ROME – Over the last four years, Catholicism has been gripped by titanic debates over the family – the theology and sacramental practice of marriage, the Church’s discipline regarding the admission of divorced and civilly remarried believers to Communion, how to make pastoral sense of people living together outside of marriage, all culminating in Pope Francis’s contested document Amoris Laetitia.

However intense, the debate sometimes has been light on hard empirical data on what’s actually happening to families in the 21st century, which is a hole Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University attempted to plug Feb. 22 with a session titled “The Family between Demographic Change and Models of Development,” intended to bring the most recent demographic and social scientific data to bear on family dynamics.

To some extent the session was focused on Italy, but the broad trends discussed apply to most Western societies.

At a global level, developing countries are experiencing a demographic boom while developed countries – especially on the Old Continent – seem to be resigning themselves to negative population growth.

Hidden underneath these big picture dynamics lies the fundamental building block of the family, which in the past 40 years has experienced profound changes that have had a significant impact on the world and people’s everyday lives.

Between demographic traps and national suicide

To start with, the two experts who spoke Feb. 22 pointed to a negative correlation between income per capita and demographic growth. It’s something the world has seen happen time and time again: When a certain degree of affluence takes hold, families are less inclined to have children.

“If an additional person is added to the existing capital [of a modern family], the per capita income diminishes,” said Fernando de la Iglesia Viguiristi, professor of Economy and Catholic Doctrine at the Pontifical Gregoriana University in Rome.

The Spanish Jesuit explained that having children in today’s developed world constitutes a significant expense for families, which impacts demographic growth. This is the case, he said, for countries such as Greece, Italy, Japan, Spain and Germany, which, according to United Nations estimates, are facing long term population decline.

While in certain countries having children can be a costly and, at times, inconvenient investment, in developing or underdeveloped countries children are a fundamental resource. Countries such as India, Bangladesh and many nations in Africa have been experiencing rapid population growth in the context of depleting resources and high poverty levels. South Sudan, for example, has been suffering violent conflicts and widespread famine, yet data shows that it has seen the highest population growth rate in the world in 2017 (at 7.9 percent).

“Poor countries experience a demographic trap, where high levels of fertility and poverty strengthen one another,” said Iglesia, quoting the economist Jeffrey Sachs. He presented UN outlooks showing that by 2100, the global population might reach 30 billion people, which “the world cannot feed.” (That’s a premise, by the way, that Iglesia disputed, noting that it derives from the 18th and 19th century English scholar Thomas Malthus, but arguing that scientific advances such as the “Green Revolution” have shown Malthus was wrong — expanding populations can actually be sustained.)

According to Iglesia, the choices of low income families will determine the demographic future of the world. Women, for obvious reasons, are central to achieving a quick transition in terms of population growth. Guaranteeing education and job opportunities for young women, instead of marrying them off at an early age is one important step in reducing certain demographic trends.

The expert concluded by saying that when it comes to population studies it’s hard to determine the direction of global events and “things may not be as bad as they seem.”

Overall, Iglesia expressed more concern for the birth stagnation in developed countries, rather than for the rapid demographic growth of developing ones. “Having children means having a future,” he said. “If a country decides to not have children, it’s like committing suicide.”

More ‘momma’s boys’ than mommas

If you feel like you’ll never get your kid to move out of the garage, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In the United States, about 15 percent of Millennials – that is young people between the ages of 25 and 35 – are deciding to continue living in their parents’ home and this trend is likely to continue, according to a 2017 Pew study.

Compared to Italy, these numbers are child’s play. In 2016, about 37 percent of women and 50 percent of men continued to live with their parents until well into their 30s. Being a ‘Mammone,’ the Italian word for “momma’s boy” is something of a compliment in the Bel Paese, and statistics prove it.

In most countries reaching independence, despite its risks and challenges, is necessary to promote entrepreneurship and growth, according to Rossella Rettaroli, a statistics professor at the University of Bologna.

“In Italy the opposite occurs,” she said. “Children are not allowed to leave the home in order not to diminish their lifestyle.”

There are multiple factors that play into this trend, not least of all the financial crisis that hit the job market the hardest when this generation began looking for work. But according to the statistical expert this is an expression of the patriarchal societies of the Mediterranean, where more generations live together under the same roof.

This results in an “unspoken contract” between older and younger generations, Rettaroli explained, where parents financially support their children so that in turn their children will support them once they are no longer able.

“Children are a private good of the family,” she explained, which means that families focus more on “private welfare rather than public welfare.”

The money spent to support children in Italy is among the highest in Europe, which also explains why parents are less inclined to have more than one child. If one adds to this the aging population in the country, where the median age is over 45, families are stretched thin to cater to its less than self-sufficient members.

“The realm of relationships therefore had expanded, and it has slowed the innovation processes,” Rettaroli said. The formation of the individual, including jobs and marriage, is pushed forward and “youth is expanded well into the 30s,” she added.

“The cell of this attitude is to be found within the family, not outside of it,” Rettaroli said. “There are attitudes that are starting to spread, which the ‘island family’ used to not accept and new ‘archipelagos’ of families are taking hold.”

For example, new types of couples are emerging that are not necessarily based on marriage, be it civil or religious, which results in a growing number of children born to unwed mothers. In Italy, nearly 30 percent of children are born out of wedlock, and according to Rettaroli this number is likely to grow.

Divorces and separations are also increasing and strongly impacting family dynamics. This creates an intricate web of new and diverse family relationships, not necessarily based on marriage.

In the past 20 years, the fertility rate in Italy has passed from 2.7 to 1.3 as mothers choose to have children further along in their lives, around the age of 32. This is a problem that does not only concern Italy, but also the United States. A Pew study found that the fertility rate in the U.S. has declined to 1.84 in 2017, an historic low.

An interesting aspect of the Italian case, Rettaroli pointed out, is that the desired fertility is higher than the realized fertility, meaning that families would like to have more children than what they actually have. This opens the door for the government to intervene and put in place policies that positively affect the population growth.

Women are once again at the core of the issue. While youth stays at home and the elderly live longer, women are forced to dedicate a larger chunk of their lives to caring for others. Rettaroli explained that women are tasked with giving up nearly 10 years of their life in taking care of others, which makes it difficult to have professional achievement and obviously lowers the inclination to have more children.

“Every revolution creates more damage than an evolution,” she concluded. “The more prominent the changes, the more they need to be understood and adequately handled.”

The family today is no longer the family that existed in 1968, when Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humane Vitae, and Rettaroli explains that only by adequately understanding and responding to a changing society can the institutions keep up with the times and offer the necessary response.