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Pope Urges Italians to Increase Birthrate

In first papal speech to Parliament, John Paul II says state should ease the raising of children. He calls on the EU to embrace religious roots.

November 15, 2002|David Holley and Maria De Cristofaro | Times Staff Writers

ROME -- In the first papal speech to Italy's Parliament, Pope John Paul II on Thursday urged Italians to have more babies, and called on an expanding European Union not to forget its religious roots.

Given in the building that housed the papacy's law courts until the mid-19th century, the speech also was a milestone symbolizing full reconciliation between the Vatican and the Italian state, which have a long history of strained relations.

The speech was interrupted by applause nearly two dozen times. The lawmakers gave a standing ovation at its end, with some shouting, "Evviva il papa!"

John Paul, 82, described Italy's low birthrate and the aging of its society as a "grave threat." The government should "make the task of having children and bringing them up less burdensome both socially and economically," he said.

Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world and one of the oldest populations. Italian women on average have 1.23 children, compared with a U.S. average of about 2.1.

Touching on a controversy over whether religion and God should be mentioned in a new European Union constitution, the pontiff declared: "It is my hope that ... the new foundations of the European 'common house' will not lack the 'cement' of that extraordinary religious, cultural and civil patrimony which has given Europe its greatness down the centuries.

"There is a need to guard against a vision of the continent which would only take into account its economic and political aspects, or which would uncritically yield to lifestyles inspired by a consumerism indifferent to spiritual values," he said.

"In this noble Assembly I would like to renew the appeal which in recent years I have made to the various peoples of the continent: 'Europe, at the beginning of the new millennium, open once again your doors to Christ!' "

Popes long held secular power in much of Italy, losing control of the Papal States in 1860 and Rome itself 10 years later, when troops of King Victor Emmanuel II took the city. In 1929, Italy and the Vatican, left in control of just 108 acres of land, signed a treaty recognizing both as sovereign entities.

Still, John Paul said, the "sometimes turbulent" association between the Holy See and the Italian state has had positive results.

"We can well say that Italy's social and cultural identity, and the civilizing mission it has exercised and continues to exercise in Europe and the world, would be most difficult to understand without reference to Christianity, its lifeblood," he said.

The pontiff also called on authorities to show compassion to prison inmates.

"Without prejudice to the need to guarantee the security of citizens, attention needs to be given to the prison situation, where inmates often live in conditions of appalling overcrowding," he said.

"A gesture of clemency toward prisoners through a reduction of their sentences would be clear evidence of a sensitivity" that would also aid their rehabilitation and reentry into society, he said.

The pope has frequently stressed the need to treat inmates with dignity and respect. During the church's jubilee celebrations in 2000, he made a call for global clemency.

John Paul also called on the world's religions to do more to promote peace.

"Tragically, our hopes for peace are brutally contradicted by the flaring up of chronic conflicts, beginning with the one which has caused so much bloodshed in the Holy Land," he said.

"There is also international terrorism, which has taken on a new and fearful dimension, involving in a completely distorted way the great religions.

"Precisely for this reason, the world's religions are challenged to show all their rich potential for peace by directing and, as it were, 'converting' toward mutual understanding the cultures and civilizations which draw inspiration from them."

*

Holley reported from Warsaw and De Cristofaro from Rome.

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