Religion in Italy, or: how did that crucifix end up on the wall?

Just recently, many Italian bloggers and users of social networks — especially Facebook — have been writing angry posts and creating groups against Roman Apostolic Catholicism (for brevity, I will henceforth refer to it as Catholicism, or Catholic Church). I am going to try and explain what triggered this; it is not a matter quickly covered, so make a cup of your favorite tea before you keep reading.

First of all, though, a clarification: I am an atheist. My point of view will inevitably be biased, but then again: isn’t anyone’s point of view biased when it comes to these topics? Moreover, I consider myself fairly liberal; all my life, I’ve never voted to the right. That’s not because the Italian left is great (really, it’s barely a name on a piece of paper; they don’t even constitute any real opposition party), but rather because the alternative was giving my preference to that right, something I can’t stand. Read on and you’ll see why, at least in part.

Do you like history? I hope so, because I’m going to quickly tell you how the current religious situation in Italy came to be.

Italy is a very young country, younger than the United States of America. Unification didn’t happen until 1861, and it was a long and painful process. Before that, the boot-shaped peninsula was split in many different smaller states, usually under foreign domination and constantly at war with one another.

This map shows was it was like in 1494. I want you to pay attention to the size of the Papal State (Stato pontificio in Italian). Pretty big, isn’t it? The point is that the Pope — the Catholic Church in general, for that matter — was not strictly working for the souls. On the contrary: their interests were quite worldly. As many of my readers probably know, by the 16th century the Catholic Church had deviated so much from the original teachings of Jesus that the second big schism of Christianity (the first being the one between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). A thorough list of how Catholicism differed from the New Testament as time went by can be found on this page. Note that the Bible has been translated many times, and is being revised right now. There are websites (such as Utopia, in Italian) that point out how the same passage can be dampened or entirely rewritten with every revision, in order to better fit not only the historical moment in which it is published, but also and especially the target it is intended for. Think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible, for instance: all references to the word God have been replaced with Jehovah, among other things. I strongly suggest this comparison experiment to anyone; the internet makes it extremely quick, easy and cheap to do, and it provides a very interesting example of how subtle changes allow to tell the same anecdotes in different ways. (This is not to say the Bible is any less interesting; it should be taken for what it is: a series of books written by men who lived in different parts of the world and at different moment in history, and who spoke and wrote different languages.)

As I was saying, the Catholic Church was not behaving exactly as Jesus wanted. The sale of indulgences, the enforcement of Latin at a time in which Latin was not spoken anymore, the Inquisition, the not-so-secret sons and daughters of priests and cardinals… and the taxes. Many taxes were collected by the Papal state, be them in ready cash or in produce. A famous tax was called the decima: everyone was expected to pay at least one tenth (hence the name) of their total income to the state. Monks, however, were exempted: keep this in mind. Such kind of privileges didn’t end with the Middle Ages.

Foreign dominations constantly changed the political map of the Italian peninsula during the decades, and shaped the languages and the thought of its inhabitants. The long road that led to unification began in the early 1800s, but the first two wars of independence were not enough to be done with it: Pope Pius IX refused to recognize the Italian Kingdom even after it had been constituted in 1861 and Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy (Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia) proclaimed king. Historians call this the Roman Question, since Rome could not be made capital of the Kingdom as it belonged to the Papal state. It is interesting to note that the outer borders of the new kingdom were quite different from what they are today.

In 1870, Rome had to be seized by military force. On September 20th, the Aurelian Walls were breached at Porta Pia (breccia di Porta Pia) and the Bersaglieri marched on Rome. Pius IX still refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Italy, and declared himself a political prisoner in the Vatican.

A few decades later, shortly after the end of the Great War, a man called Benito Mussolini progressively took power in Italy, paving the way for his dictatorship. Fascism, like many modern organized crime groups in Italy (mafia, camorra, ‘ndrangheta) have a close relationship with Catholicism. The Church is effectively everywhere, and it is a fact that people from southern Italy have a higher rate of belief, so to speak, than people from the north (even though the Catholic beliefs can become entangled in ancestral pagan cults: just like the Romans integrated their culture with that of the peoples they conquered, so they did with their religions and cults; a prime example of that is the Serpari festival in Cocullo).

Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty (Patti Lateranensi) in 1929, which created the modern State of Vatican City (usually called Città del Vaticano in Italian), defined a financial settlement for the territorial losses of the Papal state (to be paid yearly by Italy), and defined an agreement between the Italian state and the Holy See about religious matters (Concordato); the latter is what we are mostly interested in.

Such agreement involved, most importantly, the institution of Catholicism as a state religion. What that means is that the Italian state officially endorsed Catholicism, and made the Catholic Church exempt from paying taxes for its buildings and activities on the Italian territory. It is fundamental to remember that at this point the Vatican is another state, albeit geographically an Italian enclave.

In 1984, the Concordato was revised. The most important change was the introduction of a new Italian tax called otto per mille (8‰) to sustain the Catholic Church. Internet blog posts and articles pointed out the inner workings of such tax, which is only in theory voluntary: those who decide not to assign their own otto per mille will effectively give it to the Catholic Church. In 2004, only 34.5% actively signed to deliver their part to the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church got 87.2% of the total fund. In 2000, the most recent information available, such part amounted to a billion euro.
Note that tax exemptions remained; one that was recently talked about by many people is the ICI exemption, a local tax about real estate property. Such tax was cancelled for estate property where citizens dwell by the current Berlusconi-IV government, causing protests by cities since that was the main source of local income (additional houses and properties do require payment). Someone playfully pointed out that at least this put an end to such a privilege to the Church.

Most Italians are officially Catholics. That’s because they are baptized as young children (usually at a few months of age) as it is an established tradition, and will usually go through the first few Sacraments (up to Confirmation) before their adolescence begins. After that, most will lose interest in religion and will turn their spirituality into a Catholic hybrid, not confessing their sins to a priest anymore and seldom going to Church. They will almost invariably define themselves as cattolici non praticanti (non-practicing Catholics); such a thing is in stark contrast with Commandment #3 clearly states that the holy day should be honored. Some will dedicate their spirituality to specific saints, others to the Virgin Mary (the Madonna). As I said before, this is increasingly common while going southward. Some will also stop believing altogether, but will still claim to be Catholics. Save rare exceptions, most parents will end up baptizing their children as soon as possible; that is not out of a real fear of eternal damnation due to the Original Sin (let’s face it: with modern medical cures, it’s unlikely that a kid will die during his first few months of life), but rather out of tradition.
In Italian, the word religione is pretty much a perfect synonym for Catholic Church, unless otherwise clearly and explicitly specified.

This results in the statistics being completely skewed. A 2006 survey reveals that 87.8% of Italians claim to be Catholics, but only 36.8% say to be practicing Catholics. Interestingly, 74% believe that there is “some God”.
Such high official figure causes a huge conflict of interest between the Vatican and the Italian political scene. The latter certainly can’t afford to lose the powerful support of the former (and who knows what else; to whet your appetite, please refer to the IOR scandals), which in turn is able to push its own agenda unto the whole Italian population.

Especially with the right-wing governments of the last few years, Italy has lagged behind when it comes to medical improvement. Just a few examples: few women are even aware of the existence of epidural anesthesia; artificial insemination procedures are extremely crippled (no pun intended), putting women’s own health at risk by forcing them to accept insemination even when pre-procedure examination proved that the resulting fetus would be malformed; many doctors not only refuse to perform abortion surgeries (therefore forcing women to resort to illicit and insecure procedures), they also refuse to prescribe contraceptives and after day pills (and even if they get prescribed, finding a pharmacist that will actually sell them can be extremely difficult); there is acknowledgement for the so-called “biological testament”, that is the right to have feeding and therapy suspended for terminally ill patients and for patients in vegetative state or irreversible coma (refer to the stories of Eluana Englaro and Piergiorgio Welby); any attempts to give some kind of legal recognition to same-sex couples have been constantly brought down; and so on.

It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church strongly opposed divorce, which was introduced in Italy only in 1974. It is even more interesting to note that most right-wing politicians who claim to be devout Catholics and took part to a rally in defense of the “values of the traditional family” a couple of years ago, are divorced and remarried: Silvio Berlusconi (divorced, remarried, separated), Pier Ferdinando Casini (divorced, remarried), Ignazio La Russa (divorced, lives with another woman), Roberto Calderoli (divorced, remarried with a celtic ritual), Gianfranco Fini (divorced, had a daughter from a divorced woman), Marco Follini (divorced), Franco Frattini (separated), Letizia Moratti (divorced, remarried with a divorced man), and the list could go on and on…

That is one of the reasons for the anger that many Italian atheists — and some Catholics too — direct to the Vatican and the Catholic Church. One would expect the ecclesiastical hierarchies to complain, yet no member of the clergy ever said anything about it.

Another reason is the cover-up of pedophilia among the clergy. Many cases have been discovered, but the news seldom mention anything like that and the offenders aren’t even reported to the Italian police. The Church prefers to wash its own clothes, so to speak, and such offenders are merely transferred to another parish, and oftentimes they keep teaching catechism to kids.

It is also quite difficult for atheists to accept that people who cannot marry (and are not supposed to have sex or children) insist in knowing what’s good and what’s bad about having and running a family, and about the pleasures of the flesh.
It is however enraging that the Italian political class of Italy lets another State’s absolute monarch rule the ethical agenda that will affect millions of citizens, for instance preventing same-sex couples from being recognized as such. Picture two men (or two women) living together for decades; one of them dies, and the surviving partner has no right to anything, because they were complete strangers for the law. The same thing applies to heterosexual couples that cannot, or just don’t want to marry: take for example the case of two widows who enjoy their elderly age together, but feel too old to marry again, or just don’t feel like doing it; when one dies, the other will have absolutely no part in anything, and who cares if he/she had been changing her/his diapers three times a day for five years.

It is also extremely difficult to accept that such an organization encourages people to help the poor, but gives no example whatsoever. It is simply disgusting to see the Pope talk about poverty while wearing specially-crafted Prada robes and unique and very expensive jewelry. Incidentally, when the tax season comes, TV channels are flooded by dramatic commercials about priests going all over the world helping the poor, apparently thanks to the otto per mille money. Official figures show that about 8% of all the money raised is used for that; almost 45% is used for “cult needs” (which include building new churches) and 35% are to pay the clergy.

The point is that religion pays big money. It’s a fact. Italy, with its plethora of saints and dubious relics (there are some people worshipping the alleged foreskin of Jesus Christ — yes, we’re talking about Jesus’s penis… isn’t that a bit blasphemous?), has many people traveling great distances to go to sanctuaries and churches. Religious tourism is an industry that will never see any crisis whatsoever, and while I can’t talk about miraculous healings (that have apparently happened), it is encouraged through debatable means.

Padre Pio, now known as San Pio, was a friar who died in the 1960s and who apparently had stigmata. It was found out that he secretly had a pharmacist give him carbolic acid to self-inflict the wounds. That did not stop the beatification process and he was appointed a saint a few years ago. A grandiose church was built in his hometown, with common people paying to finance even customized bricks bearing their names on the sides of the entrance… only to find out that it was a fraud and no names were engraved anywhere: the construction company that had such idea had mysteriously disappeared with the money.

The recent wave of anticlericalism was however caused by a verdict of the European Court about the bearing of a crucifix in public schools (the complete text of the verdict can be read here), or rather by the political response it sparked. A Finnish woman (therefore a European citizen with full rights) living in Italy asked her children’s school’s principal to remove such symbols, because she felt that they were an imposition of a given religion on her children. Effectively, the Italian Constitution says that “all citizens […] are equal under the law, with no distinction of gender, race, language, religion, political opinion […]” (art. #3), and that “all religions are equal under the law; religions other than the Catholic are free to organize themselves according to their own regulations, as long as they are not against the Italian law; their relationship with the State are defined by specific agreements” (art. #8); “everybody has the right to follow his/her religious faith in any form […]” (art. #19); “religious associations and institutions cannot be the cause of special legal limitations […]” (art. #20). The European Court based its decision upon the fact that public schools should be as neutral as possible, because the State itself is neutral about religions (art. #8 of the Constitution). Nothing more, nothing less.

With the revision of the Concordato in 1984 and the removal of any State religion in Italy, any obligation to display a crucifix in public offices was also removed. It seems only fair, in today’s multicultural and multiethnic reality (albeit some political parties are founded on racism and xenophobia and a specific politician said that Italy is not and should not be multiethnic), that people with a different or no religion shouldn’t be forced to see a symbol that doesn’t belong to them; or at least, other symbols should be added as needed, albeit that would prove quite impractical. Moreover, since Italy is a secular State with no State religion, the crucifix could simply be removed, rendering classrooms’ walls as neutral as possible.

Such verdict from the European Court caused all sorts of angry responses by the political side that’s closest to the Vatican hierarchies (you guessed it: the same family value defenders who, quite aptly, have lots of experience since they have more than one family). The secretary of defense, Ignazio La Russa, said: “They can all die; the crucifix will stay where it’s always been”. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, roamed the earthquake-torn city of L’Aquila in an impromptu procession bearing a crucifix bigger than he is. Deputy Paola Binetti (inexplicably part of the left-wing Democratic Party, proud member of the Opus Day and outspoken wearer of the cilice to provide herself with constant pain to feel closer to Christ’s passion — I swear I’m not making this up) claimed that the crucifix is an Italian tradition and should not be touched; I admit I would like to see a pizza and an Arlecchino action figure on classrooms’ walls too, because those are two other important Italian traditions. Someone else, whose name or face escape me, managed to produce the most creative response ever: the crucifix, he said, is not a religious symbol (what is it, then?)

Faith is faith, it just cannot be explained. I don’t have it, but I respect those who do, whichever religion it is. I respect Catholics; most of them are good people. The problem is that Italian politicians are faux Catholics, and those are the worst, because they affect me and my rights until I leave this country. I have nothing against Islam either; I actually feel sorry for Muslims, who are all considered terrorists on the basis of their religion (especially in Italy), just because some fundamentalist blows himself up in the name of Allah. While I haven’t read it in full, I’m sure the Qur’an is not any worse than the Old Testament in terms of violence (there is a passage, in Deuteronomy, that says that one should throw stones at adulterers; that’s quite far from the modern concept of Christian forgiveness, to say the least), and Christians – most notably Catholics — weren’t much better: the crusades, the Inquisition, and so on.

Religion, or lack thereof, is an intimate trait of one’s personality. Forcing it upon students simply shouldn’t happen, just like the other things I mentioned in this post shouldn’t happen in what is supposed to be a secular State. There should be a clear separation between State and Church, and the State should only work with the Vatican for what it is: a foreign country.

In this country, though, such things are a hopeless utopia. Mutual and dubious interests pillage religion of the purely spiritual connotation it should have. When the shepherd uses sheep to merely obtain more land, you know there is a problem.

2 responses to “Religion in Italy, or: how did that crucifix end up on the wall?

  1. Your blog is very interesting because you are quite educated about the subject, providing references when needed. Most of the things I have read about this subject have been rants with little reason or thought behind them.

    Thanks for the insight. It is nice to get it from someone who is actually there.

    • Thank you very much!
      The goal of this blog is to explain to foreigners what happens here, providing all the background that might be needed for that. However, oftentimes there are so many intertwined events (and many of them are so disgusting) that I end up not even attempting to tell them.

      Comments like yours are very encouraging.

      Thanks again and happy holidays!

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