By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Starting a family in Italy is becoming a "titanic effort" that only the rich can afford, Pope Francis said on Friday, warning that "savage" free-market conditions were preventing the young from having children.
Births in Italy dropped below 400,000 in 2022 for the first time, registering a 14th consecutive annual fall, with the overall population declining by 179,000 to 58.85 million.
Speaking at a conference on the growing demographic crisis, Pope Francis said the declining birthrate signalled a lack of hope in the future, with younger generations weighed down by a sense of uncertainty, fragility and precariousness.
"Difficulty in finding a stable job, difficulty in keeping one, prohibitively expensive houses, sky-high rents and insufficient wages are real problems," he said, sitting alongside Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
"The free market, without the necessary corrective measures, becomes savage and produces increasingly serious situations and inequalities," he added.
The pope said pets were replacing children in some households and recounted how a woman at a recent audience had opened her bag and asked for a papal blessing for "her baby", only to reveal that it was a dog.
"I lost my patience and upbraided her saying many children are hungry and you bring me a dog," he said.
But he acknowledged that there were "almost insurmountable constraints" on young women forced to chose between their career and motherhood. Given the high costs involved in raising children, people were revising their priorities, he added.
"We cannot passively accept that so many young people struggle to realise their family dream and are forced to lower the bar of desire, settling for mediocre substitutes: making money, aiming for a career, travelling, jealously guarding leisure time," he said.
A shrinking population is a major worry for the euro zone's third-largest country, with the economy minister warning this week that Italy's GDP risked dropping by 18 percentage points over the next two decades if current birth trends continued.
The education minister said on Thursday current demographics suggested that Italy's school population was set to shrink by one million over the next 10 years.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrew Heavens)