Pope takes aim at guns and condoms at pro-birth conference

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By Alvise Armellini

ROME (Reuters) -Pope Francis criticised the weapons and contraceptive industries on Friday, accusing them of destroying or preventing life in his speech at a conference on the demographic crisis gripping Italy and Europe.

Europe's fertility rate has been stuck around 1.5 births per woman for the past decade. That is above lows seen in East Asia but far short of the 2.1 needed to maintain population levels.

The dearth of babies is particularly acute in Italy, where births dropped to a record low in 2023, the 15th consecutive annual decline. Successive governments have so far been unable to reverse the trend, despite repeated pledges.

"There is a fact that a demographics scholar told me. Right now the investments that give the most revenue are the arms factories and contraceptives. One destroys life, the other prevents life ... What future do we have? It is ugly," the pope said.

Francis, 87, has long been a fierce opponent of the arms industry. He has also reaffirmed the Catholic Church's longstanding ban on artificial birth control, though he supports natural ways of avoiding pregnancy.

"Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits, but no," he said during a flight home from the Philippines in 2015, adding that the Church promoted "responsible parenthood".

CATS AND DOGS INSTEAD OF CHILDREN

At the Rome conference, Francis said the number of births was the first indicator of "a people's hope", and Europe was increasingly turning into "an old, tired and resigned" continent.

"Homes are filled with objects and emptied of children, becoming very sad places. There is no shortage of little dogs, cats, these are not lacking. There is a lack of children," the pontiff said.

Governments have to implement "serious and effective" policies in favour of families to tackle the issue, Francis said, urging young people to have confidence in the future.

He called for policies that enable mothers not to have to choose between work and childcare, and that give young couples the chance of a stable job and the possibility to buy a house.

"I know that for many of you the future may seem unsettling, and that amidst declining birth rates, wars, pandemics and climate change it is not easy to keep hope alive. But do not give up, have faith," he said, referring to young people.

The pope's remarks on contraceptives were welcomed by Pro-Life & Family, an Italian Catholic conservative group, which denounced "the enormous economic and commercial interests that gravitate around the use of contraceptives."

(Editing by Alex Richardson and Gavin Jones)