Abstract: This paper tackles the puzzle of rapid fertility decline in Italy, Spain, and other countries of Southern Europe. Despite a history of high fertility relative to Northern Europe, these countries now combine both low rates of fertility and low rates of female employment. We find evidence that a decline in Catholic religiosity since the 1960s has been a major cause of subsequent fertility decline in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland—a decline of over a child per woman since the mid-1970s. Moreover, our preliminary results imply that this decline was not primarily caused by religiously-induced change in preferences for children. Instead, social effects appear to be more important, such as the loss of schools, hospitals, day care, and other child-friendly social services traditionally provided by Catholic communities. Reduced services are, in turn, linked to the unprecedented decline in nuns and priests following the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II.
Our data combine standard measures of economic opportunities and fertility with newly derived trend measures of religious involvement and social service provision. Although our (current) analysis focuses on a panel of European countries and a cross-section in Italy, the policy implications would appear relevant to all regions experiencing rapid economic and cultural change. Researchers and policy makers may need to pay much more attention to the way in which religions alter the full cost of increased market opportunities for women and of economic development more generally. Additional data (some of which we have already begun to analyze) should help us confirm the strength and scope of these effects.
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