like the century of the fertility implosion.

    Already, nearly half the world’s population lives in countries with birthrates below the replacement level.

    Russian life expectancy is basically the same as it was 50 years ago, and the nation’s population has declined by roughly six million since 1992.

    Rapidly aging Japan has one of the worst demographic profiles, and most European profiles are famously grim. In China, long-term economic growth could face serious demographic restraints.

    But India faces a regional challenge. Population growth is high in the northern parts of the country, where people tend to be poorer and less educated. Meanwhile, fertility rates in the southern parts of the country, where people are richer and better educated, are already below replacement levels.

    The U.S. has long had higher birthrates than Japan and most European nations. The U.S. population is increasing at every age level, thanks in part to immigration. America is aging, but not as fast as other countries.

    But even that is looking fragile. The 2010 census suggested that U.S. population growth is decelerating faster than many expected.

  • Agnieszka

    Thank you!
    I miss Michael Kelly; he would be smashing all the heresies and breaking false gods!
    I look at the Atlantic Monthly only from a distance, and cringe.

  • Max

    “Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. ”

    What am I missing? As pointed out above, any fertility rate below 2.1 means a population in decline. So how can something “eventually go into reverse” that is already in reverse and has been for some time? That a car used be going in reverse 50mph and is now only going in reverse 30mph, is still going in reverse.

  • Randy McDonald

    It’s worth noting that the European countries with the highest fertility rates–France, Britain, Ireland, the Nordic countries–are among the most secular countries in Europe, while countries with strong traditions of religious or other conservatism like Italy, Germany and Poland have some of the lowest fertility rates in Europe.

    If there’s a relationship in Europe between religiosity and fertility, if anything, it’s a negative relationship: the more religious a society, the fewer children per woman.

  • Therese

    The video “Demographic Winter” correlates strong, faithful religious practice with economic stability and growth. The decline in population cannot be ignored as the key to the financial crises around the world, yet many leaders promote “small families” as a way to save limited resources and behave responsibly ecologically. The dangerous path that they want society to travel is clearly visible both economically and spiritually.

  • Paolo

    I’m an Italian doctor,fifty, born in a small rural village in the North. Now I work in a busy metropolitan ED. What I observed is that my grandfather’s families where tightly traditional catholic. Most of my cousins,25 of 45- from a total amount of 15 uncle and aunt-, have been generated in the same parental faith culture medium, and exactly only from 5 males,two brothers of my mother and two of my father,plus my father. Only four uncle had an average of 5 children, each one. None, of the others, had more than two, excluding obviously five aunts,as nuns.
    In the hospital, where I find a sound faith so rarely between relatives and patients, I can observe a similar pattern. In conclusion, where I get catholic faith, a true belief, I find either a background of a demanding office or a fertile couple.

  • Fr. W. M. Gardner

    I second your recommendation for the “Demographic Winter.” Also, Alan Carlson has done some great work in this area. In his recent essay for “The Family in America” journal, he proposes the following:
    1. Taxpayers should be granted a credit of 25% against their total FICA tax for each child born or adopted, a credit to be continued until the child reaches age 13.
    2. For each child born, a mother should receive three years (or 12 quarters) of employment credits (calculated at the median fulltime income) toward her future Social Security pension.
    Mr. Carlson further proposes similar tax incentives for those who care for elderly relatives at home.

    We need to be firm and bold in proclaiming the religious/moral incentives for generosity in marriage, but also practical and zealous in supporting young, growing families. What a positive approach! Rather than flooding the economy with contraceptives, sterilization and death-dealing drugs.

  • Mr. Hitchens

    I take it everyone in North America has noticed summer came early. What more does it take to convince you Man made Global Warming is here, now.

    I propose the following, in counter to Alan Carlson’s proposal:
    1. A mother should be penalized 25% extra against her total FICA tax for each child born or adopted, a penalty to be continued until either the parent/guardian or child dies.
    2. For each child born, a mother should lose three years (or 12 quarters) of employment credits (calculated at the median fulltime income) toward her future Social Security pension.
    3. Instead of exemptions, for each child born, a mother should have her taxable income increased by $3700.
    The plan is to get over 75% of the women in America to not have any babies at all.

    Our objective is to get total planetary human population under 1,000,000 by 2050, complete ban of fossil and nuclear fuels for electricity generation, complete ban of animal husbandry, and complete ban on antibiotics. Only by doing these items can we keep the Earth’s atmosphere from going into runaway warming which will kill off all higher order animals; truly leaving only a kingdom of cockroaches.

  • Fr. W. M. Gardner

    @”Mr. Hitchens”
    To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, are you volunteering to designate yourself as part of the over-population?
    On the contrary, be assured that Divine Providence will always find room for another soul, both in this world and in the life to come… (yours too), provided one repents of selfishness and avarice!

  • Susie

    Randy MacDonald ignores the power of immigration. The European countries with the highest fertility rates—France, Britain, Ireland, the Nordic countries— all have the highest immigration rates and observant Muslims have lots of children. In Britain, France and Nordic countries NATIVES (not immigrants) have below replacement levels. The immigrants are defacto replacing them. Is that something to cheer? The death of Nordic countries, France and Britain? In the future Italy, Greece and Russia will have their population reduced but they will not have a lot of foreigners (just a couple). In Britain and France you will see less natives, less old-stock Englishmen and Frenchmen.