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. 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."1

A series of concordats, the most recent of which was signed in 1984, have marked the bounds between church and state, and have indeed diminished the church’s official place in Italian life. Still, government offices, courts, hospitals and classrooms have crucifixes on their walls. Other squares, like Rome's Campo de Fiori, also 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.

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. But such a stark contrast is too strong. 

Mass attendance in Italy is higher than in most of Europe, but not as high as one might expect. Experts generally put the 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.2

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. 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.

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 (at least in older areas of cities), 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.

Italy still has a fairly extensive set of Catholic papers and periodicals, notably the magazines Famiglia Christiana and Il Messagero di Sant’Antonio, plus more than 100 Catholic publishing houses, eight radio stations and one television station as of 2008.3

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

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