Religious freedom and the (almost) secular Italian State

Publication of the Italian Constitution in the Official Gazette

The recent diatribe on the draft law Zan between the republican, democratic and secular Italian State and the theocratic and absolute monarchy Vatican State, brings to light problems that the majority do not see, or do not want to see. The first to be mentioned, not necessarily the most important, is the fact that a Parliament and a Government that no longer represent the will of the majority of Italians, is huddling with a Catholic Church that represents only part of Italian believers (not to mention non-believers) for a bill that will affect all Italians and that has little to do with the huge and far more important health and socio-economic problems that the “Bel Paese” has been going through for a year and a half now.

Another and much more important problem is touched upon by this case, that of the constitutionally sanctioned discrimination represented by Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitutional Charter. This discrimination has lasted for 73 years and now affects millions of Italians who do not consider themselves Catholics. The Vatican can ask for the Concordat to be respected because it has one, stipulated in the twenty-years period of Fascism, fully incorporated in the 1948 Republican Constitution, implemented by the aforementioned Article 7 ("The State and the Catholic Church are, each in its own order, independent and sovereign. Their relations are regulated by the Lateran Pacts") and reiterated in its form as an international treaty in the 1984 revision.

Article 8 of the Constitution itself states that “the relations with the State of all denominations other than Catholicism shall be regulated by law on the basis of agreements with the relevant representatives”. In essence, in order to escape from the yoke of the 1929 law on "admitted faiths", which is still in force with all its discriminatory value, non-Catholic religious denominations can only enter into an agreement with the State. At the end of the complicated approval process, these agreements become ordinary laws of the State, something quite different from an international treaty.

Moreover, the few agreements that have been stipulated (12) in these seventy years amidst a thousand difficulties, represent only a fraction of the religious denominations and believers existing in Italy today. Those without an agreement, as "second class religions", remain subject to the Royal Decree on "admitted faiths", to the detriment of an equality of treatment. Among other things, it is well known that the path to an agreement with the State is a real hurdle race in a minefield, so much so that some denominations have had to wait decades to achieve this result and some are still waiting.

The Concordat route was chosen, in an Italy with a very large Catholic majority, because the Fascist government and the House of Savoy could not afford to leave unresolved the "Roman question" that had been lingering since the taking of Porta Pia. It should also be remembered that, at the time of the Guarantige Law (1871), the Pope was an Italian citizen, albeit with many privileges, and the Vatican was part of the Italian State. It was only in 1929, with the Lateran Pacts, that Vatican City was established as a sovereign state, and it was at the initiative of the Italian Government. In any case, in that 1929 the regime was still concerned with maintaining an international equilibrium that waned a few years later due to imperialist dreams.

After the fall of Fascism, and later on of the monarchy, the newborn republican State, which claims to be democratic, could have taken a different path and departed from the choices of the Fascist period. Instead, in that fateful 1948, it chose to incorporate the Lateran Pacts and the law of  '29 on "admitted faiths" into the Constitution. It also maintained a discriminatory and persecutory attitude towards non-Catholic denominations, as evidenced by the application of the shameful "Buffarini Guidi Circular". This fierce and discriminatory rule, enforced with violence and arrests, prohibited Pentecostal worship and was published in 1935 but remained in force until 1955, when it was finally repealed. The reasons for the late repeal were mainly due to the government authorities' desire to "preserve the spiritual unity of the nation".

By choosing to maintain the Concordat of  '29, the Republican State, while affirming the mainly formal principle of religious freedom, compromised the principle of the equality of religions, and the Catholic religion once again assumed, as at the time of the “Statuto Albertino”, the privileged role of an almost “State religion”.

Other evidence of the de facto limitations to religious freedom, together with the Concordat and the Royal Decrees inherited from the Fascist era, is the fact that some structures of the Fascist state were kept intact, which today are anachronistic and whose existence continues due to inertia, ignorance and political inattention. This is the case, for example, of the location, dated 1932, of the Directorate of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of the Interior, decided following an administrative reorganization after the 1929 reform, transferring it from the Ministry of Justice and Worship, which later changed its name to Ministry of Grace and Justice.

Publication of the Italian Constitution in the Official Gazette

Publication of the Italian Constitution in the Official Gazette

A solution which, according to the Ministry of the Interior itself, was adopted “with a view to favoring the means of control of the Ministry of the Interior [...] whose main task was to implement the State's ecclesiastical policy, a policy established by the Concordat of 1929 and the legislation of 1929-1930 with regard to non-Catholic faiths and Israeli communities”. It is evident that nowadays, this Directorate should be transferred back to the Ministry of Grace and Justice. Times have changed and, in theory, we no longer live in a totalitarian state of police, militias and squads.

Instead, the Directorate of Religious Affairs still operates from the Ministry of the Interior, door to door with the Department of Public Security and, evidently, suffers the "police" influence, when it is not even bypassed by the latter, as in the case of the infamous "internal report" of 1998 on "Religious Cults and New Magical Movements in Italy". This document was intended for internal police use and ended up "accidentally" in the hands of the media during a press conference held by the Ministry at the Chamber of Deputies. It was an approximate sketchbook of about a hundred pages, which piled up data, mostly negative, on a long list of religious movements, excluding, of course, Catholicism and a few other “traditional” religious denominations.

This "report" of the Department of Public Safety was condemned by parliamentary questions and severely criticized by various scholars, see for all the article "Freedom of belief and imaginary crimes" by Prof. Nicola Colaianni (member of the FOB Scientific Committee). It was also the subject of a ruling by the Court of Rome that condemned the Ministry to pay damages to one of the persons defamed by the report.

The approach of the Ministry of the Interior in drafting this report, although less violent, is not dissimilar in its logic to the circular issued 63 years earlier by the then Undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior, Guido Buffarini Guidi, on the letterhead of the General Directorate of Religious Affairs.

The fact that the Ministry of the Interior still deals with religious matters as a matter of public security, is also demonstrated by the fact that in January, 2006, the then Chief of Police, Gianni di Gennaro, established, with a simple circular (the same instrument used 71 years before by Buffarini Guidi) an entire body of police called "Anti-Cults Squad" (in acronym S.A.S.) which should deal, in police terms, with "esoteric cults, religious aggregations or pseudo-cults". In the same circular, De Gennaro appointed the Catholic priest and exorcist, Don Aldo Bonaiuto, as "technical" contact person.

Returning to the opening topic, we are not advocating a revision or abolition of the Concordat, although this is desirable in order to bring it into line with the times and to eliminate a discriminatory rule for other religions. Nor do we criticize the Vatican's intervention in defense of the Concordat. The excellent Marco Respinti (member of the FOB Advisory Council) in an article oublished on rivista Bitter Winter magazine, and republished by FOB, explained the matter well and also made it very clear why the Vatican's "verbal note" defends religious freedom for all denominations.

Nor do we intend to criticize Zan’s bill, although we feel that the points that threaten freedom of expression should be amended. However, the intention to prevent discrimination and intolerance is to be appreciated.

What we want to highlight is that, despite the State claims of secularism and democracy, the facts described so far show that in almost a century of history, from the Fascist regime to the present day, little has changed in terms of religious freedom. The old discriminations against religious minorities may have changed form, but they have never ceased, and the structure of the State is still organized to make them possible, not to limit them.

Buffarini Guidi's anti-religious circular is no less democratic than an anti-religious circular issued by the Chief of Police seventy years later. A 100-page police report against religious minorities sent in 1998 to all the Prefects of the Republic with the sole intention of restricting religious freedom, has nothing to envy to an order written in '35 and sent to all the Prefects of the Kingdom to dissolve the "Pentecostal Associations". To institute a police force to carry out "contrast activities" on the activities of religious movements is indicative of a mentality that is inadequate to deal with the subject of "religious affairs", at least when the maintenance of such affairs in the police sphere is concerned.

This state of affairs has generated enormous damage, produced farcical court cases, caused groundless police actions against peaceful religious groups, not to mention the damage caused to individuals and families.

Prejudiced individuals and anti-religious groups, such as the associations FAVIS (Families Victims of Cults), CeSAP (Centre for the Study of Psychological Abuses) and a handful of other lesser-known groups, have taken advantage of this scenario to generate a climate of intolerance and discrimination against religious denominations they dislike, sometimes even defaming the Catholic Church. The two aforementioned groups are also the Italian correspondents of the anti-cultic association FECRIS (European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism), a body mainly funded by the French government which has been spreading phobia against religious minorities for thirty years.

An association that counts among its members controversial individuals heavily criticized by public and private bodies dealing with freedom of belief and also by the most serious and accredited scholars in the field.

Religious minorities in Italy, thanks to the ambiguous position of the State, have been subjected to hate campaigns by these groups for decades, notwithstanding the Macino law, which has remained unimplemented for 28 years. Moreover, in 2012 the IDV (Italy of Values) wanted to include rules against homophobia in the Mancino law, but nothing came of it.

The shields raised by certain politicians who did not appreciate the Vatican's intervention and protested at the alleged invasion of the field and the non-existent attack on the secularity of the State are decidedly out of place. Is a state really secular which claims to guarantee freedom of religion but for decades has maintained discriminatory rules and a police-like and biased attitude towards religious minorities? If this state wants to fly the flag of secularism and democracy, it should do something concrete to straighten out the aforementioned distortions. At the very least, it should repeal obsolete laws that no longer have any reason to exist, adapt the constitution so that equality between faiths becomes a fact and not mere theory, take the "Religious Affairs" out of the hands of the police and put it back in its natural home: the Ministry of Justice and, finally, promote a culture of respect and tolerance of the choices of others.

Otherwise, even the future Zan law will remain a dead letter like the Mancino law and discrimination will continue for anyone who makes choices not shared by some majorities or supposed ones.

The Editorial Staff