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Religious Beliefs and Spirituality in Italy

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Located in southern Europe, Italy, otherwise known as the Italian Republic, is a sovereign nation and peninsular region, bordered on the north by Switzerland and Austria, on the northeast by Slovakia, on the east by the Adriatic Sea, on the south by the Ionian Sea, on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the northwest by France. Several islands are also part of Italy, including Sicily, Sardinia, Elba, Capri and Ischia, all scattered along the country’s long coastline. 

The area that comprises the modern state of Italy never formed a political unit during the first 15 centuries of Christianity, and for many centuries the region was ruled by petty states. Napoleon formed the Kingdom of Italy in 1805, and by 1870 the region had attained its modern political boundaries.  Following World War I, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini seized control, and the region entered World War II as an ally of Germany. In 1946 it became a republic, and joined NATO as a charter member in 1949. Italy has been a major force in the political and economic unification of Europe as part of the European Economic Community (EEC) and adopted the euro in 1999. Northern Italy is more industrialized, and hence more affluent, than the agricultural south, which is troubled by organized crime, corruption and unemployment, which reached 20 percent by 2000.

Religion in Italy

Although Italy is very diverse from a cultural standpoint, the country is fairly homogenous both linguistically (the majority of the population speaks Italian) and religiously, as Roman Catholicism is the religious faith of choice for nearly 90 percent of the Italian population.

Trinità dei Monti church, Rome, SourceThe Italian Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government is thought to respect this right in practice, not tolerating its abuse, either by government or private action. There is no state religion of Italy, and although the constitution prohibits state support for private schools, the Catholic Church does enjoy some privileges, stemming from its sovereign status and its historical authority, which is not applicable to other faiths.

The Catholic Church is allowed to select Catholic teachers, paid by the State, to provide instruction in "hour of religion" courses taught in the public schools, although this class is optional, and students who do not wish to attend are free to study other subjects. While historically this instruction involved Catholic priests teaching Catechism, today church-selected instructors now may be either lay or religious, and their instruction should include material relevant to non-Catholic faiths. Problems may arise in small communities where information about other faiths and the numbers of non-Catholic communicants is limited.

The status of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy has been determined by a series of accords with the Italian government. The Lateran Pacts of 1929, which were confirmed by the present Constitution, affirms that the State of Vatican City be recognized by Italy as an independent, sovereign entity. While preserving that recognition, in 1984 Italy and the Vatican updated several provisions of the 1929 Pacts, which included the end of Roman Catholicism as Italy's formal state religion.

While most of Italy’s population self-identifies as Roman Catholic, there are also several religious minorities in the country, including Protestants, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims.  Although Jehovah’s Witnesses form the second largest denomination among native-born citizens, numbering approximately 400,000, increasing immigration has made Islam the second-most practiced faith in Italy, with somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million adherents.

Immigration, both legal and illegal, continues to add large groups of non-Christian residents to Italy’s overall population, mainly Muslims, from North Africa, South Asia, Albania, and the Middle East. Buddhists number some 60,000 in Italy, and Scientologists claim to have approximately 100,000 members.  Waldensians estimate approximately 30,000 members (concentrated mainly in the northwest), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) has approximately 20,000 members. A Jewish community of approximately 30,000 persons maintains synagogues in 21 cities. Other significant religious communities include Orthodox churches, small Protestant groups, Japanese Buddhists, the Baha'i Faith, and South Asian Hindus. Recent polls show that approximately 14% of the population consider themselves to be either atheists or agnostics.

The relatively harmonious relationship between the various religions in Italy has contributed to the country’s religious freedom, though the influential role played by the Catholic Church in Italian society has led to controversy when church teachings have appeared to influence Catholic legislators on matters of public policy.

Roman Catholicism in Italy:  Historically and Today

Roman Catholicism has played an enormous role in Italy’s history and continues to dominate as the most prominent faith in the country today.  In the following section we will take a closer look at Catholicism as it relates to Italy.  This section is divided into three parts: from the early beginnings of Christianity through the 15 century; from the 16 century to roughly the end of the 18 century; and from the 19 century to the present.

Early Christianity through the 15 Century

Christianity began to seep into Italy not long after the death of Christ. A Christian population existed in Rome from about 50 AD and served as the prime center for the propagation of the new faith in Italy under the Roman Empire. Christianity faced larger obstacles in Italy than in lands to the east, for in the West both the government and the aristocracy, committed to the state religion as part of the Roman way of life, regarded it as nothing but a superstition. Even people seeking spiritual salvation and those in the country’s rural areas tended to cling to their local cults and/or seek solace in the mysterious new religions of the Orient.

The key areas of Christian dissemination up until the end of the 2 century were the central and southern portions of Italy, where the religion spread from Rome and from other towns that had Eastern connections and contained Greek, Jewish or Syrian communities. In the region of Rome itself, the Christian Church was for several generations an immigrant church, composed largely of people from the Greek-speaking Levant. In fact, Greek was the official language of Catholicism up until the end of the 2nd century, when Latin membership spiked and the Latin language replaced Greek. Although the Christian community in Italy exceeded 25,000 members by 250 AD, outside of Rome, participation was fairly meager at best. In northern Italy, as opposed to peninsular Italy, Christianity spread much more slowly.

By the close of the 2 century, the main blueprints for a creating an Episcopal diocese in peninsular Italy had been clearly drawn, although such dioceses would be slower to start in the north. In accordance with ancient custom, Italian bishops were elected by the clergy and the people of their dioceses.  Given the decay of the Roman Empire and the influx of the Barbarian Nations to the west, the bishops assumed a position of leadership in their region. They protected people against the barbarians, organized public services to aid the poor and helped ransom captives. Many public functions passed into their hands, and in 554 the Pragmatic Sanction issued by Emperor Justinian legalized the governmental functions that the Italian bishops had assumed.

During the early part of the Middle Ages (500-1000), the main challenge faced by the medieval Church was the question of how to incorporate barbarian immigrants into the existing Church structure. The establishment of Germanic kingdoms in Italy during the 5th and 6th centuries created an unorthodox Aryan church alongside the older Catholic organization, but because the Aryan Ostrogoth King, Theodoric the Great (493–526). regarded his rule as a continuation of the Roman Empire; he allowed the existing Catholic establishment to remain. Under the kings that followed Theodoric, the Gothic power in Italy was destroyed by Emperor Justinian in a long and devastating war (535–554).  This Byzantine restoration proved short-lived, however, for in 568 Italy was invaded by the Germanic Lombards. Recent converts to Aryanism, the Lombards treated Italians and their clergy harshly, destroying or exiling much of the Catholic hierarchy.

The relationship between the papacy and the Lombards improved under Lombard Queen Theudelinda, and although an anti-Catholic reaction soon followed, the 7th century saw both the monarchy and people of Italy embracing Catholicism.

During the 8th century in Italy, the tensions between the papacy and the Byzantine emperors reached their peak.  These emperors, known locally as “Caesaropapists," claimed the right to sanction papal elections and to intervene in church matters. The crisis came to a boiling point in the year 751, when the Lombard King Aistulf captured Ravenna and threatened the Duchy of Rome. Byzantine military power in central Italy collapsed, and without protection against the Lombards, the papacy turned to the rising power of the Franks in the north. In 754 Pope Stephen II crossed the Alps and made a personal appeal to Frankish King Pepin III (the Short), conferring upon him and his sons the title of Patricius Romanorum, or defenders of Rome. In campaigns in 754–755 and 756 Pepin regained the territory, which he conferred upon the papacy, thus creating the states of the church.

The Roman Vatican, SourceThe next five centuries of Italy’s—and the church’s—destiny was bound up with the Carolingian kings and their successors in Germany. The Frankish semi-theocratic notion of royal power was now transplanted to Italy, where it severely altered Church-State relations. The royal right to authenticate any Episcopal election in the Lombard kingdom was established, together with the principle that the bishop’s post was in part a royal office involving obligations to the State, and that the bishop-elect must be the king's faithful servant (fidelis ). By the Roman edict of 824, Lothair I, co-emperor with Louis I the Pious, affirmed the right of the emperor to confirm papal elections as well.

Family feuds and wars eventually led to the downfall of the Carolingian Empire. In 888, following the deposition of Emperor Charles III the Fat, Italy was detached from the empire and formed a separate kingdom, albeit one devoid of national character.  The Kingdom of Italy (889-962) saw an endless struggle between kings who were merely after personal power.  What’s more, the region's growing anarchy was intensified by a growing Muslim occupation.

By the end of the 9th century the papacy had become an almost purely local institution. Attempts on the part of individual popes to secure foreign protection or to carry out needed reforms produced no lasting results, and the north Italian dioceses were increasingly immersed in political struggles.

The Ottoman Period and Italy

The involvement of the German King Otto I (936–973) in Italian politics meant that there was once again a strong Germanic power in Italy. In 962 Otto intervened in Rome to protect Pope John XII against the continued encroachments of Berengar and was crowned Roman emperor by the pope, thus reviving the empire of Charlemagne and establishing the personal union between Germany and Italy later known as the Holy Roman Empire.

The spiritual climate in Italy changed radically under Otto’s grandson, Emperor Otto III (983–1002). Influenced by Byzantine ideas, Otto wished to make Rome the capital of a Christian Roman Empire, a universal state ruled by a Christian emperor. He was assisted by a number of people in this endeavor, including Leo of Vercelli, who received from Otto III a strategic bishop’s position in northern Italy. Practical statesmen, these men realized that their goals could be realized only through German power and Church personnel.

The Norman Kingdom

Southern Italy, including Sicily, did not form part of the Carolingian Empire and therefore pursued an entirely different course of development from that of northern and central Italy.  Eventually, the southern region was conquered by Norman adventurers in the 11th century. Relations between the Normans and the papacy were at first hostile, but Pope Nicholas II recognized the Norman conquest as an accomplished fact and conceded Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. The Norman rulers favored the introduction of Latin monasticism into their dominions as a means of consolidating their power. While the Greek rite and Muslim religious practices were tolerated, most members of these groups gradually passed over to the Latin rite. The Norman monarchy attained its height under King Roger II of Sicily (1130–54), under whom Sicily and the mainland of southern Italy were united.

The Late Middle Ages

Towards the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500), northern and central Italy still formed part of the Holy Roman Empire, but save for the fruitless expedition of Emperor Henry VII (1310–13), the emperors made no real attempt to assert effective control. In the south Pope Boniface VIII and Charles II of Anjou finally ended the 20-year war of the Sicilian Vespers in 1302, by recognizing a prince of the house of Aragon as the ruler of Sicily.

In the 14th century, a series of ruthless tyrants expanded their states through consolidation and conquest. Of the dozen or more principalities into which Italy was eventually divided, the most important were the Duchy of Milan, the republics of Venice and Florence, the States of the Church and the kingdom of Naples, all of whose shifting alliances and alignments in the 15th century were aimed at maintaining a balance of power.

For the papacy, the later Middle Ages was a period of humiliation and division, as its very identification with Rome was broken during the 70-plus years of the Avignon papacy in France. The long residence of the popes at Avignon (1309–78) was due in part to the uprisings in Rome that made the city unsafe and the Papal States almost ungovernable.  Papal taxation came to rest very heavily upon the churches and monasteries, and papal control over the dioceses was tightened by increased use of reservations. Yet the economic condition of the Church in Italy steadily deteriorated. The northern Church had been impoverished by 1500 largely as a result of the passage of its property into the hands of land speculators and tenants whose rents had remained stationary despite general inflation. Nevertheless the great prelates, in true Renaissance style, carried out expensive building and artistic programs.

Contrary to popular opinion, most historians do not regard the Italian Renaissance as a predominately antireligious or pagan period.  In fact, the period, especially during the 14th century, was a great age of religion; the plague epidemics at mid-century were followed by a wave of religious feeling among all classes that was vividly reflected in the art of the time.

16 Century through 18 Century

In the second half of the 15th century, Italy was at the pinnacle of the Renaissance and enjoyed a wealth of economic and commercial prosperity. While culturally the country was exercising an intense influence on all of Western Europe, politically Italy was on the eve of disaster, and her regions—the major states of Venice, Milan, Florence, the states of the church and the Kingdom of Naples, as well as the minor states of Ferrara, Mantua, Modena and Savoy—could hardly be less united. The city-states, which prided themselves on their individuality and independence, engaged in paltry wars and played the risky game of balance of power politics, a game that predictably led to appeals for assistance to outsiders—outsiders who were only too willing to intervene. Even after the first great invasion, the Italian city-states could not perceive that their independence had been lost. For several centuries they were to become victims of the rival political ambitions of monarchs from France, Spain and Austria.

In 1492 Florence and Naples made a secret alliance to attack Milan, and as their intentions gradually became known, the Regent of Milan appealed to Charles VIII, King of France (1483–98) for help.  The young French ruler, motivated aspirations of claiming Naples, invaded Italy in 1494.  Florence at first offered no resistance, then expelled Piero de' Medici for his support of the French king. Shortly thereafter, Charles entered Florence and was hailed as an “angel,” sent by God to regenerate Italy. From this time to 1512, Florence was practically a vassal state of France.

European politics entered a new era in 1516 with the accession of Charles I as king of Spain; three years later he became Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, as successor to Emperor Maximilian and heir of the vast Hapsburg kingdoms. It was inevitable that the rivalry between the Valois family from France and the Spanish Hapsburgs should have an Italian phase—and an important one.

Pope Leo X and Henry VIII supported Charles V against the French, and in 1522 the French lost Milan, Parma, Piacenza and Genoa.  French forces returned in force in 1524, recapturing Milan, but in 1525 the Spanish army, under the command of Duke Charles de Bourbon, inflicted an overwhelming defeat on Francis I at Pavia. The French king was captured and taken as a prisoner to Madrid. Despite the Treaty of Madrid (January 1526) in which, among other things, he agreed to abandon all claims to Italy, Francis formed a new coalition, the League of Cognac, against Charles V a few months later.

The French coalition included Pope Clement VII (1523–34), Milan, Venice and Florence. The pope's involvement in the League of Cognac, which failed to have any success, led to the terrible sack of Rome by the Spanish and German mercenaries of Emperor Charles in May of 1527. Clement himself for a time was a virtual prisoner.  By the 1529 Treaty of Barcelona the emperor agreed that the Papal States should be restored to the pope and that the Medici should again rule Florence. Shortly thereafter the Treaty of Cambrai held that France again give up her claims to Italy, Venice had to return her conquests, Francesco Sforza received Milan and Alessandro de' Medici was confirmed as hereditary ruler for life. Charles V was solemnly crowned by the pope as emperor and king of Italy on Feb. 23, 1530.

By the mid-16th century, large swaths of Italy were directly under foreign control; states that had enjoyed titular independence were reduced to a passive role in European politics, their fortunes often determined by battles fought by armies of great foreign powers on battlefields outside of Italy.  Italy no longer played a major role in European trade and commerce, although the 18th century would see a resurgence of Italian intellectual life and achievement. The largest state in Italy during this period was that ruled by the Catholic popes; of the other states, which were at least somewhat independent, the most important were Venice, Genoa and Savoy.

18 Century

The Wars of the Spanish Succession produced major changes in Italy, and in the fortunes of the independent Italian states. Politically, there was no essential change in the Papal States, but on the religious side this was a difficult period in the internal history of the Church.

Under Austrian administration, in the last half of the 18th century, Lombardy and Tuscany enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity and benefited from a series of reforms aimed at improving agriculture, taxation, criminal law and education. However, in these areas, as in Savoy and elsewhere in Italy outside the Papal States, the eradication of clerical privileges, suppression of monasteries, and secularization of other forms of Church property all revealed the spread of Enlightenment policy and its influence on government, especially after Emperor Joseph II (1780–90) replaced Maria Theresa on the throne of Austria. The ideas of the French philosophers also were spreading in Italy, and a national patriotism distinct from the local patriotism of the past was beginning to develop.

19 Century to the Present

By 1789, when the French revolution began, the enlightenment had infiltrated from France into Italy by means of Freemasonry.  During this time, the Church underwent a severe structural crisis, the result of having its economic privileges abolished, much of its property seized, and its religious orders suppressed. Fortunately the labors of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, Pio Lanteri and the St. Thomas academies helped to check this Jacobinism, which seemed on the point of making greater advances.

The second period of French domination (1800–14) saw groups of patriots come out in support of the first Italian republic, and also witnessed the negotiations for the Italian concordat of 1803, modeled on the French concordat of 1801. Among the most important consequences of the French rule were the capture and exile of Popes Pius VI and Pius VII and the suppression of the papal temporal power with the seizure of the states of the church (1797, 1808).

The Congress of Vienna, held from November 1814 to June 1815, returned Italy to its former (ancient) self.  Papal temporal power and the Church's rights and privileges were restored, thanks to the diplomatic accomplishments of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi.

While the first Vatican Council (1869–70) defined the papal spiritual prerogatives of primacy and infallibility, the final loss of the States of the Church at this time terminated effectively the pope's political power.

In the face of the radicalism of the 19th century, the Church showed its strength by resisting corrosive structural and doctrinal elements and by making adjustments to the changed situation. During the Risorgimento (the period of Italian unification) the two most outstanding developments in the Church were the remarkable growth of religious congregations and the development of the modern Catholic movement. More than 300 religious congregations of women were founded in Italy between 1815 and 1915, besides many institutes for men. Like the vast majority of modern congregations, most of these dedicated themselves to the church through education, charitable and social services or missionary endeavors. The most phenomenal growth was experienced by the Salesians, founded by St. John Bosco, and the Salesian sisters, started by him in conjunction with St. Maria Mazzarello; together these two groups spread throughout the world.

Although Catholics were eager to end the strained relations between Church and State, not all agreed on the same solution. Conciliation was favored by some of Italy’s most important figures, while others feared that conciliation seemed inopportune; they demanded the restoration of all the Church's rights and privileges, including the return of the papal temporal power.

A third group abided by the view of Pius IX, who was influenced by Cardinal Giacomo. This group created organizations that rejected the political unification of Italy and the selection of Rome as the capital. They also advocated active and passive abstention from parliamentary life. To these ends Giambattista Casoni (d. 1919) started an association for the defense of the Church (1865) in Bologna.  Meanwhile, Mario Fani (1845–69) and Giovanni Acquaderni (1838–1922) created the Society of Italian Catholic Youth (1867).

20 Century

During World War I, the understanding between Church and State culminated in the Unione Sacra (1916), whereby the government instituted military chaplains and abandoned anticlerical polemics, while the hierarchy appealed for solidarity behind the endangered fatherland.  Fascism ended all democratic liberties (1922–26), but it made peace with the Church and papacy in the Lateran Pacts (1929), which established Catholicism as the state religion.  Benito Mussolini, the Duce of Italy until 1943, conceded privileges and favors to the Church in order to have its leaders support his dictatorial and imperialistic policies, although among the laity dissension arose over problems of liberty and racism. After Mussolini's downfall in 1943 many Catholics participated in the resistance movement in committees of liberation and joined the Christian Democratic Party. Among these was Father Giuseppe Dossetti (d. 1996), who would serve in the country's first national assembly before going on to found the Small Family of the Annunciation in 1954.

In 1946, following its defeat in the Second World War, Italy became a republic. Its new constitution, dated Jan. 1, 1948, declared that Church-State relations would continue to be regulated by the Lateran Pacts, which could be modified only by bilateral agreements. The Christian Democratic Party, which headed the new government, attempted reconstruction and education of the masses while battling political parties and syndicates ranging from the extreme right (Movimento Sociale Italiano) to the Communist extreme left. Under the new constitution, the state was prohibited from funding private schools.

Influenced by the increasingly liberalized morals of the 20th century, Italians began to stray from Church doctrine in the late 20th century. 1971 saw the legalization of divorce. In 1978 the government passed legislation legalizing abortion, and a Church-led referendum on the new law three years later was unsuccessful in its efforts to preserve the sanctity of human life. Concerns over declining enrollments at Church-run schools became cause for concern beginning in the 1960s; by 2000, Catholic schools educated approximately a third of all Italian children, despite the government's repeated unwillingness to extend subsidies to parents.

Religious procession, Cerasuolo, SourceIn part because of the influence of a radicalized liberal party within the government, the role of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s became increasingly subdued relative to its former influential position within both society and politics. In 1984, while preserving the recognition of the state of Vatican City as an independent, sovereign entity extended under the Lateran Pacts, a secularized Italy and the Vatican updated several provisions of the 1929 accords, diminishing a number of privileges formerly granted to the church and ending the status of Roman Catholicism as the religion of the Italian state. The state extended certain financial and other privileges to not just the Catholic Church but to each of Italy's recognized faiths, although it remained unwilling to help fund parochial education. The increasing secularization of the country resulted in the demand for the removal of crucifixes and other symbols that had been displayed in courtrooms, government offices and other public places for many years.

21 Century

By the year 2012, there were 25,806 parishes in Italy tended by 36,566 diocesan and 18,930 religions priests. Other religious members included 4,100 brothers and 115,775 sisters.  In response to the Church's shifting demographics, a new seminary was opened to provide a new home for some of the country's aging priests. Despite the many social, educational and humanitarian efforts that continued to occupy Church members, calls for drug legalization, euthanasia and stem cell research required vigilance and outspokenness on the part of Italian bishops, as well as the pope.

Church leaders also aggressively spoke out against same-sex marriage, cloning, income inequality and abortion.

Other Religions Practiced in Italy

If you include all people who call Italy home, Islam is the second-most practiced religious  faith in the country, with over 1 million adherents and some 500 mosques.

Muslim presence in Italy dates back to the 9th century, when Sicily came under control of the Abbasid Caliphate. There was also a large Muslim presence in Italy from 827  until 1300 (the destruction of the last Muslim settlement of Lucera). From that point forward, Islam was very minor in Italy until the 20 century.

During the 20th century, the first Somali immigrants from Italian Somaliland began to arrive. In more recent years, there has been Muslim migration from Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia, among other areas in Africa and southern Asia.  Although Italians are free to practice the religious of their choice, Islam is not recognized by law in the country.

Jehovah’s Witnesses make up the third-largest religious group in Italy, with roughly 400,000 members, while practitioners of Judaism number approximately 45,000.  Other minority religious groups include Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus and Eastern Orthodox, among a few others.

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