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Religious affiliation and practice

The majority of Italians continue to be affiliated to Catholicism, an affiliation that is resisting the test of time and the spread of modernity. For a very long time Catholic identity has represented a national constant in a country whose history and political culture are too impregnated with faith and tradition for this identity to be relegated to the margins of life in society.
However, during recent decades, changes can be identified in the country which indicate both the presence of a more deeply-rooted religious pluralism and a greater number of people saying that they have no religion (table 1). Mainly as a result of immigration flows from abroad which have recently impacted Italy, those declaring a religious affiliation other than to Catholicism have increased from 0.8% in 1991 to almost 5% in 2007. This growth does not relate to religious minorities historically present on a national level (like Evangelist Protestants, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.), but rather the religions of new immigrants (i.e. Orthodox Christianity or Islam), who have rediscovered in their land of adoption a religious identity which is fostering community bonds and backing up their requests for citizenship. In parallel, the number of those claiming no religion has increased slightly: today they account for about 9% of the population.

Table 1 – Italian population by religious belonging, in percent
Comparison between two surveys based on representatives samples of Italian population aged from 16 to 74

Survey 1994* Survey 1997**
Catholic 88,6 86,1
Other religion 2,6 4,8
Reformed 8,8 9.1
Total 100 (4500) 100 (3160)

*Source: Vincenzo Cesareo, Roberto Cipriani, Franco Garelli, Clemente Lanzetti, Giancarlo Rovati, La religiosità in Italia, Mondadori, Milano, 1995 (échantillon de 4 500 individus).
**Source : Indagine sulla nuova religiosità in Italia, Apsor (Associazione piemontese di sociologia delle religioni), Torino, 2007 (sample of individuals)

Even with these changes, affiliation to Catholicism still remains high in Italy, considering that it involves 85% of the population today. However, this religious reference is not socially significant, because it groups together very diverse ways of interpreting the Catholic identity. It can be stated that Italy is characterised by a dual religious pluralism. Alongside pluralism related to the presence of several religions, another type of pluralism can be identified, internal to the Italian Catholic identity. The most recent analyses have taken a look at this phenomenon, by recognising four types of affiliation to Catholicism (table 2): “Catholics by tradition and culture” and those who say they are “committed, but not very active” (each of these types accounts for approximately 30% of the population), while a little less represented are “committed, active Catholics” (more than 1/5 of Italians) and notably “Catholics on their own terms”, who only partially share the religious model of affiliation (approximately 7%). These are very different groups, characterised by specific religious and ethical profiles, who illustrate the pluralism of reference points which characterises Italian Catholicism today. On the other hand, the “no religion” group is pretty homogeneous, characterised by approaches and visions of society typical of those who do not grant any value to the religious dimension and have not had intensive socialisation with the church.

Table 2 – Evolution of Italian catholic population according to the religious membership type, in percent

Membership type of religion Survey 1994* Survey 1997**
Convinced and practising 20,2 21
Convinced but not always practising 36,9 28,8
By tradition, education 24,8 31.6
You share some ideas 8,7 7,5
Other 0,6 2
Without religion 8,8 9,1
Total 100 (4377) 100 (3008)

*Source: Vincenzo Cesareo, Roberto Cipriani, Franco Garelli, Clemente Lanzetti, Giancarlo Rovati, La religiosità in Italia, Mondadori, Milano, 1995 (sample of 4 500 individus).
**Source : Indagine sulla nuova religiosità in Italia, Apsor (Associazione piemontese di sociologia delle religioni), Torino, 2007 (sample of 3 160 individuals)

Taking into consideration the last 10 years (by including in the analysis those with “no religion”), interesting constants and changes in the quantitative evolution of different types of religiosity can be observed. The groups located at the two extremities of the religious field - i.e. “committed, practising Catholics” and those with “no religion” – evolve only slightly; these therefore relate to sufficiently solid subcultures to survive the passing of the years. On the other hand, “committed, practising Catholics” decrease appreciably over the period, whereas the group which identifies with Catholicism for reasons of tradition and culture is experiencing strong growth. In a society which underlines its multi-ethnic and multi-religious character, it seems that the tendency to re-appraise the traditional religion (the requirement to be rooted in a history and culture able to offer security and reference points when faced with innovations) is on the increase among Italians. Within this group are to be found not only those who declare themselves to be Catholic by virtue of tradition, rather than personal conviction, i.e. for cultural and symbolic reasons, than for specifically spiritual reasons; but this also includes all those who identify with a “religion of values” of which religious groups as well as the Catholic Church itself can claim to be the representatives, in order to counter the crisis in ethical reference points and to reaffirm values which cannot be renounced. These forms of affiliation to Catholicism seem pretty much in line with the values of religious groups, even if they do not automatically imply acceptance of the dogma.
It is therefore easy to state that Catholic sentiment is being enriched by new forms of affiliation, the majority of which were previously unknown. Compared to other national contexts, in Italy we can record fewer attitudes of “faith without religious affiliation” (expression of an autonomous spiritual quest, which makes no mention – not even critically – of a religious group or a church) and more attitudes of affiliation to Catholicism without strong religious participation.

D 27 August 2015    AMariachiara Giorda

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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