Posted by: gurglin | June 1, 2008

An introduction to Church and State in Italy

The Italian situation is unique. For one thing, we have the Vatican in the very heart of our capital. For another, we have it in our constitution. These combine to confer innumerable privileges on the Roman Catholic Church.

By Vera Pegna of the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics, 2007

The Italian situation is unique. For one thing, we have the Vatican in the very heart of our capital. For another, we have it in our constitution. These combine to confer innumerable privileges on the Roman Catholic Church.

It was an Italian law which enabled the Vatican as a temporal power to survive the loss of its kingdom. In 1870 the Italian army entered Rome and put an end to the Papal States which then comprised the western part of central Italy. However, at the same time the Italian Parliament also passed the fateful Law of Guarantees which let the pope retain many of the privileges he would have enjoyed if he had still ruled over the Papal States, including the right to send and receive ambassadors who would have full diplomatic immunity.

It was a fascist dictator who gave the Catholic Church further governmental trappings. In 1929 Mussolini signed an agreement with the Vatican. This is known as the Lateran Pacts — in the plural, because it has three distinct parts: a treaty establishing the tiny Vatican State, a financial convention compensating the Vatican for the loss of the extensive Papal States and a concordat making Catholicism the state-supported religion of Italy. The consequences of this historic event resonate to this day both in Italy and far beyond.

The Treaty in the Lateran Pacts gave birth to the major legal absurdity of the century known as the Vatican State or Holy See. This is a theocracy consisting of some buildings on a total surface of less than half a square kilometre, governed by an absolute monarch, with a population which excludes all women, children and non-Catholics. Thanks to this treaty, Catholicism is the only religion in the world with a diplomatic corps and a privileged position at the United Nations. The Church uses its special status at the UN to advance its own agenda on matters such as population growth, contraception, the family, and the rights of women and gays.

After the overthrow of Fascism, in 1948 a new Constitution was adopted which states in Article 8 that the Lateran Pacts cannot be changed without the consent of both parties. Although this encroaches upon our national sovereignty, the agreement is cast in stone, as it is most unlikely that the Catholic Church will ever give up its privileged status.

When democracy returned to Italy, the second half of the twentieth century was characterized by the political confrontation between right and left, the right being the Christian-Democratic Party and the left the Communist Party. There was no need for direct interference by the Vatican in public affairs as the Christian-Democrats saw to it that Vatican instructions were properly implemented. At that time Communists were excommunicated as a group and the Communist Party was too busy with other matters although it did, in a way, represent a barrier against outright clericalism, even though the problems of secularism or of the discrimination against non-Catholics was hardly ever raised. One Socialist senator made a couple of attempts to abrogate the Concordat but without success.

In 1984 the Concordat, the third part of the Lateran Pacts, was revised. As a result the Roman Catholic religion is no longer the sole religion of the State but, in exchange, the Vatican obtained a twofold victory: the teaching of religion now starts from kindergarten and a church tax has been introduced, thanks to which the transfer of public funds to the Catholic Church has almost doubled. Since then, various Italian Governments have made agreements with other religions to let them benefit from the church tax, as well. The church tax means that citizens may devote 8 parts per thousand of their taxes either to the State or to one of the five officially recognized religions. Thus Italy is no longer a mono-confessional State but a multi-confessional one — not a secular one, mind you — and with one religion being more equal than the others.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall the Communist Party disappeared and the left dwindled and scattered. Some of the basic values which once drove individuals and parties seem to have dissipated. With the exception of the extreme left, politicians now vie with each other in showing their allegiance to the Pope and in placating the Catholic Church with ever more funds.

The reason for this is clear: the Church has recently increased its interference in Italian politics. Its conduct in two referendums is instructive. When faced with a referendum (13/06/05) on retaining a religiously-inspired law limiting assisted fertility, Cardinal Ruini, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, publically urged Italians to abstain from voting in order to retain the law for lack of a quorum. Yet in the next referendum (26/06/06) which was about constitutional reform, the Catholic Church announced that this time it was not making any recommendations on how or whether to vote. In other words, the Church reserves the right to intervene in Italian politics whenever and however it wishes.

Recently the Church has also intervened politically, among other things, on : telephone tapping, embryology, life partnerships, morning-after pills, public hospitals, the decentralisation of the state, the new electoral law, public finances, the presence of volunteers in family planning centres, drug and alcohol use, the infrastructure of the Mezzogiorno in Southern Italy, and speed limits for roads. Yet when things are going its way, it lets well enough alone. The clergy has kept very quiet about the tax exemption that the Vatican has just received for all its properties, including hotels, clinics and other commercial enterprises. This wide variety of Church interventions, as well as their frequency, are unprecedented, even in Italy.



  1. Hi Gurgling,
    my congrats go to you and your new project, I wish it will succeed (although I disagree when you mention the failure of “RomaCogitans”, in my advice one of the most valued and enjoyable blogs on the italian scene).

    Back to the topic of this article, I’d like to give your readers another point of view, or a different perspective: I think of Catholicism and Vatican as a “necessary evil” for Italy and Italians. It’s been here almost since “day zero”, and here it’s going to stay, no matter what we do to put it aside. Taking this as a given starting point, it’s not hard to see the “historical” interventions mentioned in the post as struggling attempts to close the fence around the cows: at some points in history, some people stopped and said: “OK, you’re not going to disappear like we all would wish, then let’s write down some rules… give something, take something else”.
    No wonder the only two guys who tried to point out questions with the Vatican State (Mr. Mussolini and Mr. Craxi), died in misery and/or far from their home country.
    In my personal opinion, I’d rather see the whole Vatican State floating in the middle of the ocean, on some pumping platform, eventually turning the Vatican premises in Rome into the biggest theme park of Europe. I’m just afraid saying this too loud would translate in Swiss guards knocking at my door some night. I saw Glock austrian steel flashing under their fancy-colored old-fashioned uniforms, and I wouldn’t want to start an argument with 4 or 5 of them together. Not just with my poor 3-rounds shotgun. So I’ll pass. ūüėČ

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