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Southern Europe Seeing a Breakup Boom

Divorce rates are rising across the continent, but the three most Roman Catholic countries are exceeding the pace.

May 21, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — When the Vatican looks out at the state of the Western European family, it is alarmed. It sees parents and children at the mercy of overly secular nations awash in laws and practices that liberalize evils, from abortion to gay marriage.

Church officials now have another trend to fret about. Divorce has been marching ever upward everywhere in Europe, but nowhere more so than in the continent's three most Roman Catholic countries.

Portugal, Italy and Spain, in that order, have registered the highest jump in divorce rates in the last decade, according to a new study.

The institution of marriage, says Eduardo Hertfelder, the study's director, "is in crisis." It is not that these countries have the most divorces (Germany and Britain hold the lead) but that they registered the largest percentage increase. In Portugal, divorces rose 89% from 1995 to 2004, according to Hertfelder's Institute for Family Policies, a nongovernmental organization based in Madrid; the jump was 62% for Italy and 59% for Spain in that period.

In a sense, these Southern European nations are catching up to the breakneck pace of breakup seen elsewhere on the continent.

In addition, Hertfelder and other experts say, Southern Europe has lagged behind the north in legislation, programs and attitudes that assist the family. Women get little support in the workplace, for example, and child-care options are more limited, placing stress on marriages.

Stable families headed by married couples have been taken for granted in nations such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, Hertfelder said in a telephone interview from Madrid.

"The rest of Europe has realized the social benefits of [stable] families, but in Southern Europe we don't see the same resources, financial assistance, laws and economic benefits that help families in crisis," he said.

Some experts said it should not be surprising that traditionally Roman Catholic countries report growing rates of divorce. Strict adherence to Catholicism's tenets has been on the wane for many years, even here in the land of the Vatican.

"There is a discrepancy between our values and our behavior," said Rossella Palomba, with Rome's Institute for Population Research and Social Policies. "People get married, get divorced and still go to church."

In fact, the gap has widened between the numbers of Catholics in Southern Europe who declare their faith and those who practice it.

A recent survey of Italians, for example, showed nearly 88% identifying themselves as Catholic believers in God. But only about 33% said they attended Mass every Sunday. And about two-thirds disagreed with Vatican positions opposing divorce and assisted fertility, according to the survey by the Eurispes research center.

People are divorcing more in Portugal, Italy and Spain for the same reasons they are divorcing everywhere else, Palomba and others said. Women have more freedom, demand more from spouses than their grandmothers did, are putting jobs ahead of marital bliss, and realize they can end unhappy unions with less stigma.

Recognizing a potential market when they see it, a group of editors this month launched a magazine billed as the first publication in Italy aimed exclusively at women who have split with their husbands or partners.

Armed with statistics that show roughly a third of now-married Italian women will face divorce, the publishers say they hope to fill a void, hitting newsstands with a first run of 230,000.

The first issue of Starting Over Woman contains relatively upbeat articles about how to remain friends with an ex, what to tell the kids, how to travel alone, and the usual self-improvement fare. (Plus the requisite-in-Italy article on George Clooney.)

"A woman who is divorced or separated is someone who has invested in a relation that failed, so she has taken an incredible slap," the editor, Francesca Ressa, said. "But she has to start again. She has to cheer up, take care of herself, not become fat."

Ressa, 40, who is single but whose boyfriend is divorced, is bracing for a possible backlash from the church, and plans to invite a priest or bishop to write an advice column. The magazine isn't so much telling women to divorce as it is confronting reality, she said.

That reality is precisely what the church wants to change. Officials of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, holding a congress in Rome this month to mark the organization's 25th anniversary, argued that lack of education left too many Catholics unable to appreciate the meaning of "true, sacramental" marriage. Confusion over alternative lifestyles and same-sex unions -- legalized in Spain and under consideration in Italy -- has weakened the institution of marriage, church officials say.

Speaking to the congress, Pope Benedict XVI again emphasized marriage as an essential good for society. "Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman," he said, "can be the foundation for building a society that is home to all mankind."

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