Italy, once the country of large families with many children, is today a country of the elderly. Twenty-three percent of the Italian population is over the age of sixty-five, and the mean age of Italian citizens is above forty-four. At the end of the nineteenth century, the fertility rate per woman was more than five; today, it has fallen to 1.3. Until the end of the 1960s, the rate of natural increase of the Italian population was above 400,000; it had dropped to about negative 10,000 by the early 1990s, and it reached negative 342,000 in 2020. Annual births, which in 1948 were still above one million, fell to 400,000 in 2020. Another sign of the evolution of the Italian population has been the increase in marriages solemnized by civil ceremonies. They rose from 2.3 percent in 1970 to 36.7 percent in 2008 and reached 52.6 percent in 2019.
What happened in the course of these fifty years?
The dominant relativist and evolutionist position considers the family a historical reality, destined to be transformed and go extinct. By contrast, the experience and social doctrine of the Church teach us that the family is a natural reality, inextricable from society.
Man is a social being, created to live in society. The first human society is the family, consisting of a man, a woman, and their children. Higher and broader than the family is the state, the political society, which may be understood as a collection of families rather than of individuals. Higher still is the Church, which is the society of the baptized. Whereas the family and the state arise from man’s social nature, the Church has a supernatural foundation and purpose. Its mission is to lead souls to their ultimate goal, which is God.
The Church in her magisterium—in common with most classical philosophers, from Aristotle onward—has spoken of the family as “seminarium rei publice,” the first social microcosm, image and model of the whole of society, which is born from the family and expands from the family. John XXIII affirmed in the 1960s: “Society is not made up of an agglomeration of individuals, but rather of an assembly of families. And the rights of families come before and stand above those of the state.” The relationship between the family and the state is not, however, a relationship of opposition. The family is the origin of the state, as is recalled for us by the term patria, which means fatherland. This term, which originally indicated the territory of the family, was extended to the entire kingdom, since the king was considered the father of the people. The term nation derives from the Latin nasci, to be born, and evokes the idea of family.
The history of the Italian nation is the history of the families that compose it. This has been true since well before the birth of the unified state on March 17, 1861. The Savoy Kingdom, with which modern Italy was born, wanted to emancipate the state from religion through the Cavourian formula “a free Church in a free state,” but it kept the traditional morality, albeit with a secular imprint. The family remained one of the pillars of Italian society and was the only point of reference in moments of crisis, such as the institutional changes and wars that followed one another over the ensuing century.
For the architects of the Risorgimento, the natural family and the fatherland were the foundation of society, worthy of public protection—though they were divorced from the third essential element, religion. God was relegated to the private sphere. During the Second World War, especially in the period from September 1943 to April 1945, when Italy was divided in two and overrun by foreign armies, the family was the only living and solid element that sustained individuals and national unity.
When the centenary of the national state was celebrated in 1961, the family, based on indissoluble marriage, was still the founding cell of Italian society. But something began to change in the years following the cultural revolution of 1968.
One of the forerunners of ’68 was the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), who made one of the earliest attempts at a revolutionary psychoanalysis, a synthesis of Marxism and Freudianism. His message was reissued in a more sophisticated form by Herbert Marcuse, one of the main ideologues of ’68, and by theorists of antipsychiatry such as David Cooper, for whom one of the necessary stages of the cultural revolution is the destruction of the family. One of Cooper’s best-known books, reprinted several times in Italy by the publishing house Einaudi, is The Death of the Family. In the late 1960s the conviction began to spread: The extinction of the family was inevitable and near at hand.
The basic thesis of the revolution of ’68 was that Marxism had to be surpassed because it limited its revolutionary offensive to the strictly political dimension, without affecting the familial and personal one. The task of ’68 was to bring the revolution from the state to the family, because only in this way could it be an authentically cultural revolution, transforming the very essence of man, not limiting itself to the external, economic perspective of classical Marxism. The neo-Marxism of ’68 and the 1970s had one of its expressions in feminism, memorable for slogans such as this one, often shouted by women who took to the streets: “No more mothers, wives, daughters, let’s destroy the families.” Those were the years of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s remarks in Corriere della Sera to the effect that marriage was a “little criminal pact.”
In Italy the revolutionary attack on the family had its first milestone in the divorce law approved on December 1, 1970. The following year brought the repeal of article 553 of the penal code, which officially prohibited contraception, and 1975 brought the “new family law,” which inserted into the legal system the demands of egalitarian feminism. Few understood the revolutionary scope of the new family law, which abolished marital authority, suppressed the duty of children to honor their parents (art. 315), and abolished adultery as grounds for separation due to spousal fault (art. 151).
With marital indissolubility undone by divorce and the new family law having undermined the principle of authority that is the foundation of civil coexistence, the Italian family suffered a fatal blow, the consequences of which are manifest today in the crisis of relationships between spouses and between children and parents.
On May 22, 1978, abortion arrived in Italy, at a time when the government was entirely in the hands of the Christian Democratic Party, from Giovanni Leone, president of the Republic, to Giulio Andreotti, prime minister. These men signed the abortion law to avoid a government crisis.
Then came the law on artificial insemination (2004); the liberalization of the RU-486 abortion pill (2009); the liberalization of the morning-after pill (2015); the legalization of homosexual unions (2016); quick divorce (2017); the law on living wills (2017), which allows patients to specify the terms under which they would refuse life-sustaining medical treatment; and the bill on homophobia, approved in the Chamber of Deputies on November 4, 2020. This bill, in its first article, aims to give legal protection to gender identity, which it defines as “perceived and manifested identification of oneself in relation to gender, even if not corresponding to sex, regardless of not having completed a transition process.” The law protects not only homosexuality and transgenderism, but all forms of “sexual orientation” that distinguish the sexual identity of the person from his biological identity in order to create a new psychological identity, fluid and indeterminate. Due to political games within the left, the bill was rejected in the Senate on October 27, 2021, but the promoters have already stated that they will not give up until it is approved. On October 25, a bill titled “Refusal of health treatments and permissibility of euthanasia” came under debate in parliament.
We are faced with a plan for the dissolution of the Italian family, which is also a plan for the dissolution of Italian society. Fewer marriages, fewer children, a country ever more elderly and poor. What is the way out? To denounce this process of cultural revolution and counter it with the true cultural and moral principles that have made our civilization great—natural and Christian values that no historical process can ever dissolve. The reaction must take place through the battle of ideas, prayer, and all the practical means at our disposal.
The Marches for Life are an example of this. In my ten years working for them, I have seen how these demonstrations awaken souls grown jaded and numb. I remember one of the first marches organized in Rome. It passed a group of Scandinavian tourists, who stopped to watch the whole parade go by. Their guide, an Italian, was an acquaintance of ours who later told us that at the end of the lively and joyful procession, the tourists had turned to her and said, “If this is what it means to be pro-life and Catholic, we would like to be pro-life and Catholic too!” We must awaken consciences, shake them from the torpor in which they are immersed, speak the truth in season and out. And never give up, knowing that whoever defends the Truth, which is One and does not change, in the end will triumph.
Virginia Coda Nunziante is president of the association Famiglia Domani.