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Italy Debates The Definition Of “Family”…A Half-Century Too Late

Last Thursday, January 28th, Italy’s Senate began deliberations on the question of “civil unions.”  Following in the paths already trod by most nations of the West, Italy is debating the 21st-century definition of the family, particularly as it relates to homosexuality and same-sex unions.  The Associated Press described the debate – and the cultural conflict that prompted it – as follows:

In Italy, family is considered so sacred that marriage is lauded in the Constitution.  But what kind of family?

That has become a bitterly divisive question in a nation where the Vatican packs considerable political weight and where gays have grown impatient as other traditionally Catholic European countries have either allowed same-sex couples to marry or legally recognized their civil unions. . . .

Besides the faith factor, the proposed bill has prompted a rethink of what constitutes family in a country where people rely on relatives or spouses when the state falls short. Grandparents care for children because public daycare spots are scarce; hospital staff often assume Italians will bring hot meals to their relatives’ bedside.

“Culturally, family is the ballast to Italian identity,” said Lisa Colletta, a professor of gender studies at The American University of Rome.

Of course, this issue has been widely addressed elsewhere in the West.  But the influence of the Church and the presence of the Vatican make Italy different and suggest that a more serious, thorough, and fair-minded airing of the question of same-sex unions may be the ultimate outcome of this legislative endeavor.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but wonder if the Italian people and even the Church are wasting their time bickering over the question of homosexuality’s role in defining the family, even as the basic family unit is collapsing in Italy and throughout Europe for reasons entirely unrelated to gay rights or same-sex unions.

Almost exactly a year ago, Pope Francis made headlines by stating the obvious.  Among other things, he said that having more children is “not an irresponsible choice;” that choosing not to have children is “a selfish choice;” that “Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is “enriched, not impoverished;” and that children are “the joy of family and society.”  He is right, of course, although one could be forgiven for thinking that people of Italy gave up on the idea of the traditional “family” decades ago, as did their neighbors in the part of the world formerly known as “Christendom.”  Here, the acerbic author and columnist Mark Steyn puts it as only he could:

[T]he salient feature of Europe, Canada, Japan and Russia is that they’re running out of babies.  What’s happening in the developed world is one of the fastest demographic evolutions in history: most of us have seen a gazillion heartwarming ethnic comedies — My Big Fat Greek Wedding and its ilk — in which some uptight WASPy type starts dating a gal from a vast loving fecund Mediterranean family, so abundantly endowed with sisters and cousins and uncles that you can barely get in the room.  It is, in fact, the inversion of the truth.  Greece has a fertility rate hovering just below 1.3 births per couple, which is what demographers call the point of “lowest-low” fertility from which no human society has ever recovered.  And Greece’s fertility is the healthiest in Mediterranean Europe: Italy has a fertility rate of 1.2, Spain 1.1.  Insofar as any citizens of the developed world have “big” families these days, it’s the anglo democracies: America’s fertility rate is 2.1, New Zealand a little below.  Hollywood should be making My Big Fat Uptight Protestant Wedding in which some sad Greek only child marries into a big heartwarming New Zealand family where the spouse actually has a sibling.

As I say, this isn’t a projection: it’s happening now.  There’s no need to extrapolate, and if you do it gets a little freaky, but, just for fun, here goes: by 2050, 60 per cent of Italians will have no brothers, no sisters, no cousins, no aunts, no uncles.  The big Italian family, with papa pouring the vino and mama spooning out the pasta down an endless table of grandparents and nieces and nephews, will be gone, no more, dead as the dinosaurs.  As Noel Coward once remarked in another context, “Funiculi, funicula, funic yourself.”  By mid-century, Italians will have no choice in the matter.

Now, I understand that different people have different priorities, and that this truism applies to Popes as much as to anyone else.  That said, it doesn’t take a demographer or a Euro-phile to grasp that something critically important was lost when Pope Benedict retired and his emphasis on renewing Christianity’s strength in its ancestral homeland was replaced by Pope Francis’s emphasis on the “global South” and the problems of the developing world.  Obviously, one cannot say that the former is definitively more important than the latter, or vice versa.  And the Holy Father clearly knows better than I where the Church’s greatest challenges lie.  Nevertheless, it is striking how many of the world’s present problems and crises have their roots in, and/or a serious connection to, the collapse of the family in the explicitly post-Christian West.

Once upon a time, the West played global policeman, sometimes exacerbating trouble, but more often creating and maintaining the peace between erstwhile implacable neighbors.  In the post-colonial world, however, the West’s lack of cultural confidence, its civilizational guilt, and its personnel-starved militaries have combined to sow confusion, indifference and moral angst.  As Syria continues to degenerate and continues to spawn both millions of refugees and countless secondary conflicts, it is worth contemplating the role that civilizational and demographic collapse have played in the West’s failure of will.

Likewise, once upon a time, the economies of Western Europe were the envy of the world: generous social welfare benefits, high standards of living, early retirement, cradle-to-grave government support.  Today, however, the continental economic model is itself collapsing for want of young workers.  This, in turn, has fed a need for foreign migration, Muslim social dislocation within the West, “home-grown” Islamic terrorism and the current migrant crisis, which threatens to explode into a full-blown clash of civilizations.

I both understand and am sympathetic to the Italians who wish desperately to preserve their cultural and religious connection to “the family,” the very foundation of the cultural infrastructure.  At the same time, I can’t help but think that those who will spend the next several days, weeks and months arguing for the legal retention of a traditional definition of the family have missed the point entirely.  In Italy – as in the rest of “Christendom” – the family was destroyed long ago and by forces that have nothing whatsoever to do with homosexuality or same-sex relationships.  Rather, it was destroyed by selfishness, laziness, cultural apathy and, above all, antagonism to, and resentment of, traditional Judeo-Christian religious values.

In short, the Italians can fight over, discuss and alter the definition of the family all they want.  None of it will make a lick of difference unless and until they rediscover their cultural and religious heritage.  A society that has no need and no desire for children is already lost.  And calling one thing a marriage, another a civil union, and the still another an abomination won’t change a thing.