When In Rome: How Cooperation Between Religion And Government In Italy Is Slowly Strangling Faith

Italy has a long Catholic tradition, and today the vast majority of Italians retain at least a nominal allegiance to the church.

But a funny thing has happened along the way: Despite centuries of cooperation between church and state, relatively few Italians today bother to follow church teachings, and the nation has many secular overtones. Although more than 95 percent of Italians say they are Catholic, only about 30 percent attend weekly services (as Catholicism requires), a figure that has plummeted since the 1950s.

A recent New York Times story explored the strange paradox of religion in Italy. By tradition, public schools post crucifixes, yet few Italians see the church as a political force, and they simply will not tolerate it meddling in their personal lives. As The Times reported, "In one recent poll, only 32 percent of Italians surveyed said it was right for religion to have an influence on the laws of the state."

Abortion and divorce are legal and most Italians hold liberal views on social issues that clash sharply with conservative Catholic doctrine. When Rocco Buttiglione, a government minister, made critical comments about homosexuality, the outcry from the public was so great that Buttiglione was forced to withdraw his name from consideration for an important European Union post last month.

The Times reported that conservative politicians like Buttiglione and the Vatican "lament the decline of values and religion, some wondering whether Italy and Europe have lost touch with their Christian roots...."

Yet most Italians seem to retain respect for the church as an institution and regard it as a valuable cultural phenomenon. Priests and nuns are popular figures on television programs, and many view Pope John Paul II as a great moral leader. Many Italians, the story pointed out, supported the pope's opposition to the war in Iraq and applaud his call for eradicating poverty.

Italy, like much of Western Europe, appears to be increasingly secular. How did this happen? Ironically, it might have been a byproduct of the long relationship between church and state.

The pattern is familiar in Europe and Scandinavia. Nations that have government-established churches or tax support for Christian denominations generally also have low church attendance rates, lethargic religious lives and a generally secular air about them. Religion and politics do not interact.

The situation got so bad in Sweden, where attendance rates for the official Lutheran Church had dropped to 4 percent, that clergy in 2000 actually backed disestablishment, arguing that independence would give the church a much-needed shot in the arm.

In the Times story about Italy, an American working at the Vatican referred to the Italian system of church-state relations as "much more collaboration" and "reasonable." The system, he said, offers "not such rigidity as we have the United States."

Perhaps so. But there's also no denying that the arrangement hasn't been a healthy one for the church. Church officials undoubtedly enjoy their state subsidies and support – perhaps too much. What they fail to see is that dependence on the state has become like addiction to a drug: They couldn't get along with it. If they don't win over the people, they will go the way of Sweden's official church and become irrelevant or merely a cultural relic. Italians will still want a church wedding, baptism for the kids and a church funeral – but not much else.

That may already be happening in Italy. "Everybody thinks that the pope is the only moral figure in my country as far as war and social justice go," Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party told The Times. "But on personal behavior, meaning sex, meaning divorce, meaning motherhood and pregnancy, people frankly do not care."