Introduction: Catholicism in Italy is a pervasive, but not always deep reality

Catholicism is very much part of the warp and weft of Italian life, as an inevitable social, cultural and political force that Italians take for granted. The deep and old cultural ties are made visible by the presence of more than 100,000 Catholic churches in the country. Catholicism still has a near religious monopoly in Italy.  There is a small but ancient Jewish community in the heart of Rome and elsewhere, a growing Muslim immigrant population, and sizeable numbers of agnostics and atheists to challenge that religious monopoly, but the monopoly is still very real. Protestantism, and the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, never took root in Italy.1   Camillo Cardinal Ruini, as president of the Italian bishops conference, summed up what many Italians say about Catholic life there: "If we speak of a generic adhesion to Catholicism, we may affirm that this is still the great majority in Italy. But it is true that those who live their faith deeply are a minority."2

A series of concordats, the most recent of which was signed in 1984, has marked the bounds between church and state, and has indeed diminished the Church’s official place in Italian life. Still, government offices, courts, hospitals and classrooms have crucifixes on their walls. 3 Other places, like Rome's Campo de Fiori, contain monuments that serve as reminders of the excesses of clerical governance, or monuments to the liberal rule that ended church governance of the Papal States.

Italian bishops certainly exercise outsize influence on the governance of the Church, and many Italians have a strong devotion to the papacy, but Italy also has a long and enduring anti-clerical streak, both among Catholics and non-believers. Many of the traditional devotions that characterize Italian life may be seen in part as a way of Catholics taking religious practice into their own hands, into a sphere outside of clerical control. Italy still has a fairly extensive set of Catholic papers and periodicals, more than 100 Catholic publishing houses, eight radio stations and one television station as of 2008.4

The Italian state as we know it was formally unified only in 1871, from a variety of small kingdoms, city-states and regions that had their own dialects, food specialties and other cultural particularities. In the north of Italy today, one can still hear French, German, Ladino and Slovene spoken. In the popular Italian imagination, it is a truism that northern Italy and southern Italy are very different places, the first more high tech, industrious and rationalized, the second more agrarian, slow-paced and traditional in ethic and outlook. Such a stark contrast is too strong, but differences are real. The religious impact is measurable. In a 2007 study, more than 58% of Italians in the south and the islands (Sicily and Sardinia) declared belief in God with certainty, compared to 37-40% in northern regions.5

Italy certainly is a place where attachment to the Madonna—almost always pictured with the Christ child—runs very strong, and where the saints long played an enormously important role. Catholicism lives outside, in the streets, in ways that it does not in many countries. Statues of the Virgin dot public squares, religious images often look down from over the doorways of homes, and public feasts and outdoor processions are still major cultural events. Italians are much more likely to engage with holy objects—cards, images, shrines, etc. than to attend Mass regularly. Mass attendance in Italy is higher than in most of Europe, but not as high as one might expect in a country with as many priests as there are. Experts generally put the Mass attendance rate at about 15-20% on an average Sunday. The figure is less affected by class status than in many other countries, and urban-rural differences are relatively muted.6

Italians and northern Europeans sometimes contrast their cultures by noting that Italians may often feel less bound by the letter of the law than northern Europeans do. This is not to suggest that there is no clear sense of order and hierarchy, but rather that negotiation, personal connection, and room for maneuver are often more important than law for its own sake, as means to navigate the order and hierarchy. This characteristic carries over to the moral realm, where Italians seem to have greater patience for what some cultures might see as incompatible moral contradictions. One might say that Italy is a "both/and" culture more than an "either/or" culture. Italians can be clever in evading bureaucracy and rules, even as they support the importance of those rules in general. They believe in the importance of morality, even as they recognize that it may be hard to live up to it, and can be comfortable bending its rules. Its ethical culture tends to be more supple than moralizing.

This "both/and" quality is evident in many other ways. Joyous and celebratory as Italian culture is perceived to be, sociologist Franco Garelli also argues that even in modern times, Italians have a strong cultural awareness of “sin and human limits.” Overwhelmingly, he notes, Italian believers conceived of God as "a loving father who takes care of everyone." Awareness of their own enduring limitations, he says, calls forth a faith that tends to be enduring, not based on situational needs.7    

Italy's Catholics seem in large numbers to be comfortable with some version of a culturally dominant role of Catholicism: Garelli's surveys indicated that only 11.5% of all Italians think that displaying crucifixes in public places in Italy is unacceptable.8  Neither are they spiritual "seekers" interested in exploring or appropriating other religious traditions, or pieces of those traditions. "Compared with other European countries, few Italians—in their daily lives impregnated with Catholicism—care about beliefs, symbols or references deriving from other spiritual sources, and even fewer combine teachings from different traditions."9  Yet his surveys show strong affirmation that Italians, including Italy's Catholics, are uncertain in their faith in important ways, and do not believe that Catholicism has a monopoly on truth. Italians told him, for example, that they turn to religion because it helps “to face the drama and mystery of death,” yet when asked about life after death more Italians indicated they believe that “nobody can know,” or simply said “I don’t know” than said that another life exists.10 Two-thirds of Italians, he reports, reject the idea that only Christians can be saved; the same proportion of people believe that “all religions contain relevant truths” as believe that “there is only one true religion.”11 They were interested in world religions like Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, but as cultural phenomena, hardly at all out of personal spiritual curiosity.12

Read more

Franco Garelli, Religion, Italian Style: Continuities and Change in a Catholic Country (Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014).

John Pollard, Catholicism in Modern Italy: Religion, Society and Politics since 1861 (London: Routledge, 2008). 

  • 1 Even a notable exception like the Waldensian Church only counts about 50,000 members.
  • 2Sandro Magister, "The Italy that Really Goes to Mass," L'Espresso, February 2007,
  • 3A 2007 survey indicated that only 11.5% of Italians think that displaying crucifixes in these public places is unacceptable. Franco Garelli, Religion, Italian Style: Continuities and Change in a Catholic Country (Surrey, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 140-41.
  • 4 John Pollard, Catholicism in Modern Italy: Religion, Society and Politics since 1861 (London: Routledge, 2008), 171.
  • 5Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 36.
  • 6Pollard, Catholicism in Modern Italy, 170.
  • 7Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 19-23. Garelli reports that four-fifths of those he surveyed conceived of God in that fashion.
  • 8Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 141.
  • 9Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 134.
  • 10Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 18, 29.
  • 11Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 32-33, 134-137.
  • 12Garelli, Religion, Italian Style, 196. Only 6.3% expressed a spiritual interest in Buddhism, in 4.1% in Judaism, 3.5% in Islam, and 2.6% in new religious movements