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Author: Carlo Prandi
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2006
Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices
From: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices(Vol. 2: Countries: A-L. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview; Country overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 527


POPULATION 57,715,625
OTHER 2 percent


Country Overview


Occupying a peninsula that extends into the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian Republic is the third most populous country of continental Europe after Germany and France. Its religious tradition is strongly rooted in the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism imparts a strong sense of collective identity, which has been reinforced by the growing presence of other religions, particularly Islam.

Italy was not unified as a nation until 1870, and compared with other European countries, the process of industrialization, and therefore of entry into modern times, manifested itself late. Between 1955 and 1985 the country's industrial system, particularly in the north, underwent intense development, which produced great internal migration from the south. This was accompanied by a new phenomenon for Italy, secularization and a resulting crisis in traditional religious practice. The introduction in the 1970s of laws permitting abortion and divorce represented the most obvious signs of these changes. Although 98 percent of Italians continue to be baptized in the Catholic Church, upwards of 10 percent consider themselves without religious affiliation. Attendance at religious services is at around 30–35 percent. By the end of the twentieth century, Italy appeared to be aligned with the advanced industrialized nations of the West.


Because of its cohesive Catholic tradition, Italy generally has not experienced internal religious controversies. The Protestant Reformation did not enter Italy, although the Waldenses, a Protestant sect living in the valleys of the Piedmont, suffered persecution until 1848, when Charles Albert, king of Sardinia-Piedmont, permitted them to practice their religion freely. Beginning in the late twentieth century, however, immigration from Islamic countries has raised the issue of religious tolerance. The Italian constitution (1948) declares that "all citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law without consideration of sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions." Religious minorities have freedom of worship in Italy, and they are generally accepted with tolerance.

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The rituals of Holy Week are particularly treasured in some regions of Italy. Here a group of celebrants carry the statue of the Christ and Our Lady during a procession in the village of Nocera Terinese in Italy.  REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS. The rituals of Holy Week are particularly treasured in some regions of Italy. Here a group of celebrants carry the statue of the Christ and Our Lady during a procession in the village of Nocera Terinese in Italy. © REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS.

Major Religion




The origins of the Catholic Church in Italy coincide with the origins of Christianity in Rome, where it arrived with Saint Peter and Saint Paul. According to a tradition dating to the fourth century, Peter lived in Rome from 42 to 67 C.E., and the origins of Christianity in Italy can be traced to this period. Notwithstanding the recurrent presence of heresies, for a full millennium—until the separation of the churches of the East in the Schism of 1054—the history of the Church of Rome was identified with the history of Christianity. The break with the East and, five centuries later, the break with the Protestant churches of northern Europe account for the fact that the history of Christianity in Italy was, until the twentieth century, the history of the Catholic Church itself.

After three centuries of persecution, the spread of Christianity in Rome led to the conversion of the Roman Empire, backed by the Edict of Milan issued in 313 by the emperor Constantine. In 380 the emperor Theodosius elevated Christianity as the religion of the state. A decisive moment in the Christianization of the barbarian populations was the encounter between the Church of Rome and the Franks, a Germanic tribe, which achieved its symbolic conclusion in 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor by Pope Leo III in Saint Peter's in Rome. In the following centuries the Roman papacy was engaged in stemming the hegemonic claims of the emperor and in vindicating the preeminence of the spiritual over the temporal sphere. The Investiture Controversy involved two popes, Gregory VII (1073–85) and Innocent III (1198–1216), who were the defenders of the idea of the plenitudo potestatis (complete power) of the Roman papacy. The reign of Innocent III saw the birth of the Franciscan movement, which, by exalting a return to evangelical poverty, represented a response to the centrifugal and heretical forces present in the medieval church. In addition, the mendicant Dominican and Carmelite orders were born during this period.

In the thirteenth century universities were established in which the Catholic Church, through the diffusion of Scholastic philosophy, presented a unitary vision of the world, of which Saint Thomas Aquina'ss Summa Theologiae and Dante's Divine Comedy represent the highest expressions. In the same century a serious crisis began in medieval Christianity, leading to the transfer of the papal court to Avignon in 1309 under the control of the king of France. The work of Saint Catherine of Siena contributed to the return of the papal seat to Rome by Pope Gregory XI in 1377. The difficulties of the Church of Rome were not resolved, however, as the need for reform swelled, leading a century and a half later to the rift with the German world and to the birth of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 through the work of Martin Luther. The Catholic Church responded with an effort at internal reform, the Counter-Reformation, which was based on the results of the Council of Trent (1545–63) and which was the starting point of modern Catholicism.

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In the following centuries nationalist movements in other countries sought to maintain political power with the support of ecclesiastical doctrines. The movements took the name of Gallicanism in France and of Josephinism in Austria. In Italy, however, such trends did not meet with good fortune, for the presence of the Papal States obstructed national unification. The Italian Risorgimento concluded with the occupation of Rome in 1870 by the troops of the young Kingdom of Italy, and the Catholic Church, after approximately a thousand years, lost temporal power. From that date the pope did not leave the Vatican until a concordat was signed in 1929 that regulated relations between the state and church. In 1984 a new concordat declared the state and the church, each in its own framework, to be independent and sovereign, while abolishing the clause stating that Catholicism was the sole religion of Italy.


Catholicism is a religion whose hierarchy follows a pyramidal model. At the top is the pope, who is elected by the Sacred College of Cardinals and who, in Catholic doctrine, descends directly from the apostle Peter, to whom Jesus Christ entrusted the nascent church. The pope is considered to possess dogmatic infallibility in the enunciation of the most important principles of faith. The founders of the monastic orders have also responded to pastoral needs and have proposed models of behavior for the Catholic Church. In addition, the saints represent heroic religious testimonials, tied closely to their times but with a universal message. Among these are the martyrs of the early centuries, first of all Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the founders of the Church of Rome; Saint Polycarp; Saints Perpetua and Felicity; and Saint Cipriano. All testified to the truth of their faith by sacrificing their lives.

Among the Italian founders of religious orders, Saint Benedict (fifth–sixth centuries) was a charismatic leader who founded Benedictine monasticism, which spread throughout Europe, and who established a rule for his order that joined prayer with work (ora et labora,) and that was renowned for its moderation. Among the founders of religious orders in the Middle Ages, Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1216) is universally renowned for simplicity and purity, the intensity of his union with Christ, his absolute dedication to the ideals of poverty and love for others, and his profound affinity with nature.

In the modern era renewal in the church has brought about the birth of many religious orders in Italy, the founders of which were all declared saints. Among them were Saint Gaetano from Tiene (died in 1547), founder of the Oratorio of Divine Love; Saint John of God (died in 1550), founder of the Fatebenefratelli, a hospital order; and Saint Angela Merici, founder in 1535 of the Ursuline order. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the new religious orders had, above all else, educational goals for a society in which industrialization was creating marginalization and widespread religious crisis. Of note was Saint Giovanni Bosco (1815–88), founder of the Salesian Congregation, whose purpose was the religious and professional training of youth. Among later leaders was Padre Pio of Pietralcina (died in 1968), a Capuchin monk who lived in Saint Giovanni Rotondo (Puglia) and who has remained the object of veneration by an immense number of devotees. Another extraordinary figure was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (1881–1963), who as Pope John XXIII not only changed the style of the Roman Curia but also summoned the Second Vatican Council, the most important and revolutionary event of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century.


Italian theology had its most influential exponents during the period of its origins up to the time of the Counter-Reformation, after which it fell into a dark period that lasted several centuries. In the late twentieth century, however, a new generation of theologians emerged who brought to fruition the lessons of the Second Vatican Council and who attained international renown.

The greatest Italian Catholic theologian and philosopher of all time was Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). He was an extraordinary mediator between Aristotle and Saint Augustine, giving to medieval theology its most perfect development and creating a vast and profound foundation for the Catholic concept of the world of his time. Further, his life was consecrated to an intimate and profound religiosity. For these merits and for his universally known didactic authority he was called Doctor Angelicus, and Italian theology remained faithful to the canons of Thomism until contemporary times.

In 1869 Pope Pius IX convoked the First Vatican Council, whose proclamations included the doctrine on papal infallability. Later in the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII became the promoter of a rebirth of Thomist theology in opposition to the atheistic philosophies that had emerged after the Enlightenment. It was in this climate that the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart Page 530  |  Top of Article was founded in Milan in 1921 with the purpose of revitalizing Catholic thought, mostly on the philosophical front. Contemporary Italian theologians of international importance include Bruno Forte (born in 1952), author of multiple volumes on the nature of revelation and of the church, and Piero Coda (born in 1955), a distinguished scholar of Catholic doctrine who has also engaged in dialogues with other religions.


Rome is home to Saint Peter's Basilica, built in the sixteenth century and Christianity's greatest temple. Among Italy's other grand churches are the Gothic Duomo in Milan, Saint Maria Novella and Saint Maria del Fiore in Florence, Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice, and Saint Anthony's in Padova. Churches where great artists worked are interspersed throughout the country.

The cult of the Virgin Mary and the veneration of saints, which date to the origins of Christianity, are widespread and deeply rooted in Italian religious life. Of the more than 200 shrines in Italy, the vast majority are dedicated to the Madonna, often under various names and commemorating an apparition by her or miracles that occurred on the site. The landscape is also strewn with shrines dedicated to the Virgin and saints, whose memory is thus kept alive and who are held to be intercessors on behalf of supplicants. Among the most important shrines in Italy are those of the Madonna of Loreto (Marche), where a small rustic house is maintained that, according to tradition, was the abode of Mary, transported by angels from Palestine. The shrine of Saint Anthony of Padua is visited by some 4 million people a year.


The practice of Catholicism in Italy, as in many other countries, has moved toward a clearer separation of the private sacred and the public secular realms. Places of worship and shrines continue to be held sacred, as are dates established by the liturgical calendar, such as Christmas and Easter. During the twentieth century secularization accelerated the relegation of the sacred to the private sphere, even though local public celebrations of the Virgin Mary and of patron saints have remained vital, especially in the south of Italy.


The structure of the ecclesiastical year in Italy does not differ from that of other predominantly Catholic countries. The principal holidays are Christmas, preceded by the four Sundays of Advent, and Easter, preceded by the four Sundays of Lent. In Italy, in addition to the fixed holidays recognized throughout the Catholic world, there are so-called holy days of obligation, on which the faithful have the duty to participate in the Mass. For example, the Madonna is venerated on the feasts of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and the Assumption (August 15), both considered holy day of obligation. There are also many other holy days, on which local (particularly patron) saints are remembered. Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy, is honored on October 4, and each city and town has its own patron saint, whose day is generally celebrated by suspending work and closing schools. This is the case, for example, with Saint Ambrose in Milan (December 7), Saint Petronius in Bologna (October 4), Saint Anthony in Padua (June 13), Saint Gennaro in Naples (September 19), and Saint Agatha in Catania (February 5). There are local holidays for shrines dedicated to the Virgin.


Catholics in Italy do not wear special types of clothing unless it is done in homage to local traditions. During religious ceremonies, however, dress distinguishes the celebrant priest from the worshipers. The essential element of the celebrant's clothing is the chasuble, a sleeveless outer vestment, the color of which changes according to the liturgical period. In solemn ceremonies the chasuble is replaced by the cope, a mantle made in the form of a semicircle. The cope is rich in embroidery and decoration, and its colors change throughout the year to match those of the chasuble.


Catholicism in Italy does not prohibit and does not impose any type of food. No food is considered impure. Rather, forms of fasting that replicate Jewish practices have been observed, with various adaptations, since antiquity. The original Christian days of fasting were Wednesday and Friday. Later, however, the obligation to abstain from meat was consolidated on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, which follows the end of Carnival. These obligations have an essentially symbolic nature. At the popular level local eating habits in various regions are observed in conjunction with canonical and patron feasts, as well as with the cycles of the ecclesiastical year. For example, abbacchio (roasted lamb) is traditional on Easter for people in Rome and the south of Italy, and in many parts of the north the meal on Christmas Eve consists of pickled fish and dried fruit.

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The most important Catholic rite for Italians, as for Catholics generally, is the Mass, in which, according to church doctrine, the sacrifice of Christ is recreated in a bloodless manner with the transformation of unleavened bread and wine into his body and blood. There also are rites connected to the seven sacraments that accompany each adherent from birth (baptism) to death (anointing of the sick). Other rites have changed in time and according to cultural traditions. They can also become obsolete, as is the case with the beneditio mulieris post partum (blessing of the mother after giving birth), which has not been practiced in Italy since the 1970s. Particularly treasured in some regions of Italy are the rituals of Holy Week, in which there is widespread popular participation. Certain rituals, such as those tied to the New Year, Carnival, harvests, and patron saints, have to some degree fallen out of use or, particularly in the south of Italy, been reintroduced as tourist attractions.


Approximately 98 percent of all Italians are baptized, although it is often merely from a sense of tradition. Fewer participate in confirmation, penance, and the Eucharist, but between 70 and 80 percent of marriages continue to be celebrated with a religious ceremony. The religious crisis in Italy has significantly reduced the number of priests being ordained, and the anointing of the sick (extreme unction) is administered to fewer than 50 percent of Italians.


Evangelizing in Italy depends upon the situations in which priests find themselves. The trend is away from direct conversion and toward sharing people's problems without consideration of their religious or political ideology. The contemporary Catholic style in Italy is based more on friendship, dialogue, and reciprocal trust than on coercive attempts to impose the Catholic view on others.


The social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are, above all, aimed at reducing the gaps between economic classes and between rich and poor countries. A number of enterprises of the church are oriented toward these goals. The organization Caritas and church missions, for example, are engaged in countries of the Third World. The church also works to reduce conflicts between Islam and countries of the West.


Italian Catholic doctrine follows the directives of the church on moral issues. The church fought the referendums that allowed the legalization of divorce (1974) and abortion (1981), although these proposals passed since many Catholics voted in favor of them. Moreover, according to the directives of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968; "Of Human Life"), Italian Catholicism is officially opposed to all forms of birth control except the rhythm method. Nonetheless, there have been significant changes in sexual and marital practices in Italy, with so-called de facto marriages becoming more frequent, and some of the more progressive sectors of the hierarchy and Catholic clergy issue pastoral policies addressing divorced people and nontraditional unions.


On the one hand, the conquest of Rome by Italian troops in 1870 allowed the political unification of Italy, but, on the other, it opened up a long conflict between the church and state. This would eventually be settled by the concordat of 1929 (Lateran Pact), which was revised in 1984. The concordat recognized the civil validity of religious marriage ceremonies, gave legal recognition to Catholic schools, exempted priests from military service, and regulated the teaching of religion in state schools.

The long conflict that preceded the Lateran Pact pushed Italian Catholics to form cooperative associations that gained social and political representation. In 1919 Luigi Sturzo, a priest from Caltagirone (Sicily), founded the Popular Party, which had as a guiding principle the social doctrine expounded by Pope Leo XIII in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum ("Of New Things"). In 1924 the party was suppressed by the Fascist government, but it was reborn after World War II as the Christian Democratic Party under the leadership of Alcide De Gasperi. The Christian Democrats were the majority party until the early 1990s.

The period between 1945 and 1990 was marked by confrontations between Christian Democrats and communists. In their opposition to the Italian Communist Party, which had the largest membership in Western Europe, Christian Democrats had the support of the Catholic Church. The party's political vision was reformist and supportive of all social classes. As a result of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the Christian Democrats became fragmented, and the communists themselves adopted a reformist platform. As a result, the Italian political and religious framework underwent Page 532  |  Top of Article a radical transformation. Religious life became more of a personal expression; traditional morality changed markedly, with an increase in civil marriages, common-law unions, divorce, and legal abortion; and new religious movements began to spread more aggressively.


While the doctrines of the Catholic hierarchy in Italy regarding birth control, divorce, and abortion have remained unchanged over time, with the church maintaining staunch opposition, social changes have occurred rapidly, even among believers. Thus, there is an ever-widening divide between the practices of observant Catholics and ecclesiastical directives. Further, women remain confined to secondary roles in the church. Although Catholic women in Italy are more and more involved in all sectors of politics, industry, education, and service occupations, they have not been offered opportunities to increase their role in the church.


The impact of Catholicism on art in Italy began in early Christian times in the catacombs and the Roman basilicas and with the great Byzantine architecture of the northeast, culminating in the diffusion of Romanesque and Gothic structures throughout the peninsula. A parallel phenomenon in music was the emergence of Gregorian chant, practiced in particular in monasteries. A subsequent phase was represented by the great baroque and late baroque architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that was widespread in the south of Italy and in Sicily, where important examples remain in Lecce, Catania, and Noto. The Italian period of great religious painting and sculpture spans the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with Giotto (1266?–1337), Giovanni Cimabue (c. 1251–1302), Michelangelo (1475–1564), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Titian (c. 1488–1576), and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) among the best-known representatives.

With the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church strove to attain consensus. Threatened by internal disputes, the Protestant Reformation, and new scientific discoveries, the church at first imposed the ethical and doctrinal discipline promulgated by the Council of Trent. Later there developed the great decorative manner of the baroque, which was aimed at involving spectators and moving them at the most intimate levels of emotion. In music polyphonic compositions known as madrigals and new forms of sacred music triumphed, among which the greatest composers were Ludovico Grossi da Viadana (1564–1645), Gesualdo da Venosa (1560–1613), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1524–94), and Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643).

From the second half of the eighteenth century, religious art declined in Italy. It lost the energy it had once had and came to be devoid of authentic inspiration. In the nineteenth century some great Italian musicians, among them Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), composed music with religious content, mostly as requiem Masses. Beginning in the 1970s, there were attempts to promote modern religious architecture and figurative arts, but these experiments have generally not been considered successful.

Other Religions

Roman Jews arrived in Italy long before the birth of Christianity, and today there are some 35,000 Jews living in the country. Roughly 70 percent of all Jews live in Rome and Milan. Rome is the seat of a rabbinical college, and the Jewish community distributes several publications, including the Monthly Review of Israel, the Milan Jewish Community Bulletin, the Ha Keillah from Turin, and Jewish Florence.

The Waldensian Church represents the exceptional case of a Protestant community that spread throughout the Italian peninsula more than three centuries before the reforms of Martin Luther. The original settlement took place in various Piedmont valleys. The community, which together with Methodists has approximately 25,000 members, has its historical seat in Torre Pellice, where the Waldensian Table meets. Rome is the seat of the Waldensian Faculty of Theology, which publishes the magazine Protestantism.

Other Christian groups in Italy include Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists. Jehovah's Witnesses have been particularly successful in recruiting members from the lower classes.

There are more than 60 Orthodox communities in Italy, including Greek, Romanian, Russian, and Serbian groups. Some of the communities belong to the Orthodox Patriarchate, founded in Venice in 1991.

The presence of Islam in Italy is a new phenomenon, brought about by immigration particularly from North and Central Africa and from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, located in Rome, is associated with the Grand Page 533  |  Top of Article Mosque of Monte Antenne, which was constructed under the auspices of Arab embassies in Italy. The Islamic Center of Milan publishes The Messenger of Islam.

New religious movements, which are found mostly in cities in Italy, include Scientology and Transcendental Meditation. There also are small numbers of Buddhists.

Carlo Prandi

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity , Roman Catholicism


Allievi, Stefano, Gustavo Guizzardi, and Carlo Prandi. Un Dio al plurale. Bologna: EDB, 2002.

De Franciscis, Maria Elisabetta. Italy and the Vatican: The 1984 Concordat Between Church and State. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

De Rosa, Gabriele, Tullio Gregory, and André Vauchez, eds. Storia dell'Italia religiosa. 3 vols. Bari: Laterza, 1994.

Marthaler, Berard et al., New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2d ed. 15 vols. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

Hebblethwaite, P. Paul VI: The First Modern Pope. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.

Introvigne, Massimo, Pierluigi Zoccatelli, and Nelly Ippolito Macrina. Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia. Torino: Elledici, 2001.

Scaraffia, Lucetta, and Gabriella Zarri, eds. Women and Faith: Catholic Religious Life in Italy from Late Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Smith, Denis Mack. Modern Italy: A Political History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3437900141