By Hilary White

ROME, August 8, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Despite regular polls showing that about 30 percent of Italian Catholics claim to attend Sunday Mass regularly, a closer look at the numbers reveals a more uncertain future for the Italian Church, and consequently for Italy as a moral vanguard in Europe.

For many years, Italians responding to surveys have said that between 30 and 50 percent attend Mass more than once a month. But in 2004-5, the Patriarchate of Venice undertook a study that showed the actual attendance numbers were no more than 22.7 percent, with only 15 percent attending every Sunday. Those who attended one to three times were 7.7 percent. The survey noted that Mass attendance increases with the level of education, in contrast to findings in other parts of Europe.

While this number still compares favorably to that of other EU countries like France, where regular attendance is thought to be below 5 percent, it is likely to slide further in the coming years.

A survey conducted by Professor Paolo Segatti of the University of Milan, published in the magazine “Il Regno” in May, found that the news is even worse among younger Italians. Among those born after 1981, Segatti found, Mass attendance, self-identification as Catholic, and adherence to Catholic teaching are “in collapse.” Segatti predicted a near future in which Catholicism holds only “minority status in Italy.”

“It is imaginable that when the children of the younger generation become parents, they will make a further contribution to secularization.”

Segatti writes. “The youngest Italians are the ones to whom religious experience is most foreign. They clearly go to church less, believe in God less, pray less, trust the Church less, identify themselves as Catholic less, and say that being Italian does not mean being Catholic.”

Vatican expert and Italian journalist Sandro Magister noted last week that the loss of faith among young people has strongly affected women: “The collapse is so clear that it also wipes out the differences in religious practice between men and women – the latter of whom tend much more to be practicing – typical of the previous generations. Among the youngest, very few of the women go to church, on a par with the men.”

Currently, Italy’s deep Catholic roots can be credited for its having one of the most restrictive laws on in vitro fertilization and embryo research in the western world, as well as having a relatively low abortion rate as doctors retain and exercise the right to refuse to participate in abortion. Campaigners for euthanasia and assisted suicide have had little success in changing public opinion, or the law, to allow the deliberate killing of vulnerable people, even through the “back door” of dehydration. At the European Union, Italy has frequently been among the voices defending traditional Christian moral and social values. But all of this may change in coming decades as the older generation, raised to equate Italianness with Catholicism, die off and younger people more forthrightly reject Catholic teaching along with Mass attendance.

Magister added, however, that at least some of the blame for the collapse must be laid on the Church itself and its failure to convey its teachings to the next generation. He noted that the collapse has occurred while 94 percent of Italian children continue to be enrolled in Catholic religious instruction in elementary school, and 84 percent of high school students voluntarily take the courses.

“These are exceptionally high percentages, and they have been at these levels for years. But evidently, in view of the results, both the teaching of religion in the school and catechesis in the parishes are not up to the challenge,” Magister writes.

In 2006, Pope Benedict held up Italy as a model for European Christianity, saying, “Italy constitutes a rather favorable terrain for Christian testimony. The Church, in fact, is here a very lively reality, which retains a grassroots presence among people of every age and condition.” Benedict called upon Italians to “to seize this great opportunity” and spread the faith to the rest of Europe and the world. 

But in 2005, Cardinal Ruini, then head of the Italian bishops’ conference had already admitted that the “great majority” of Italians have only a “generic adhesion to Catholicism,” and “Those who live their faith deeply are a minority.”

Whether this will be the last generation of Italians who consider themselves culturally Catholic may in the coming decades become a moot issue, however. In 2004, the overall fertility rate in Italy hit its nadir at 1.23 children per woman, the second lowest in Europe. Since then, it has crept up to 1.32, still in the range called by demographers the “death spiral” that will lead to drastic reductions in population. 

Research undertaken at the University of Florence supports the theory of many that the boom in the Italian economy since the 1960s, and the consequent surge of consumerism, has played a significant role in the decline in birth rate. The greatly elevated expectations of living standards among the younger generation has created an attitude hostile to having more than one child. Women believe they must work outside the home and, with Italian men still rarely participating in household chores or child care, a second child is regarded as an impossible burden.