Why so Few Children in Southern Europe?

Southern European Catholic countries used to have a history of high fertility compared to Northern Europe. Now the Southern European countries have both low rates of fertility and low rates of female employment. What happened?

A paper by Eli Berman, Laurence Iannaccone and Guiseppe Ragusa, From Empty Pews to Empty Cradles: Fertility Decline Among European Catholics makes the following argument,

1. The Second Vatican Council induced sharp declines in the supply of Catholic priests and nuns, though the timing differed across countries.

2. The reduced supply of priests and nuns caused the Church to provide fewer (spiritual and material) social services to the Catholic laity.

3. Fewer child-friendly services raised the shadow-price of child-rearing and reduced overall fertility.

4. The reduction in Church-supplied services also led to lower level of religious involvement among catholic laity.


The Second Vatican Council took place from 1962-1965.

The liberalization of the Church made it less sect-like. Religious sects can be understood as clubs that provide quasi-public services to members. The authors write,

“To limit free-rider problems, such groups impose prohibitions, so-called “sacrifices and stigmas”, that indirectly tax (non-group) market activities. At the margin, members respond by shifting hours away from the labor force and into non-markets activities that benefit the club. Because of the positive externalities associated with club activities, the prohibitions end up raising the utility of club members. That club model provides a coherent rational-choice theory that not only fits a wide range of data on (apparently irrational) sectarian groups but also explains the more mild prohibitions characteristic of merely “conservative” churches like contemporary evangelical Protestants and traditional Catholics. Berman (2000) marries the club approach to Becker’s (1991) theory of fertility, showing that prohibitions increase the effective tax on market labor, thereby reducing real wages. The effect of these prohibitions for women is to make child quality more difficult to achieve while making quantity more attainable with a resulting increase in fertility…

High fertility is, in fact, associated with sectarianism among Christians, Ultra-Orthodox Jews (Berman 2000), and Radical Islamists (Berman and Stepanyan 2003)… Among the Catholics of Southern Europe, the club theory predicts exactly the opposite trends: namely the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II made Catholicism less sect-like, thereby weakening the Catholic “club” and reducing its provision of collective norms and social services, including many that had previously subsidized fertility and childrearing.”


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