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Leader comment: Pope Francis tackles ‘natality’

26 May 2023

POPE FRANCIS has done much to demythologise the papacy, copying his namesake’s disavowal of the trappings of power. He is aware, moreover, of the unhealthy weight sometimes given to personal opinion, which accounts for his benign reticence, especially when greeting ecumenical guests. Conversely, he must be aware, too, of the limited effect of some of his pronouncements, even among the Roman Catholic faithful. None the less, and despite being an 86-year-old single man, he is occasionally drawn into the debate about fertility — even though he tries to avoid referring to the lost-cause campaign against artificial contraception. His most recent contribution on the subject was prompted by the latest fertility figures for Italy, down from 1.25 children per woman in 2021 to 1.24 children last year, jointly with Spain the third lowest in Europe, higher only than Malta and Ukraine. The UK is mid-table, at 1.57 children per woman. Archbishop Welby is probably relieved that this is one intimate problem he doesn’t have to address with his flock.

To be fair to Pope Francis, he generally approaches this topic from the perspective of maternal economics. In his address on “natality” a fortnight ago, he blamed the present culture for being “unfriendly, even hostile, to the family”. Sadly, the UK Government does not listen to papal pronouncements. Only a week on, the Home Office has declared that families of overseas students are expendable — the students will continue to be tolerated (“welcomed” would be too strong a word, despite their contribution to the country’s economy), but only the cleverest ones will be allowed a family life while studying here. As the Government sifts through the European laws it has not the time nor energy to repeal, it might uncover the European Convention of Human Rights in some dusty corner, which enshrines the right not to be unlawfully separated. Unfortunately, those who drafted the convention never conceived of a government that would wish to separate families lawfully.

Pope Francis concentrated his natality speech on women, who are, he said, the “most damaged” by present-day demands. And it is true that, despite laws to the contrary that exist in the UK, the EU, and elsewhere, it is women who most often have to compromise either their career or parenthood or both. In many cultures, they are still expected to shoulder the additional burden of caring for elderly parents. None the less, the Pope’s script-writers/proofreaders should have stripped out his tetchy encounter with the woman who asked him to bless her “baby” dog, and his instruction to mothers not to iron the shirts of indolent sons. The low birth rate is not caused by an attitude problem, and the Pope should continue to point to the high cost of accommodation in many cities, which generally requires two salaries; or the cost of child care. These are issues that the men and women in government need to address. They say that they will, but never do.

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