History of Italy / Religion / Society

The weakening of the Catholic Church in Italy

The Christian religion was founded in the Palestinian Province of the Roman Empire. Initially persecuted, it became tolerated and then a power-broker. Therefore, the most powerful Bishops were the one of Milan (the de facto capital of the Late Western Empire), Rome (the de jure capital) and Constantinople (the capital of the Eastern Empire).

In the last days of the Western Empire, the Bishop of Rome took virtual control of the Eternal City and became recognized as the Head of the Church. The still powerful Eastern Emperor, however, was no more used to receiving orders from Rome, so he engineered the Great Schism which gave birth to the Orthodox Church.

After the fall of the Empire, Italy remained for centuries a patchwork of small States and foreign colonial territories, with the Papacy – now de jure the sovereign of central Italy – as the only unifying factor.

Only in 1870 Rome became the capital of the Italian State, and the Pope retreated into the Vatican. However, his power remained strong, so much that the Italian Government unsuccessfully tried to appease him with the so-called “Law of Warranties”. Pursuant to the Law, the Pope had the same privileges of a foreign Chief of State, and he could send and receive diplomatic envoys. This way the Holy See managed to remain on the international stage after the loss of its sovereign territory: just like the Catholic Order of the Knights of Malta, expelled from its island in 1798.

After some decades, the Pope revoked the counter-productive prohibition for Catholics to take part to Italian politics, and in 1919 Father Luigi Sturzo founded the Popular Party. In 1928, however, the National Fascist Party became the only one allowed in the country. Despite signing the first Concordat between Italy and Holy See establishing the Vatican State and poising as a defender of Catholicism, Mussolini was suspicious of the Church power and he harassed the Catholic youth organizations.

The power of the Catholic Church in Italy probably reached its zenith in the late Forties, when the Christian Democratic Party was instrumental in preventing an electoral victory of the Italian Communist Party.

The decline, however, began quickly with the 1968 movements. In the Seventies abortion and divorce were legalized. The Catholic-inspired referendums to abrogate the new laws all failed.

Today while nearly every Italian child is baptized according to tradition, only 36,8 percent of the population is made of observant Catholics. Between 1991 and 2011 the number of clerics and the sums donated to the Church saw an impressive diminution. In 2011, only 408 new priests were ordained.

The new Pope is proving very popular, but so was John Paul II. Three non-Italian Popes in a row, indeed, are proof that the Church itself is becoming less and less focused on Italy.

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