Local Secularisms in Italy

In this post, Alberta Giorgi describes the different “local secularisms” that have taken shape in Italy that are often built directly in relation to Italy’s Catholic culture and state politics.  Foto 09.39 #2

Italy is well-known to be a Catholic country, and this public identity has heavily influenced the cultures of secularity that developed in the country, as well as the forms of nonreligion that have taken shape.

Considering the data, “nonreligiosity” is steadily growing in Italy, while Catholic religiosity is decreasing. According to the Pew Research Center, for example, nonbelievers are 21% of the Italian population. The data are consistent with local survey findings that show a steady growth in the rates of nonreligiosity — in 2008, nonreligious people (nones) accounted for 11% of the population. With the exception of a small percentage of “other affiliations” (3%), the rest of the population positions itself in a continuum ranging between “committed catholic” to “cultural Catholic” (born into the Catholic religion and respectful, but seldom practitioners)[1]. Studies have focused on the role of the process of secularization and the decreasing rate of female religiosity, which has impacted the intergenerational transmission of faith, making it more unlikely to be born into the Catholic tradition. Taken together, nonreligious people are both those leaving Catholic religion, as well as those who leave other religions, and, increasingly, those who grew up in nonreligious families. However, this is only part of the story.

Like religion, nonreligion too had a political role in many circumstances during Italian history. The establishment of Italy as a state in 1861 involved the armed unification of different territories and the conquest of Rome and the Pontifical States. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the Pope begrudgingly acknowledged the existence of the Italian state. During this time, both religiosity and nonreligiosity were clearly politicized, with élites’ nonreligiosity mainly leaning toward militant atheism — religious indifference had in fact little space. Permeated by the principles of the Enlightenment, the Italian kingdom praised rationalism, science and modernity, framing religion and religiosity as traditions soon to be over. Fascism appointed the Catholic Church as the official religion, and Catholicism as part of the Italian identity. However, at the same time, grassroots Catholicism played a relevant role in the Italian resistance and defeat of the Fascist dictatorship. In this sense, nonreligiosity was less polarized, with respect to the previous period.

The post-World War II Republican Italy was a different scenario: on the one hand, Catholic religiosity was once again politicized, as the Catholic community of practitioners constituted the reference constituency of the Democratic Catholic Party, which ruled the country politics for over 40 years. This constituency was particularly relevant in some local areas, were a Catholic political subculture developed and thrived. Catholic subculture had different nuances in different regions, and was opposed to the communist subculture diffused elsewhere (such as Tuscany  in the center of Italy). On the other hand, though, Catholicism was the religion in which the quasi-totality of Italians were born into — it went beyond a single political party. In this sense, nonreligiosity was mostly constructed in opposition (or, at least, with reference) to the Catholic religion: an anti-Catholic or Catholic-indifferent identity.

This leads to my second point about ‘Catholic’ secularity in Italy. In regards to the concept of secularity, I adopt Wohlrab-Sahr and Burchardt’s (2012) definition of “cultural meanings underlying the differentiation between religion and non-religious spheres”[2]. The Italian tradition of separation between religion and nonreligious spheres was built on the conceptualizations of religion stemming from Catholicism, of course, and this is reflected in the political forms of regulation of this separation (that is, in Italian secularism). As a representative of a minority religion in Italy once told me, during fieldwork interviews, “Here, in Italy, the true secularists are those who believe in religions other than Catholicism … In Italy, your average secular guy is imbued with Catholic culture”[3].

Investigating the largely untold story of Italian religious minorities allows us to get some perspective to disentangle the complex intertwinement between Catholicism and secularism in Italy. Indeed, as research shows, politicians express a variety of ideas about what is secularism: in addition to the classical “strict separation” versus “inclusive secularism”, there is “collaborative secularism” — the explicit claim that cooperation with religious groups in service provision is crucial, “selective secularism” — entailing different treatments for different religious groups, “on-call secularism” — which depends on the specific matter at stake, among many others. These different conceptions of secularism stem from different cultures and understandings of secularity. The reasons the Italian state gives for appreciating and actively regulating the separation between religious and nonreligious spheres are in fact connected to different conceptions of the role of religion in Italian identity. Moreover, a small, but growing, bulk of conservative politicians today are not uncomfortable with criticizing secularism. This is the case with the Lega Nord party, for example, which champions Catholic values against what they perceive as “the Muslim invasion”. Especially in the mid-2000, in relation to morality policies regulating life, death, and marriage, some political forces tried exploiting Catholic values for electoral purposes. By 2010, however, the public defense of Catholicism was politically combined with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim positions and the mobilization of Catholicism as pivotal for Italian identity (regardless of the Catholic Church’s statements and opinions). In current populist discourse, the defense of secularism is coupled with the defense of the Catholic Church — a form of Christian, militant, anti-Muslim secularism that is indifferent to other religious minorities.

In fact, secularism in Italy is a fuzzy word, with no specific fixed meaning and an uncertain status in Italian culture. It is not even inscribed in the constitution. The Constitutional Court recognized secularism (laicità) as a “supreme legal principle”, detailing it as “one of the characteristics of the form of the State delineated in the Constitution of the Republic. The principle of laicità (…) does not imply the State’s indifference to religions but rather the State’s guarantee to safeguard the freedom of religion in a system of confessional and cultural pluralism” — what in other political and legal contexts is the principle of neutrality (Constitutional Court, decision 203/1989). This understanding of secularism was shaped in relation to Catholic religion — faced with different “others”, the Italian state apparatus showed more uncertainty in drawing the line between freedom of religion and state neutrality and, particularly, in relation to Islam, the ‘threatening other’. In this sense, the cultures of secularity are changing too.  Other cultures of secularity and ideas of secularism exist, of course, in the Italian public sphere. Particularly interesting in this respect is that the religious minorities historically present in Italy have a long story of campaigning for secularism, including many law proposals. Militant atheist groups, on the other hand, are keen on judicial activism denouncing what they consider to be forms of institutional discrimination against nonreligious citizens.

Taken together, there are a variety of ways in which secularism is understood and enacted in different Italian territories and in relation to local political subcultures — whether or not Catholicism is locally relevant — and in relation to the religious “others” living in the area. Different secularisms also entail different treatments of nonreligiosity. Nonreligious people, in this respect, face different local opportunity structures in Italy. Despite being a national state, then, nonreligiosity in different local areas has a variety of social meanings, both in connection to the history of religious presence and significance, and in relation to the complexities of local politics. Although it is increasingly neutral, nonreligion still bears strong relations with Italian religion(s), and with the local political cultures.

[1] Pew Research Center poll is available here: http://www.pewforum.org/2018/10/29/eastern-and-western-europeans-differ-on-importance-of-religion-views-of-minorities-and-key-social-issues/; the Italian survey, provided by Ipsos-public affairs, is available (in Italian) here: https://www.acli.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Cattolici-e-politica-analisi-Ipsos-novembre-2017.pdf

[2] Wohlrab-Sahr M., Burchardt M. (2012) “Multiple Secularities: Toward a Cultural Sociology of Secular Modernities”, Comparative Sociology 11(6): 875-909.

[3] Fieldwork conducted during the research project GRASSROOTSMOBILISE – Directions in religious pluralism in Europe, funded by the European Research Council (GA 338463) directed by Effie Fokas (http://grassrootsmobilise.eu/).

Alberta Giorgi is lecturer in Sociology, at the University of Bergamo. Her research interests lie at the intersection of religion and politics – namely secularism, and gender and religion. Alberta is associated researcher for the ERC funded project GRASSROOTSMOBILISE – Directions in Religious Pluralism in Europe, as well as the international research groups GSRL, CRAFT, and POLICREDOS. She is also on the board of ESA – Political Sociology. Her publications on the topic include: “European Culture Wars and the Italian Case: Which Side Are You On?” (Routledge 2016, with L. Ozzano); “‘Genuine’ Religions and their Arena of Legitimation in Italy: The Role of the ECtHR” (with P. Annicchino, 2017, Religion, State and Society); “Minoranze Religiose tra Europa e Laicità Locale” (Mimesis, 2018, to which this blog post is more directly related).


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