Pope Francis has recounted how he lost his patience when he was asked to bless a pet dog, complaining to a conference on Italy’s sharply falling birth rates that pets are replacing children.
Italy’s nationalist government is deeply anxious about predictions that the country’s population will shrink drastically in the next couple of decades unless the birth rate can be boosted.
The conference in Rome brought together Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister, along with government ministers and the Pope, who has referred to the crisis as Italy’s “demographic winter”.
He said that the cost of living, inadequate childcare and rising rents meant that starting a family for many Italians was now a “titanic effort”.
Some couples were opting to buy pets rather than have children, he said.
‘Baby’ was small dog
He told a story of a woman whom he met at a Vatican audience two weeks ago who asked for a blessing for “her baby” which turned out to be a small dog.
“I greeted the lady, she opened her bag and said ‘bless my baby’. It was a little dog.
“I lost my patience and upbraided her, saying madam, so many children are hungry and you bring me a little dog,” he told the conference.
Young Italians were dissuaded from having children by “savage” economic conditions, the Pope said.
“Difficulty in finding a stable job, difficulty in keeping one, prohibitively expensive houses, sky-high rents and insufficient wages are real problems.
“The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities.”
He appeared on stage sitting next to the prime minister, who like the Pope wore an all-white outfit.
Giancarlo Giorgetti, the economy minister, said this week that Italy’s GDP could shrink by 18 per cent over the next 20 years if the population continued to fall.
Less economic productivity
Italy’s school population is predicted to contract by one million pupils over the next decade.
A shrinking population will mean less economic productivity and fewer younger people having to pay for the welfare of older citizens, a major headache for the third largest economy in the eurozone.
In January 2022, the Pope said that people who chose to have pets instead of children were selfish.
“Today... we see a form of selfishness. We see that some people do not want to have a child,” the Argentinian pontiff said during his weekly general audience at the Vatican.
“Sometimes they have one, and that's it, but they have dogs and cats that take the place of children.”
Couples who do not procreate deny themselves the joys of parenthood, a decision which “diminishes us, takes away our humanity”, he said.
The remarks provoked a backlash on social media, with critics saying the Pope was out of touch with modern life.