Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

As generally defined, and as understood in this article, illegitimacy denotes the condition of children born out of wedlock. It should be noted, however, that, according to the Roman law and the canon law, an illegitimate child becomes legitimate by the subsequent marriage of its parents. This legal provision has been adopted by many European countries, but it does not obtain in England or in most of the United States. Illegitimacy is probably more general, more frequent, and more constant than the majority of persons are aware. Owing to the absence of statistics, no estimate can be given of its extent in the United States and Canada. The following tables show the percentage of illegitimate births (that is, the proportion which they form of the total number of living births) in the principal countries of Europe at different periods during the last thirty years. The figures in the first column are taken from "Der Einfluss der Confession auf die Sittlichkeit" by H. A. Krose, S.J.; those in the second are derived from the "Statesman's Year Book" for 1908: —

Austria (1887-91) 14.67 (1904) 12.81 Belgium " 8.75 (1905) 6.41 Denmark (1887-89) 9.43 (1902-6) 10.01 England and Wales (1887-91) 4.52 (1905) 4.00 Finland " 6.42 — — France " 8.41 (1906) 8.85 German Empire (1886-90) 9.23 (1901-5) 8.50       Bavaria " 14.01 (1906) 12.36       Prussia " 7.81 " 7.24       Saxony " 12.45 (1905) 13.40       Würtemberg " 10.03 (1906) 8.30 Greece (1876-80) 1.19 — — Holland (1887-91) 3.20 (1900-4) 2.37 Hungary " 8.61 (1906) 9.80 Ireland " 2.78 " 2.60 Italy " 7.30 " 5.53 Norway " 7.33 (1905) 6.72 Portugal (1886-90) 12.21 (1904) 11.04 Roumania " 5.75 — — Russia (1895) 3.00 — — Scotland (1887-91) 7.93 (1906) 6.74 Servia (1887-89) 1.00 — — Spain (1886-92) 4.70 — — Sweden (1887-91) 10.23 (1904) 12.02 Switzerland (1887-89) 4.63 (1905) 4.06

These figures are sufficiently disturbing, and yet they do not exhibit the full extent of the evil. Many illegitimate births are registered as legitimate, while many others escape registration entirely. This happens in all countries; probably it is particularly true of Greece and Servia. While the percentages in the first column are about the same as those which obtained for a long period previous to 1891, those in the second column indicate a decline in the rate of illegitimacy in most of the European countries since that date, and in some countries a very notable decline. All authorities agree that the rate has decreased during the last twenty years, but not all admit that the downward movement has been quite as pronounced in some countries as represented by the "Statesman's Year Book". At any rate, the decline does not necessarily indicate an improvement in sexual morality. Nor does a high rate of illegitimacy in a country prove that the inhabitants are less chaste than those of some other region where the rate is low. The number of illegitimate births implies at least an equal number of sins between the sexes, but it describes neither the full nor the relative extent of such immorality, nor does it represent the relative resistance offered by a people to temptations of this kind. Illegitimacy is subject to many social influences, some of which tend to increase and some to diminish the illicit intercourse from which it results, some of which diminish it without lessening such intercourse, and some of which increase it in the statistical records without increasing it in the eyes of God. In general, illegitimacy is an index of comparative sexual morality only among peoples having the same laws, customs, and social conditions.

It is not difficult to enumerate all the important factors that tend to increase or diminish illegitimacy, but it is practically impossible to measure accurately the relative weight of each. Poverty, heredity, ignorance, town life, religion, have all been set down by one or more authorities as the predominant influence. In this article nothing more will be attempted than a general description of the significant factors and their apparent influence.

Poverty is undoubtedly a factor within certain limits. Owing to the lack of privacy in their homes, the absence of decent facilities for the entertainment of young men in the homes of the young women, and the temptation to which the latter are subjected of exchanging their virtue for material advantages, the poor, at least the very poor, are confronted by moral dangers that do not threaten the rich or the comfortable classes. Moreover, poor girls are generally less familiar with methods of forestalling the consequences of lapses from virtue, and less able to conceal these consequences. On the other hand, poverty that is not so deep as to be degrading is more conducive to the formation of a strong moral character than circumstances which make possible a life of ease and abundant material satisfactions. In some cities, notably in Paris, a considerable number of couples, who have never been united by a marriage ceremony, live together and rear children. Probably the great majority of these are impelled to this course by poverty. In so far as the average age of marriage is later among the poor than among those in better circumstances, it will tend to increase illegitimacy. On these points, however, as well as on the influence of poverty generally, statistics give us little information. They tell us, for example, that there is much less illegitimacy in Ireland than in England and Scotland, but they do not prove that this condition is to be attributed exclusively, or even mainly, to the greater material comfort enjoyed by the English and Scotch. Other factors are operative, such as differences in religion, heredity, and town life.

The particular influence of poverty can be observed only where all the other important factors are the same. As a matter of fact, this situation is scarcely verified in the case of any two countries, and it is not often verified as between different sections of the same country. Thus, the rate of illegitimacy in the County Mayo, which is probably the poorest county in Ireland, is only one-tenth as great as the rate in the prosperous County Down, but the latter includes part of the large city of Belfast, and its people differ largely both in race and religion from the inhabitants of the former county. Again, the proportion of illegitimate births is much greater in the prosperous West End of London than in the poverty-stricken East End, but the marriage age seems to be earlier in the East End, while the proportion of domestic servants is very much greater in the West End. Both these circumstances have a well recognized influence on the rate of illegitimacy. Furthermore, the better showing made by the East End does not imply better relations between the sexes; according to Charles Booth, illicit intercourse and marriage of the offenders before the birth of their first child are quite common among the lowest classes of that section of London. Instead of considering different geographical sections of a population, it will be more satisfactory to compare classes differing in occupation, but substantially the same in all other important respects. Father Krose adduces statistics from Berlin and Leipzig which show that the great majority of the parents of illegitimate children in those cities are domestic servants and unskilled labourers. It is safe to say that the majority of all illegitimate births occurs among domestic servants, factory employees, and agricultural labourers, speaking especially of the mothers. Even among these it is not so much poverty as certain associations and modes of living connected with the occupation that is immediately responsible. It would seem, therefore, that while poverty is one cause of illegitimacy, it is not the most important cause, nor can its influence be even approximately determined.

Ignorance, in the sense of illiteracy, is sometimes numbered among the factors, but this contention receives no satisfactory support from statistics. The countries with a high standard of elementary education have not a better record than the others. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Prussia, and Saxony, where the rate of illiteracy is very low, do not show a lower rate of illegitimacy than Ireland, Italy, or Spain. Different sections of the same country, where other conditions are the same, furnish no evidence that education reduces the proportion of illegitimate births. In France, outside of Paris, illegitimacy is least where illiteracy is greatest. In general, it may be said that education, except in the principles and practice of morality, is a negligible factor in relation to the phenomenon of illegitimacy.

Nor can it be shown that climate is a factor. It is sometimes thought that warm regions are more productive of sexual irregularities than those of a lower temperature, but no such conclusion can be derived from the records of illegitimacy. The large cities in the south of Europe are not worse in this respect than those in the north. The net influence of city life does not seem to be very great either in increasing or lessening the number of illegitimate births. In some of the rural districts of England and Wales, the record is worse than in London, Birmingham, or Liverpool. Outside of England illegitimacy is apparently more frequent in the cities than in the country. This is clearly true of most of the capital cities. As a rule, illicit intercourse between the sexes is more frequent in the cities than out of them, but a smaller proportion of it will manifest itself in the records of illegitimacy. Prostitution, immoral preventives of conception, abortion, and concealment of illegitimate births, all tend to reduce the extent of the evil in the cities disproportionally.

Heredity is undoubtedly a factor, but to what extent cannot be determined even approximately. In general the Teutonic and Scandinavian nations exhibit a higher rate of illegitimacy than the Latins and Celts, but, since the former are mainly Protestant and the latter mainly Catholic, the difference might be due to religion. Between the north and south of England there is, however, no such difference, nor any other difference that seems sufficient to explain the greater prevalence of illegitimacy in the former, except that of race. The inhabitants of the north are descendants of the Danes, while the southern population traces its ancestry for the most part to the ancient Saxons. There are more than twice as many illegitimate births in the north-eastern as in the north-western counties of Scotland, and this difference has obtained at least as far back as statistics can be found. The north-western counties, referred to are Ross, Cromarty, and Inverness, which are entirely within the Highlands, and in which there is a greater proportion of Celtic blood than in the north-eastern counties. In the Celtic portion of the population of Ireland, the rate of illegitimacy is much lower than in any other nation of Europe of which we have sufficient knowledge. If we compare Ireland with, for example, Belgium, it would seem that the much higher rate which obtains in the latter country can be explained only by the difference of race. Both are Catholic countries. However, a greater proportion of the people of Belgium live in cities, and are engaged in mining and industrial occupations generally; two of the classes within which illegitimate births are very frequent, namely, domestic servants and factory operatives, are more numerous proportionally; and the influence of bad literature and foreign associations is much more prominent. Does heredity, then, go far toward accounting for the different amounts of illegitimacy in these two countries? Perhaps the safest general statement that can be made concerning the influence of heredity is that if heredity be understood not merely in the sense of certain psychical and physical characteristics, but also as including the heritage of public opinion and social intercourse, it is undoubtedly a factor of some importance.

The influence of legislation is more certain and more easily traceable. Every legal condition and impediment restricting marriage will inevitably tend to increase the number of illegal unions and illegitimate offspring. It has been estimated that there are in Paris 80,000 couples living together who have refused to undergo the trouble or the expenses of a marriage ceremony, civil or ecclesiastical. Many marriages take place in Italy before the ministers of the Church which are not recognized by the State, owing to the omission of the civil ceremony. In the eyes of the State, the offspring of these unions are illegal. Until the year 1868, a man could not get a license to marry in Bavaria unless he possessed an amount of economic advantages that was beyond the reach of a large proportion of the population. Soon after the modification of this legal restriction, the birth rate of illegitimates dropped from twenty per cent to twelve per cent. The rate in Bavaria is still the highest in Europe, with the exception of Austria, but this is undoubtedly due in some measure to the unfavourable legal restrictions which yet remain, and to the surviving influence of the bad customs and the indulgent public opinion which were produced by the older regulations. That the large proportion of illegitimacy in Bavaria is not, as some have assumed, to be attributed to the Catholic religion, clearly appears from the fact that the evil is greater in the Protestant than in the Catholic sections of the country. Unreasonable civil restrictions on marriage are likewise responsible, though in a less degree, for the large number of illegitimate children in Austria. While these restrictions have for the most part been removed within the last quarter of a century, their evil influence is still exerted through custom and public toleration of illicit relations.

It has been suggested that the law of Scotland, which legitimizes children upon the subsequent marriage of their parents, explains to some extent the high rate of illegitimacy in that country. This hypothesis is very doubtful. In the first place, this legal provision exists in other countries of Europe as well as in Scotland ; in the second place, its influence in promoting illicit relations would seem of necessity to be very slight. In so far as the expectation of marriage induces a woman to sin, it refers to marriage before the birth of a child. The hope of a marriage later on is usually less solid and less effective as a temptation. The possibility of legitimatization after birth might, however, make public opinion more indulgent toward illegitimacy. Undoubtedly this would tend to increase the evil.

Certain other social forces of more or less importance may be conveniently grouped together. All of these are, indeed, affected by still other factors, yet each exerts an influence of its own. A lax public opinion is undoubtedly responsible for some of the illegitimacy in Scotland, Wales, Prussia, and the Scandinavian countries. The modes of intercourse and amusement among young men and women ; the presence of a large number of soldiers in a community; the power or ascendancy exercised by the upper classes over the women of the lower walks of life; erotic and immoral literature, all have some influence in some regions. The evil results of a large influx of tourists are seen in Tyrol, where the rate of illegitimacy rose during the last decade of the nineteenth century from five to seven per cent. Late marriages, to whatever cause they may be due, have a decisive tendency to increase the proportion of illegitimate births. In Denmark and Sweden, the majority of illegitimate children were born when their mothers were between twenty-five and thirty-five years of age; about one-half of them were born after their mothers had reached the age of thirty. If early marriages had been more frequent some of these women would have been wives before they became mothers. In this connexion it is worth noting that two nations having the same proportion of illegitimacy, as compared with either the total population or the total number of births, may have a very different rate as compared with the total number of unmarried females between the ages of 15 and 45. The last method of computation obviously furnishes the most accurate indication of the comparative morality of different peoples.

Marriage between the conception and the birth of a child reduces to some extent the rate of illegitimacy. In statistics, as well as in law and in popular estimation, those children that are conceived out of wedlock but born after the marriage of their parents are reckoned as legitimate. Such children form a large proportion of the total number in some communities. Father Krose concludes from the investigations and testimony of Protestant pastors and social students that, among the poorer classes in the country districts of Prussia, illicit intercourse before marriage is the rule rather than the exception (op. cit., pp. 24 sq.). Since the great majority of these couples entered matrimony before the arrival of their first child, the number of illegitimate births registered in Prussia was relatively small. The same author attributes to Dr. Neumann, a prominent statistician, the statement that more than thirty-nine per cent of the first-born of Danish marriages saw the light before their parents had been married seven months. As we have already seen, Charles Booth declares that the very poor in some districts of London quite commonly marry between the conception and birth of their first child.

The extent to which illegitimacy is lessened by immoral preventives of conception and birth cannot be estimated even approximately, but it is undoubtedly very large. No one doubts that the lowered birth-rate, which has become so general and so pronounced in both America and Europe, is chiefly due to deliberate restriction of offspring by men and women who are capable of having children, or of having a larger number of children. It is safe to say that in the great majority of cases this result is obtained through means that are immoral. Unfortunately the knowledge and use of these methods are not confined to married persons. Preventives of conception and devices for procuring abortion have been so shamelessly published through the printing press and private agencies of publicity during the last few years that they have come to the attention of the majority of the young people in most of the cities of Europe and America. In all probability it is to the knowledge and practice of these perverse devices, rather than to improved moral conditions, that we must attribute the slight decline in illegitimacy that has taken place in some countries during the last twenty years. To this factor we must also ascribe in some degree the relatively low rate of illegitimacy in the cities as compared with the country districts. Indeed, a larger proportion of illegitimate births in the cities would, in the present conditions, indicate a smaller degree of immorality, inasmuch as it would imply the absence of many unnatural sins and prenatal homicides.

The appalling number of prostitutes in the large cities is likewise convincing evidence that the number of illegitimate children would be much larger than it is but for their presence. A few years ago Hausner estimated that the proportion of fallen women to the population was: in Hamburg, one in forty-eight; in Berlin, one in sixty-two; in London, one in ninety-one. While it is true that a large proportion of the sins of unchastity of which prostitution is the occasion would never have been committed if there were no prostitutes, it is none the less true that a large proportion of them represent a choice between fallen women and respectable women who might yield to temptation. Since prostitution is confined to the cities, it lowers the rate of town as compared with rural illegitimacy.

The factor of illegitimacy that has most vital interest for Catholics is, of course, that of religion. We believe that the influence of our religion for morality in general, and the special stress that our teaching lays upon the importance of chastity, renders the proportion of sexual immorality considerably less among our people than it is among those without the Catholic fold. And if long and varied observation by trustworthy students and observers, both Catholic and Protestant, is to receive due credit we have good and sufficient reasons for this conviction. But we cannot get very satisfactory confirmation from the statistics of illegitimacy. Austria and Bavaria, which are Catholic countries, have a higher rate than any Protestant nation. True, there are, as we have already seen, certain legislative requirements which to some extent explain the bad eminence of these two Catholic lands, but it is impossible to measure the precise importance of this or any other factor. Consequently we are unable to isolate and accurately appraise the effect of religion. The difficulty of estimating the influence of religion is especially great when we compare one entire country with another. For in no two countries do all the other important factors operate in the same way or to the same extent. The only safe method is to study different sections of the same country which resemble each other in all pertinent influences except that of religion.

Taking the Kingdom of Prussia, we find that in 1895 the percentage of illegitimate births was: in Catholic Münster 2.09, in Protestant Köslin 9.24; in Catholic Oppeln 5.65, in Protestant Liegnitz 12.57; in Catholic Aachen 2.42, in Protestant Hanover 9.30. In each of these compared regions the legal, industrial, social, and all other noteworthy conditions were the same, or were conducive to a lower percentage of illegitimacy in the Protestant than in the Catholic section. Comparing all the Catholic portions of Prussia with all the Protestant sections in which other conditions are the same, we find that the rate of illegitimacy in the latter is from two to four times as high as in the former. Moreover, statistics show that both in Prussia and in other parts of the empire the rate among Catholic minorities is higher than among Catholic majorities. but lower among Protestant minorities than among Protestant majorities. During the decade of 1886-1896 the Catholic cantons of Switzerland had a rate of illegitimacy of 3 per cent, while the rate for the entire country was 4.72 per cent. In 1896 the rate in the Catholic provinces of North Brabant and Limburg in Holland was 2.8 and 2.20, respectively, but 3 for the whole of that country. All of the foregoing figures are taken from the work of Father Krose (pp. 46-54). It has already been noted that in Ireland Protestant Down had in 1880 ten times as many illegitimate births as equally populous Catholic Mayo, a difference that is certainly not sufficiently explained by the presence of part of a large city in Down. In 1894 the illegitimate births were twice as high in dominantly Protestant Belfast as in dominantly Catholic Dublin. It seems safe to say that none of the differences described in this paragraph can be satisfactorily explained by any other factor than religion.

It may not be amiss to set down some general considerations which account, in part at least, for the comparatively high rate of illegitimacy in some Catholic countries. We have called attention above to the powerful influence of perverse legislation in Bavaria and Austria ; in the latter country there has for a long time been in operation an additional factor, namely, those ecclesiastico-political forces, summed up under the name of Josephinism, which have gone far to demoralize the seminaries, the clergy, and the public life of the country, and which have in a hundred ways prevented the Church from exercising her normal influence. France, Italy, and Belgium have a considerably higher rate than England and Wales, but France is no longer a Catholic country in the normal and vital sense, while Italy, as already noted, has an unfavourable civil marriagelaw. In England the registration laws permit many illegitimate births to be counted as legitimate; moreover, the proportion of marriages between the conception and birth of the first child, the comparative prevalence of prostitution, and the use of immoral preventives of conception and birth, are all undoubtedly greater in that country than in Italy or Belgium. Indeed, competent observation and statistics, in so far as they are available, show that these three important causes of a low rate of illegitimacy are, generally speaking, much more prevalent among Protestant than among Catholic peoples. Finally, the very low rate in Protestant Holland seems to be explained by the astoundingly large percentage of still-births set down in the statistics of that country. They are one hundred per cent more numerous than in Austria-Hungary. If this excess of still-births in Holland, that is, one-half the whole number, be reckoned as illegitimates who were killed either before or immediately after birth — and this is a reasonable inference — the rate of illegitimacy would be almost twice as high as the existing statistics indicate.

The most important factors which tend to increase illegitimacy are, therefore, bad laws bad economic conditions, lax public opinion, lax customs of social intercourse, late marriages, and lack of sound moral and religious convictions. The most important influences that tend to lessen and check it are religion, especially, the true religion, immoral practices, and marriage between the conception and birth of the first child. Most of the first set of factors go to prove that illegitimacy is not a correct measure of the moral character of a people or class in the presence of temptations against the virtue of chastity ; the last two factors in the second set show that illegitimacy is not a true index of the actual violations of this virtue. Nevertheless every illegitimate child that is born represents at least one grievous sin against the sixth commandment, and forebodes many harmful consequences for itself, its parents, and the community. The child is frequently deserted by its parents, or by the father, and is deprived of many of the social, economic, educational, and religious advantages which he would have obtained if he had been born in wedlock. Infant mortality among illegitimate children is at least twenty-five per cent higher than among those that are legitimate, while the proportion of criminals among them is also considerably larger. The parents, particularly the mother, suffer a greater or less degree of social ostracism, which, in the case of the woman, often includes inability to find a spouse. In addition she bears by far the greater portion of the burden of rearing the child. On the other hand, where the parents fall but slightly in social esteem the public regard for chastity is deplorably lax. In any case, the presence of illegitimacy in a community always tends to weaken the popular appreciation of chastity, and the popular disapproval of its violation.

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

  • President likens Syrian refugees to pilgrims on Mayflower in ...
  • Prayer For Courage HD Video
  • The Miracle Prayer HD Video
  • St. Saturninus: Saint of the Day for Sunday, November 29, 2015
  • BIGGER THAN ISIS - There's a hidden power behind ISIS and it's so big ...
  • 'Black Friday' leaving bruises as shoppers trample each other for ...
  • Daily Readings for Sunday, November 29, 2015

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Daniel 7:15-27
15 'I, Daniel, was deeply disturbed and the visions that passed through ... Read More

Psalm, Daniel 3:82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87
82 Bless the Lord, all the human race: praise and glorify him for ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 21:34-36
34 'Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened by debauchery and ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for November 28th, 2015 Image

St. Catherine Laboure
November 28: St. Catherine Laboure, virgin, was born on May 2, ... Read More