When I moved to Italy, as a Protestant, I was interested to see what religious life would be in a Catholic country. As a philosophy and religion major in college I had studied the history and theology of the Catholic church.I also had some understanding of the Catholic church in the United States since over half of my relatives are Roman Catholics.But what about Italy?
I noted immediately on TV that quiz shows sometimes ask questions about religion.Church history or Bible questions are often answered incorrectly, but questions about the everyday practices of the Church usually elicit the right response.Once, when a contestant failed to name the Holy Water font as the place into which the faithful dip their hands upon entering a church, the audience moaned and hooted as if someone on an American quiz show had just answered the question “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” by replying “Lee.”
Soon I found that this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, this contradiction of the importance vs. the non importance of religion, was typical.After three years in Italy, my conclusion, in slightly hyperbolic terms, is that the Church is “everywhere and nowhere.”
Since Italy is the site of the Papacy, Roman Catholic matters get heavy coverage in the Italian media. When some theologians recently suggested that the doctrine of Limbo (the place where babies go if they die not baptized) be abandoned, this rated a full page story in the local newspaper.Official Church po-sitions on various matters are well publicized, and the Church is more prominent in political issues than in the United States.The number of present and former church properties is surprising.Present and past churches, monasteries, convents, etc. make up a large number of the buildings in an Italian city.
Today, however, church attendance is often sparse, few Italians are entering religious vocations, and most convents and mona-steries have been converted to other purposes. Of course Italy is not the only European country with a predominate or state-established religion where church attendance is low.Think of Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries.On the other hand there is Poland where church attendance remains high.
Tuscany is renowned in Italy as an irreligious area.Certainly in Tuscany the role of the church in everyday life seems far less pervasive than the omnipresence of “religious” properties would suggest. In the United States I have often heard people bring their religious beliefs directly into a discussion of political, moral, and ethical issues.In Italy this rarely happens.It is clear that most Italians disagree with the Church’s positions on divorce, abortion, premarital sex, and birth control.In Italy one child is most typical for a family whereas in the U.S. Catholics often have larger families.Unmarried couples living together in Italy are common; this arrangement carries no social stigma.
In the United States (despite what one hears in the media) there are many people who don’t practice any religion, but they tend to be neutral about religion rather than hostile.In Italy I hear many negative statements about the Catholic Church, usually from people who still would call themselves “Catholics.”
These negative feelings do not often induce someone to leave the Church.Whereas in the U.S. people often leave one denomination to join another, in Italy those who stop attending the Catholic church rarely join one of the few non Catholic churches.It is Roman Cath-olicism or nothing.Still if one enters a Catholic church with a skeptic who no longer attends and maybe even openly criticizes the Church, the skepticusually dips a finger in the Holy Water font and makes the sign of the cross.The tradition of the Church is still strong.
The two major Church holidays, Christmas and Easter, are as commercialized in Italy as in the United States.The Christmas season starts very early and has a clear emphasis on buying gifts.Discussions of the Easter holiday center around, in order of priority, the Easter meal, the long Easter weekend, and finally going to church.
Roman Catholicism is not an established state religion in Italy.Religious freedom is promised to all.When a Muslim parent went to court to get the crucifix removed from his child’s school room,the judge ruled in his favor and started a national controversy.The Pre-sident of the Republic argued that the crucifix was not primarily a religious symbol but rather a cultural symbol of the nation.This to me made little sense, but it reflected well the difficulty of providing an atmosphere of religious freedom and openness in a nation where one religion is so central in the history and culture of the nation even if it is often followed more in form than in substance.