Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2006

Divorces rising in Catholic Europe

Portugal, Italy and Spain have highest rate of increase in divorces over the past decade.

Author: Tracy Wilkinson

ROME -- When the Vatican looks at the state of the Western European family, it is alarmed. It sees parents and children at the mercy of overly secular nations awash in laws and practices that liberalize "evils," from abortion to gay marriage.

Church officials now have another trend to fret about. Divorce has been marching ever upward everywhere in Europe, but nowhere more so than in the continent's three most Roman Catholic countries.

The institution of marriage, says Eduardo Hertfelder, the study's director, "is in crisis."

The numbers

• Portugal, Italy and Spain, in that order, have registered the highest jump in divorce rates in the last decade, according to a new study by Hertfelder's Institute for Family Policies, a nongovernmental organization based in Madrid.

• It is not that these countries have the most divorces (Germany and Britain hold the lead) but that they registered the largest percentage increase.

• Portugal: Divorces rose 89 percent from 1995 to 2004.

• Italy: Up 62 percent.

• Spain: Up 59 percent.

In a sense, these Southern European nations are catching up to the breakneck pace of breakup seen elsewhere on the continent.

In addition, Hertfelder and other experts say, Southern Europe has lagged behind the north in legislation, programs and attitudes that assist the family. Women get little support in the workplace, for example, and child care options are more limited, placing stress on marriages.

Little help for families

Stable families headed by married couples have been taken for granted in nations such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, Hertfelder said in a telephone interview from Madrid.

"The rest of Europe has realized the social benefits of (stable) families, but in Southern Europe we don't see the same resources, financial assistance, laws and economic benefits that help families in crisis," he said.

Some experts said it should not be surprising that traditionally Roman Catholic countries report growing rates of divorce. Strict adherence to Catholicism's tenets has been on the wane for many years, even here in the land of the Vatican.

"There is a discrepancy between our values and our behavior," said Rossella Palomba, a demographer with Rome's Institute for Population Research and Social Policies. "People get married, get divorced and still go to church."

Fewer practicing Catholics

In fact, the gap has widened between the numbers of Catholics in Southern Europe who declare their faith and those who practice it. A recent survey of Italians by the Eurispes research center showed:

• Nearly 88 percent identifying themselves as Catholic believers in God, but only about 33 percent saying they attended Mass every Sunday.

• About two-thirds disagreed with Vatican positions opposing divorce and assisted fertility.

People are divorcing more in Portugal, Italy and Spain for the same reasons they are divorcing everywhere else, Palomba and others said. Women have more freedom, demand more from spouses than their grandmothers did, are putting jobs ahead of marital bliss, and realize they can end unhappy unions with less stigma.

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