Since winning Italy Magazine’s Blogger Award last week, the increase in traffic to my blog, Facebook Page, and Twitter account has been meteoric, to say the least. So it’s with some trepidation that I tackle a provocative subject with all these new eyes on my posts. However, to this day, one of the biggest draws to my site is
However, to this day, one of the biggest draws to my site is from a piece I wrote more than a year ago entitled, “Catholicism and other superstitions in Italy.” Google still seems to think that I’m an expert on this topic, for some reason. (This doesn’t speak very highly of their algorithm, if you ask me.)
I want to acknowledge right away that the topic of religion always inspires controversy. We each have our own opinions, and thankfully, throughout most of the world, these opinions are to be respected. Furthermore, when I make generalizations, they are just that: generalizations. If they don’t apply to you, then fine, I wasn’t talking about you. In any case, I’ve tried to provide a balanced argument… so hopefully there’s something here to offend everyone.
Religion in Italy
I suppose that religion occupies a role in every culture around the world, even if that role varies greatly from country to country. Furthermore, governments and other institutions often do their best to influence and confuse that role. For example, in the U.S. we supposedly have freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State. So then why does our Pledge of Allegiance proclaim, “One nation under God”? This seems to contradict both the claim of freedom (you’re not free to be an atheist, it would seem) and separation.
Meanwhile, Italy’s first article to the constitution says that “L’Italia è una repubblica fondata sul lavoro,” Italy is a republic founded on work—and nothing is mentioned regarding God or religion. And yet ever since Pope John XXIII began the practice in the early 1960s, the Pope has had his weekly address broadcasted on the state-sponsored television channels via RAI Uno and Eurovision Network every Sunday at noon. At the end of the address, the Pope comes to the window of his apartment in Saint Peter’s Square to deliver a religious message called the “angelus.” Notable, however, is that this little speech/devotion is duly quoted and re-reported by every major journal and television channel around the country. Therefore, this isn’t just a religious message… it’s also national “news.”
Most foreigners assume that all Italians are religious. Well, maybe they are or maybe they’re not—it sort of depends on your definition. But certainly they are not religious in the same way that Anglo-Saxon Puritan societies understand the adjective. My simplified take: religion carries a great deal of cultural significance in Italy, whereas in the U.S. the implied moral directives are pushed to the forefront—for better or worse.
For many Italians, religion is not even a conscious choice. Catholicism is so deeply entwined into the culture that it’s nearly impossible to separate the societal influence from the catechism. So there is a certain stigma attached to proclaiming yourself as a non-Catholic. It’s “bad manners” more than anything. In any case, religion enters your life in sneaky ways. For example, all children are baptized at an early age—obviously much too early for it to be a choice for them. The parents, even if they themselves haven’t stepped inside a church since their own wedding, will have their children baptized if only because it would “look bad” and “porta sfortuna” (bring bad luck) not to do so.
Then by the time your First Holy Communion comes along, you’re old enough to realize that this solemn ceremony comes with a big party and lots of precious gifts, so it would be ridiculous to take a stance against this at such a tender age. About four or five years later, it’s time to make your Confirmation. Now you’re older and wiser still, therefore other considerations enter the equation. For example, anyone attempting to shun their Confirmation will be reminded that, without it, you’ll never be allowed to marry in a church. Which again, “looks bad,” more than anything else. The cycle repeats.
So this is why the Vatican can claim that 90% of Italians are Catholic…it’s just too inconvenient to “undo” it. But challenge an Italian on their Catholic beliefs and you’ll often get a vague sort of justification for their non-Catholic behavior.
“Hey Luigi, I thought that Catholics aren’t supposed to have sex before marriage?”
“Oh, come on… everybody does it!”
“Yeah but, the Pope says it’s a sin.”
At which point he’ll mumble, offer a few shrugs, adjust the family jewels, and then finally, “Vabbe’…” before walking away.
But Italians aren’t likely to take a literal approach to Church doctrine or to reading the Bible in the way that Christian Fundamentalists in the U.S. would. Remember, Europe is the cradle of both Christianity AND Illuminismo, so these two philosophies have existed side by side for centuries. Italians seem to like these apparent paradoxes, whereas Americans want tangible, clear, separate explanations. For an American, either something is true or it isn’t. Black or white; right or wrong.
Instead, Italians are very comfortable with the contraindications, and in fact might even prefer them. Perhaps it gives the individual a little wiggle room to debate and apply the religious/moral principles as he/she sees fit. There seems to be an attitude of “Well, it might not be true… but what’s there to lose by playing along?” Not ironically, it’s exactly the same with superstition. “OK, the malocchio is probably nonsense, but what does it hurt to wear my cornicello?”
Religion or Superstition? Or both?
Nowhere in the world does religion and superstition coexist in such easy harmony as in Italy. In the U.S. or Britain, superstitions might be acknowledged and even practiced to some degree. But they are separate from religious beliefs. Not so in Italy, where the line becomes increasingly blurry the more you investigate the topic. And the further you travel south.
There are many superstitions in Italy which clearly demonstrate this relationship. For example, never throw away bread, and if you really must, you have to kiss it first (bread is the symbolic body of Christ, after all). Speaking of kissing, in Italy you should always greet someone with a kiss on BOTH cheeks, never just one (your name isn’t Judas, is it?). Never place 13 people at the dinner table (unless it’s someone’s “last supper,” so to speak). Avoid wearing the color purple (because Jesus was clothed in purple as a mockery of his royalty). These are only a few of the many examples.
Over the centuries, religion and superstition have gradually merged into a single amalgam of supernatural beliefs, especially in southern Italy. Of course, the Vatican isn’t too keen on this idea and has even sent missionaries down South to “clean up” this hybrid form of Catholicism. Unsuccessfully, it would appear.
If, in Italy, religion is often merely a façade of good manners or the avoidance of bad luck, then in the U.S., the Puritan influence creates a much more rigid societal state of mind. The accepted “morality” must prevail at all costs. It doesn’t really matter if you’re Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish; Puritan values still permeate almost every aspect of American society. In politics, for example. We’ve become progressive enough for an African-American president, a female Secretary of State, and homosexual mayors. But an atheist in the White House? Unimaginable. Indeed, it would appear that the opposite extreme is more politically popular. (Who remembers when George Bush claimed “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”?)
Television provides another clear example. In the U.S., you’re allowed to show every disgusting mode of graphic violence on network T.V. that you want: Guns? Beheadings? Exploded corpses? No problem! But if you flash a female breast for one second you’re in deep shit with the censors. (Does anybody recall Janet Jackson’s “accident” at the Super Bowl and the controversy it sparked?) This is clearly the Puritan influence at work—a moral “hangover” from our forefathers antiquated beliefs.
In Italy, by contrast, the era of the velina—those overtly sexual, scantily clad spokesmodels dancing for the camera—was ushered in by none other than the Prime Minister himself. Yes, that billionaire entrepreneur, icon of low-brow entertainment, model of rude behavior, and sometime politician: Silvio Berlusconi. In his image of Italy, Italians prefer their scenes of violence to occur off-screen; but meanwhile the female anatomy takes center stage on prime-time television. Shows like Drive-In, Striscia La Notizia, etc. clearly demonstrate this national preference for sex over violence. (Gasp! Americani, cover your eyes and send your children off to bed!)
What does all this say about the two cultures? Hell, I don’t know, I’m just a guy with a blog trying to make sense of life with two Italians in the house. My wife shares my views on gun control, while at the same time making a crusade out of the right of a couple to kiss on the metro. And my little daughter seems to prefer exhibitionism to modesty…nothing makes her giggle so much as running around the house naked (this will obviously have to change before she starts asilo).
If living in another culture teaches you one thing it is this: open your mind, question your beliefs, and be willing accept that everything that you thought was an absolute was, in fact, only one way of seeing the world. The great American poet Walt Whitman said it even better, “Re-examine all that you have been told at church or school or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your soul.” (We should probably add Google to this list. If they still think I’m an expert on superstition and religion in Italy, then they obviously can’t be trusted.)