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Some Musings on Religion and Freedom of Speech in the EU
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-11-10 10:30:51
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“The crucifix has always been considered not only as a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all as a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity.”                                                                                                                                              --Carlo -Ciampi (ex President of Italy)

A huge public controversy has arisen in Italy recently over the EU Strasbourg Court’s decision to declare the display of crucifixes in Italian schools, courts and other public places illegal in as much as they are offensive to atheists and non-Christian groups. 

Predictably, atheists and non-Christians groups, especially Moslem immigrants, have ailed such a decision as a victory of sort guaranteeing a secular state (which the Italian Republic avowedly is) that remains strictly religion neutral. What seems to have been lost sight of in this cacophony of voices pro and con is that the edict may eventually boomerang on those groups now celebrating victory. Eventually all Moslem symbols and even freedom of religion itself (i.e., the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice or even no religion), may be endangered when the predictable backlash from the far right ensues.

As it is, in France and elsewhere in Europe, while one remains free to worship in a church on Sunday, one is not completely free to express one’s religious view in the public square under freedom of speech. That expression is found objectionable and anachronistic, not consonant with the modernity of the EU, a violation of the separation of Church and State; there a person of strong religious convictions has to muzzle his/her mouth. Only secularists are allowed to voice their opinions and advertise their secular ideology or beliefs.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the serious reader, that is to say the reader that does not readily solve this intricate issue of free speech with mere satirical cartoons caricaturizing and trivializing a two thousand year institution which is the Catholic Church in Europe, may well ask: how did a modern democratic nation such as Italy end up with crucifixes in its public places? To even begin to untangle this public controversy about crucifixes in schools and courtrooms in Italy one needs to go a bit back in history at least 150 years back to the very beginning of a modern unified Italian State in 1861.

For this state to be finally unified, since it was astraddle the north unified as the kingdom of Piedmont under Victor Emanuel II and the Southern part known as The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, (conquered for a united Italy by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860) it became necessary to unceremoniously deprive the reigning Pope (Pius the IX at the time) of the whole of Central Italy where he was sovereign. The Pope protested such an action,  culminating with the conquest of Rome in 1870, as a brazen usurpation by the Italian state and refused to recognize its legitimacy; in fact he declared as excommunicated any Catholic who supported and took part in such a State. The result of such a bizarre situation was that Italians were now in a political limbo vis a vis their traditional Catholic religion: they could not be good Catholics and good Italians at the same time. Some like Alessandro Manzoni remained such (serving in the Italian Senate and being a practicing  Catholic respectful of the Church as per his conscience but most Italians began to resent the Church as an obstacle to nationalism and many became anti-clerical if not exactly anti-Catholic.

This rather bizarre situation persisted for 64 more years till 1924. The Pope, deprived of all his temporal possessions was in effect a self-declared prisoner in his Vatican palaces. Dante would have probably approved of it, since he saw the conversion of Constantine and the donation of the papal states to the Church as the beginning of the corruption that ensued in Medieval times and led to the so called “wars of investitures” by mixing the temporal with the spiritual. Be that as it may, we need to wait till 1924 for the so called “reconciliation” between Church and State to take place in a treaty signed by none other than dictator Benito Mussolini. The very boulevard leading to the Vatican nowadays is named “Via della Riconciliazione.” The Pope accepted the legitimacy of the Italian nation, at the same time the Italian nation accepted Catholicism as the traditional religion of Italy and granted the Pope a small independent city which would assure that the Church remained free from political pressures from the State. History had come around full circle. The Popes who crowned emperors now received political crumbs from secular states in exchange for some privileges and concessions.

One of the agreements between Mussolini and the Church, which became a law, was that in every school classroom, court of law and hospital a crucifix be displayed. After weathering legal challenges over the years 2003-2006 that law was still in effect as of a week ago when challenged by the EU court.

We should mention here that after Italy’s defeat in World War II, the constitutional monarchy of Mussolini’s time was replaced by a democratic republic.  The king was exiled for good. Italy’s 1948 constitution turned the government into a secular state that officially favored no religious denomination, but the Catholic Church continued to enjoy those traditional privileges stipulated and agreed upon by Mussolini, including the obligatory posting of crucifixes in public buildings.

The most publicized recent conflict over the ubiquitous crucifix began in 2003 when a Muslim father—43-year-old Abel Smith—objected to a statuette of Jesus’ death scene on the wall of the kindergarten that his son attended in the town of Ofena.  Smith had been raised in Egypt as the son of an Italian father of Scottish origin and an Egyptian mother.  Now living in Italy, Smith converted to Islam in 1987, and in 2001 he founded the Union of Muslims, a group that claimed a membership of 5,300.  Smith not only objected to the symbol of a particular religious faith being featured in his child’s classroom, but he referred to crucifixes as “small cadavers . . . [so the] morphology of the crucifix is nothing but a corpse that could scare children.” Obviously this view was either biased or ignorant of the symbolical and cultural significance of a crucifix for most Christians, even those who do not practice their religion

After Ofena school officials refused to remove the crucifix, Smith responded by suggesting that, in keeping the Italian constitution’s guarantee of equal respect for all religions, an Islamic symbol also be displayed.  The school’s headmaster acceded to this request and allowed verse (sura) 112 from the Quran to be added to the classroom wall:  “There is no God but Allah.” Angry Catholic parents tore the sura down.  In response, Smith took the issue to a civil-affairs court in the town of L’Aquila, where a junior district judge, Mario Montanaro, found in Smith’s favor and ordered the kindergarten in Ofena to remove crucifixes from classrooms.  Judge Montanaro stated that Italy was in the process of cultural transformation and that the nation’s constitution required that belief systems other than Catholicism be respected.  He called the display of crucifixes in classrooms “anachronistic.”

The court decision was greeted with dismay by a host of outspoken Italians, including the Catholic clergy and leading politicians. Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi assailed the court decision, arguing that “the crucifix has always been considered not only as a distinctive sign of a particular religious credo, but above all as a symbol of the values that are at the base of our Italian identity.”  But the ruling to remove crucifixes was applauded by others, such as a teachers union, which saw Smith’s lawsuit as properly reinforcing the secular status of the public education system. So the dispute ignited a nationwide debate about church/state relationships, the nature of Italian culture, and immigration practices (particularly in relation to the rapidly growing numbers of Muslims from North Africa).

The question of whether crucifixes should be permitted in state schools was settled in December 2004 by Italy’s Constitutional Court, where judges reversed the earlier district-court decision by arguing that Abel Smith was not entitled to raise in court the issue of crucifixes in public places.  Hence, the 1924 law mandating the display of crosses in schools continued in effect. Thus, the Constitutional Court’s ruling appeared to demonstrate that (a) even though Italy ostensibly had a secular government, the nation’s dominant culture was still Catholic and (b) Catholicism continued to wield significant influence over the state.

Some observers of the Smith case thought the crucifix problem had now been settled for good.  But that was not to be!  The issue would again demand the public’s attention in 2006 when (a) Italian judge Luigi Tosti refused to have crosses in his courtroom and (b) a Finnish woman in the Italian city of Padua filed a suit demanding the removal of crucifixes in the school her children attended. The Italian judiciary’s self-governing council responded to Tosti’s act by suspending him from the bench.  A criminal court convicted him of refusing to perform his duties and issued a seven-month suspended sentence. Then the Italian Council of State threw out the Finnish woman’s case, reasoning that the crucifix was not just a religious symbol, but was also a symbol of “the values which underlie and inspire our constitution, our way of living together peacefully.”

The Council’s judges contended that tolerance, respect and the rights of individuals, as pillars of Italy’s secular state, originated with Christianity and “In this sense the crucifix can have a highly educational symbolic function, regardless of the religion of the pupils.”  The judges also argued that the concept of the secular state, in which temporal and spiritual dimensions were kept separate, should be applied in different ways, depending on a particular nation’s history. So as of a few weeks ago, crucifixes continued as permanent fixtures in Italy’s courtrooms, hospitals, and public-school classrooms. 

If I may be permitted a brief commentary on this situation, I would simply ask the reader and the average EU citizen to re-read the article I contributed only a few weeks ago (titled “Christianity: A Private Affair or Part of the European Identity?” of 22 May 2209) and reflect particularly on the very last paragraph’s prophetic quote by Dr. Weiler of New York University where he points out that he is an observant Jew, son of a rabbi with European roots that go back hundreds of years and that his ancestors were often the victims of Christians and Christianity; yet he finds it puzzling that anyone would fear the recognition and acknowledgment of the dominant culture (i.e., Christianity) as an empirical historical fact in Europe,  and reveals a fear of his which is also an insight, and it is this: “If I have a fear, it is the following: to deny the relevance of the Christian heritage in European public symbolism and European public space, for to deny that is to deny, too, the relevance of my own religiosity in that same public space.” That would probably be just fine for those who wish to eliminate religion altogether from both the public and the private sphere in the EU according to their bias against religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but it remains a shortsighted social and political strategy, for if a body politic is based on the rejection of one’s history and heritage it will be built on sand and will not survive for very long.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-11-10 23:09:04
Footnote: perhaps it is worth noting here that the utter silence to the legitimate question asked on today's cover, not by me but the editors, is deafaning. But silence too can be construed as an answer of sort.

Christina Mederos2009-11-11 05:31:47
This is a very poignant commentary on the history of both our country and that of Italy. I do believe in the doctrine of seperation of church and state, but within the Italian culture it has been a driving force which defines their nation, culture,and creed. It will be an interesting issue to revisit in a few months to witness the reaction: whether it has festered into an angry boil among the populace or has been meekly accepted without a fight. Knowing what I know of the Italian culture, I hardly believe the latter will be true. Keep the information coming as you are keeping me abreast with the topics and conflicts in Italia! Salute

Emanuel Paparella2009-11-11 08:42:25
Ms. Mederos, I wish there were more positive news to report from such a beautiful and culturally rich country.

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