Laicity is the supreme constitutional principle of the Italian Republic. The Constitution is inspired by ‘secular’ values such as equality before the law without religious distinction, equal religious liberty for all confessions, Church-State separation, the organisation of bilateral relations between the different denominations, and the prohibition of discrimination between worship and religious associations. The Constitution also recognises the specific contribution of the religious factor and encourages its realisation, because it contributes to the spiritual progress of the country and to the development of individuals’ personalities. Nonetheless, experience shows that the constitutional project has not yet been fully realised due to a combination of juridical, historical, social and political factors.

Since the 1970’s, a series of reforms have profoundly transformed the country, such as the introduction of divorce (1970), the reform of family law (1975) and the decriminalization of abortion (1978). In spite of these measures, Italy continues to be regarded as a majority catholic country. The past twenty years, the political establishment has continued to maintain close relations with the Church, which it considers, mainly in an instrumental way, as an integrative part of collective identity. As a consequence, and even if catholic religion is no longer the religion of ‘the greater majority of the Italian people’, successive governments and public institutions have not modified the privileged position of the Church’s institutions, its magisterium, its values and activities.

In this regard, the case of crucifixes in public schools is emblematic: in spite of a Court of Cassation arrest, administrative jurisprudence has decreed that the presence of crucifixes in public schools is not in violation of the Constitution, as the cross constitutes a ‘symbol of christian civilisation and culture’. Whereas the European Court of Human Rights initially judged that article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated, its Grand Chamber expressed the opposite opinion, following an appeal by the Italian government by virtue of a Convention disposition that provides this possibility ‘in exceptional cases’ (Lautsi vs. Italy, March 18, 2011).

The relations between the Italian Republic and the catholic Church are regulated by a Concordat: the 1929 agreement that had made Catholicism the official religion of the Italian State was revised in 1984, when the reference to this exclusivity was abolished. In the same year, the first of eleven conventions with minority confessions was concluded, starting with the judeo-christian confessions and ending with Hinduism and Buddhism. A convention with the Jehovah’s Witnesses awaits parliamentary approval since 2007, whereas it has not been possible to reach an agreement with Islamic communities, among other things because Italian authorities insist on a unified representation.

In spite of the fact that it is in contradiction with the present Constitution, the 1929 law on the exercise of State-accepted confessions has not been abolished. Numerous draft laws aimed at fully guaranteeing religious liberty and the autonomy of confessions have been presented, but until today not a single one has been translated into law, mainly because of opposition by conservative forces and the Catholic Church.

The crisis of the welfare state and the principle of subsidiarity have reinforced the Churches’ role in ‘charitable works’ such as social assistance and non-profit activities in the field of education, health, assistance to people in need, etc. These domains, and others such as religious tourism or also the editorial world, required forms of entrepreneurial intervention that necessitated the investment of important resources, and use mechanisms such as financial contributions, exemptions, etc.; as a consequence, they reinforce the economic positions of religious actors. In 2012, the European Union has in fact condemned certain fiscal exemptions in favour of so-called non-commercial religious enterprises, considering them State aid, which is contrary to the European principle of free competition.

Public financing of certain confessions in Italy has facilitated the diffusion and consolidation of their presence. The access to financing, through the so-called 0,8 % tax (otto per mille), is selective and subject to the government’s discretional power. The system is characterised by a mechanism by which the percentage of taxpayers’ choices regarding the attribution of 0,8 % of their imposable income to one of the State-accepted confessions also applies to non-expressed choices, with the paradoxical consequence that the tax is compulsory for all. Thanks to the otto per mille, the Italian Episcopal conference is the third-richest in the world. There are no exact estimations of the Italian Catholic Church’s movable and immovable properties, but it is thought that it possesses more than 20 % of Italy’s immovable patrimony.

Be that as it may, secularisation has also had great influence. Visible religious practice (baptism, Lenten fast, etc.) is constantly diminishing. A progressive increase in prenuptial cohabitations and free unions has also been noticed, as well as a decrease in the number of marriages. The number of children born from unmarried parents is also rising steadily, whereas civil marriages have gone up from 37 % in 2008 to 43 % in 2013. In the north and centre of the country, civil marriages currently outnumber religious marriages (55 and 51 %). Most funerals are still religious, but a number of municipalities have created ad hoc spaces for those who opt for a laic ceremony. On the other hand, the number of conscientious objectors who refuse to perform abortions remains very high among medical and paramedical personnel, rendering it near impossible in certain regions.

Even if draft laws have for quite some time been submitted to parliament, there still is no legal cohabitation in Italy, and unions between persons of the same gender are forbidden. Nor is there a law that regulates end-of-life choices, preliminary declarations on therapeutic treatment and other bioethical issues. The 2004 law on medically assisted procreation has for the greater part been declared unconstitutional following a series of interventions by the Constitutional court (the last time in 2014), after having caused the so-called ‘procreational tourism’ phenomenon.

Public and private radio and television broadcasting is subjected to the principle of ‘openness towards the different religious [...] opinions and tendencies’. By its very nature, the public service has a true obligation to respect pluralism, including in its religious programming. In reality, the situation is rather different, not only regarding the ‘duration of information’ but also that of ‘religious speech’: statistical data covering 2010-2014 shows that attention nearly entirely goes to Catholicism.

The past few decades, immigration has modified the Italian confessional landscape. At present, apart from catholics, protestants, jews and orthodox believers, there are growing muslim, buddhist, sikh and neo-pagan communities. Even if precise data is not available, a survey undertaken by the Censis (Centro Studi Investimenti Sociali) shows that 52,5 % of foreigners living in Italy are christians, 25,8 % are muslims, 5,1 % are hindus, 4,3 % are buddhists, whereas 8,8 % declare not to have any religion. Based on numbers provided by Caritas, the largest group are muslims (32,9 %), followed by orthodox believers (29,6 %), catholics (19,2 %), protestants (4,4 %), atheists and agnostics (4,3 %), hindus (2,6 %), buddhists (1,9 %), people belonging to other oriental faith communities (1,4 %), and other groups that represent less than 1 %.

Regarding these new confessions, an attitude of indifference seems to be prevalent, except for Islam, which is increasingly less tolerated. Whereas 59,3 % of Italians consider foreign religious practice as being of no threat to their way of life, and while 51,1 % show no interest in the building of new synagogues, orthodox churches or buddhist temples in their neighbourhood, in the case of mosques the situation changes radically: 41,1 % is against, 41,8 % indifferent, and only 17,1 % in favour.

Certainly the number of places of worship is by no means proportional to the number of believers of minority confessions, who regularly experience very precarious logistical and operational conditions, as the creation of their places of worship is often hindered. Thus in Lombardy, a recent legal disposition (2015) was born from this hostile attitude, to such a point that the media labelled it the ‘anti-mosque law’. Orthodox believers are less disadvantaged, as the Catholic Church lets them use vacant church buildings.

From 2002 to 2012, the number of priests and catholic clergymen slowly but steadily went down. The same counts for female religious personnel, seminarists and new ordinations. Today the most significant fact is the average age of priests, which is over 60 years. As a consequence, many parishes will in a nearby future no longer be able to count on the presence of a priest; the decline of female religious life also seems unstoppable.

In certain public sectors, catholic confessional executives are at work: the presence of chaplains in hospitals is provided for; they are members of the sanitary personnel, and their salaries are paid for by the State. Other registered confessions’ clergymen have access to hospital structures, but are not paid by the State. The same counts for religious assistance for prisoners, as well as for armed and police forces. In public schools, teaching of Catholic religion is provided by teachers paid by the State but chosen by the bishops, who also have the power to revoke them. Catholic schools and schools of christian inspiration represent more than 66 % of ‘paritarian schools’ (scuole paritarie) that are ideologically oriented and have large management autonomy – they are private, mostly catholic schools –, while issuing degrees of the same level as those issued by State-run schools.

Legal experience and the observation of Italian society offer a kaleidoscope in which contradictory aspects are combined, in part because of the difficult process of offering appropriate responses that respect constitutional rules. Recently, the new ‘short divorce’ procedure has been introduced, reducing the separation procedure to six months instead of three years. The principle of legal cohabitation has for its part encountered heavy resistance in Parliament. Certain courts have ordered the inscription, in civil status registries, of same-sex marriages contracted abroad, in spite of the Interior Ministry’s interdiction.

The Episcopal conference’s interference in the country’s political and social life continues, even if less outspokenly. The words of pope Francis might bring about some hope: ‘Lay people who have an authentic christian formation should not have to need the Bishop-pilot, or the monsignor-pilot or a clerical input in order to assume their responsibilities at all levels, from the political to the social, from the economical to the legislative!’, he declared. As strange as it might seem, the road towards secularisation might take off again on the opposite bank of the Tiber.

Giuseppe Casuscelli (Università degli Studi di Milano).

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