Sunday, February 08, 2004

Religious freedoms in Italy – the Concordats 75 and 20 years on

Seventy five years ago on Wednesday, on 11 February 1929, Italy and the Vatican were “reconciled”. Three treaties were signed in which Pope Pius XI recognised the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Italy, which had removed most of his predecessor Pius IX’s temporal powers. It was the solution to “the Roman Question” which had blighted the first 60 years of united Italy and which had been at the basis of a troubled relationship between Church and State.

On one side, the Vatican and successive Popes were loath to forego their temporal powers; on the other, the young Italy had doubts about her real sovereignty and independence with such a large cuckoo in the nest. As a result, for most of Italy’s history, “religious issues” have invariably consisted of tension between a nominally secular Italy and Roman Catholicism represented by the Vatican and the Church in Italy (not always the same thing).

One of the 1929 treaties was a concordat, an agreement between the Vatican and another state regulating the status of the Roman Catholic Church in that country. This one gave priests special protection under the law, special tax concessions for Church income and property, religious education in schools was put under the control of the episcopate, Church marriages were recognised and Catholicism became the state religion. Secular Italians fought for a 19th Century separation but with little success, especially in the Christian Democrat period from 1945 to 1992. In most Italian villages until at least the ‘60s, the parish church carried more political weight than the DC section.

In 1984, 20 years ago next week, the Concordat was revised; Catholicism maintained some of its privileges but there was - at least in theory - more pluralism possible in religious education at school (though the Church maintains its prerogative in choosing teachers) and taxpayers were able to choose to give part of their taxes to the Church.

Over the whole period and until very recently, other religions were hardly present and in practice not perceived. When a group of Jewish refugees arrived in an Alpine village during World War II, the kind and welcoming parish priest exhorted his flock to look after them because even if they spoke a foreign language, were city folk and different in so many ways, they were after all “cristiani come noi”, Christians like us.

There was no irony to the remark as “cristiano” meant and for many still means just a human being. Now, though, Italians are having to come to terms with religious differences. There are perhaps 400,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other smaller non-Catholic Christians, mostly dismissed by the hierarchy as “sects,” but who have growing followings. The biggest single non-Catholic group are the Muslims, maybe a million, coming from a wide variety of national origins.

There have been requests by some Muslim communities for separate gym facilities for boys and girls in state schools, for prayer areas and for halal meat. The first request has been turned down so far but without a firm declaration of principle; the other two requests have usually been fulfilled, at least when possible practically.

Far more controversial was the case last year when a very vocal Italian Muslim, Adel Smith demanded that the crucifix in his daughter’s school be taken down. He won his case but the uproar was such that the school appealed and, for a moment at least, Italy discovered that it was still a Christian country. Previously, the only calls for the removal of crosses from public spaces came from secularists and were usually unsuccessful.

The defence of the crucifix was so heated that if I believed in conspiracy theories I might have thought the whole affair was a fiendishly clever Vatican conspiracy to kill secularism in the country and insert references to Europe’s “Christian roots” in the EU’s Constitution then being discussed. But I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, though I am sure that the French and now German debate on laicité will spill over into Italy. Mr. Smith has promised to continue his battle, providing much heat but little light, while the wider debate might just provide another opportunity for Italy to develop into a pluralist and multi-cultural society.

If so, it will be the previous dominance of the Church that ironically prevents French extremes. Precisely because religion in Italy has been a matter of politics and power more than spirituality, open to compromise rather than dogma there are good chances of compromises as new religions grow.

For most Italians, the crucifix has little overt religious significance; it adorns churches of course but few Italians consider them very spiritual. And among the “faithful,” it hangs stylishly over bronzed and muscular torsos or between decoratively supported cleavages. To turn the headscarf or hejab into a fashion statement would be a very Italian way of dealing with the question.

Already the media remind us of Eid, the Chinese New Year, Yom Kippur, unheard of even a decade ago. Despite the long battles between the Church and the secularists, Italy does not have France’s militant revolutionary secular tradition and will never be a completely secular country, but it won’t be fundamentalist either.

The Department of International Relations at The American University of Rome will be marking the Concordats’ anniversaries with a seminar:

11 Feb. 18.30 - 20.00 B204 Seminar "Religious freedoms in Italy 75 years after the Lateran Pacts"

The relationship between Church and State in Italy has never been straightforward and seldom been easy. Before unification, the Pope was one of the many sovereigns reigning in Italy, a political actor as well as a spiritual one. The Lateran Pacts answered “the Roman Question” but created new questions. Seventy five years on and 20 years after the revision of the Concordat, the role of religion in Italy is being questioned once again as the country becomes multi-religious for the first time since the Roman empire. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter will look at "Church/State Relations in an Increasingly Pluralistic Italy". Anna Foa Professor of Modern History at the University of Rome, Sapienza, “The Church and the religious freedom in Italy (1848-1929)”, Giulio Ercolessi, Fondazione Critica liberale “Secularism in Italy”

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