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Rites religieux ordinaires, prière et rites de passage

For several decades, there has been a widespread feeling in Italy of a constant decline in the number of people practising their religion. This contrasts with a past in which a large proportion of the population attended church and was exposed to the influence of the majority Catholic faith. Although religious officials are the main complainers of this negative trend, it has also been picked up by the media and essayists who highlight the paradox between a Catholic Church that is still capable of filling public squares during special religious events (such as World Youth Days, proclamations of beatification and sainthood, Eucharistic congresses, pro-life and pro-family events, papal speeches and celebrations in the Vatican, meetings of major religious associations, etc.), yet struggles to remind people to attend church for ordinary religious ceremonies.
However, the image of religious life in Italy split between ’full squares and empty churches’ does not appear to reflect the reality, and is not corroborated by empirical research conducted over the past 30 years. Prior to this period, we have no reliable national data concerning religious practice, although several vestiges and testimonies (and local surveys) suggest that the 1950s and 1960s were a sort of golden age for religious practice in Italy.

If we consider recent decades (Table 1), it is apparent that even in Italy, religious practice is now a minority phenomenon, although it is still more prevalent than in other major European countries, both Catholic and Protestant. Between 1981 and the mid-1990s, the number of people practising their religion weekly remained stable at around a third of the population. However, in recent years (2007), this figure has fallen to just over a quarter of Italians. It is evident that the same number of Italians exhibit less active patterns of participation, while the number of Italians who state that they never attend church has risen perceptibly over the past 20 years.

Table 1 – Trend for Catholic religious practice in Italy

EVS° 1981 ISSP° 1991 Survey 1994* Survey 2007**
Attendance at Mass
never or hardly ever 22,3 12,5 13 21,8
several times a year 29,4 38,5 37,3 36
about once a month 15,8 16,9 18,5 15,7
weekly or more 32,4 32,1 31,1 26,5
Frequency of Prayer
never or hardly ever 14 17,1 23,7
several times a year 14,7 16,8 13,5
several times a month or weekly 34,7 27 28,2
once a day or more 36,5 41,3 32,5

° Survey of European Values (EVS)
°° International Social Survey Programme

*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 (échantillon de 3 160 individus).

In summary, four types of behaviour are revealed by an analysis of people’s participation in religious ceremonies : 26.5% of Italians practise their religion regularly and attend church at least once a week ; in contrast, 22% of Italians do not engage in this type of practice or have stopped doing so. Between these two extremes is an intermediate or intermittent level of religious practice. Approximately 16% of the population attend mass at least once a month while 36% of Italians participate from time to time, several times a year, generally during major religious holidays.
A similar dynamic can also be seen with regard to prayer, even though people engage in this more frequently than in religious ceremonies, precisely because it is a personal and not solely communal act. Here again, the number of Italians stating that they never pray is on the rise (from 14% in 1991 to 23.7% in 2007), while a third of Italians pray regularly every day or several times a day. This attitude or practice appears to be shared by 28% of individuals who state that they pray several times a week or month. Finally, relatively few people pray ’una tantum’ (several times a year). In other words, prayer appears to split the population much more than the attendance at mass. While Italians’ rate of participation in religious activities is highly variable, prayer seems to polarise the population (between those who pray regularly and those who never pray), with only a small number of people praying occasionally.
In Italy, it is difficult to assess people’s participation in rites of passage due to a lack of reliable data regarding baptisms and, in particular, religious funerals. However, the most recent survey (2007) did measure the importance people place in ceremonies celebrating fundamental steps in life – these practices were considered very important or essential by approximately two-thirds of Italians. The most important religious ceremonies were considered to be religious funerals (70%) followed by baptism (67%) and church weddings (63%). Obviously, these opinions change based on the age bracket, with rites of passage considered to be more important by elderly people and adults than young people, although a majority of young people still believe them to be important. For instance, baptism is considered important by 81% of subjects aged over 65, 72% of those aged 55 to 64, 64% of middle-aged people (35-54) and young adults (25-34) and 61% of young people (16-25).
In contrast, official figures exist for marriages indicating that over the past 60 years, the number of church weddings has dropped by a third, with people turning instead to civil weddings. Of all the weddings in 2007, 65% took place at church and only 35% at a registry office. The secularisation of this ceremony is particularly widespread in large cities and the more modern northern regions. However, on closer examination, the crisis facing church weddings appears less severe than it initially seemed. This can be attributed to two reasons linked to phenomena that have been developing in the country over the past ten years (Table 2). On one hand, there has been an increase in marriages where at least one partner is a divorcee and therefore unable to take part in the sacraments. Given the criticism in Italian public opinion towards this restrictive standard imposed by the Church, it is reasonable to assume that some people would have religious weddings if they were able to do so. On the other hand, marriages where at least one spouse is not an Italian national (14% in 2007) are also on the rise, which may prompt some couples to opt for a civil ceremony. In other words, it seems reasonable to assume that if it were not for these external limitations, the decline in church weddings would be less significant.

Table 2 – Evolution of marriages in Italy by type of rite

Survey year Per 1000 inhabitants Total Catholic marriagesTotal Civil MarriagesMarriages where at least one spouse is divorcedMarriages where at least one spouse is a foreign national
1951 6,9 97,6 2,4
1961 7,9 98,4 1,6
1971 7,5 96,1 3,9
1981 5,6 87,3 12,7
1991 5,5 82,5 17,5
2001 4,6 72,9 27,1 5,6 8,1
2003 4,6 70,6 29,4 6,4 10,5
2005 4,2 67,2 32,8 7,1 13,3
2007 4,2 65,4 34,6 7,8 13,8

Source : Istat (Istituto nazionale di Statistica)

Source : Franco Garelli, Enzo Pace, Annalisa Frisina, « Portrait du Catholicisme en Italie », in Alfonso Perez-Agote, Portraits du catholicisme, une comparaison européenne (Presses Universitaires Rennes, 2012). Research conducted as part of the work of the GERICR - European Interdisciplinary Research Group on Religious Change.

D 27 août 2015    AMariachiara Giorda

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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