Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Italy, where contraception and crucifixes abound

Ian Fisher notes in the NYT that "in Italy, the European nation where religion and state have mingled most, the disagreements are somehow less bitter and absolute than in the United States," and that "paradoxically, Italy has in many ways less religious zeal than the United States, where the lines between church and state are much more sharply drawn, but where personal religious conviction can be stronger."

Fisher attributes the difference in national attitudes toward religion to Italians' laid-back approach to faith, pointing out that, while they are fine with abortion and contraception, "Crucifixes may hang in public schools, but without the heavy political overtones that come with displays of, say, the Ten Commandments in public places in America." He also notes that Italians are used to seeing "the church as a fallible institution, stripped over the centuries of much of its mystery."

It seems there's a greater reason why America and Italy differ on these issues, why Americans are touchier about public religious displays: Italy, unlike America, has one traditional religion--Roman Catholic--whereas America has many. In Italy, for the most part, there are two options, the Church and secularity, with shades of gray possible between the two, whereas in America, there's no one Church, just a wide, wide array of religious groupings, all trying to at once make their voices heard and be let alone to do what they'd like, each one battling secularity within its own community. In Italy, Catholicism is part of the culture, and a crucifix probably looks as familiar and innocuous to most Italians as the McDonalds or Starbucks insignias look to most Americans, meaning that a few may find it objectionable, but most wouldn't even notice its presence. The line between church and state is so strongly drawn in the U.S. because this is traditionally a country where religious zeal of all kinds is to flourish, and where any church-state mixing means that some religions are being favored over others, something that seems problematic to many Americans but may seem less so to many Italians.

Fisher makes Italy sound very appealing from a liberal perspective--it's a country, he explains, where only the compassionate aspects of religion are highlighted--striving for peace and helping the poor--and where individual liberty is placed above religious doctrine. But I'd imagine it would be hard to replicate this balance in a nation without an implicit state religion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The main difference between America and Italy, or, for that matter, most catholic European countries seems to me that there is, in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, next to catholicism as a 'state religion' a wide spread anti-clericalism. This tradition of anti-clericalism seems to be absent in America.

If you want to learn about Italians and religion, I recommand Jim Jarmusch's film 'Night on Earth', the scene that plays in Rome...

By the way, the prospective Italian EU commissionar, I forgot his name, had just to resign because of some 'religious statements': For example, that homosexuality is a sin...