ROME – Church leaders in Italy are currently conducting a national synod process, at the behest of Pope Francis, in tandem with the pope’s universal Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Among other things, the Italian bishops’ national synod, set to conclude in 2025, is aimed at assessing the challenges the country faces in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and providing an up-to-date evaluation of the general state of the church in Italy.

Pope Francis had been pushing the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) to launch the national synod ever since a 2015 visit to Florence for a major CEI conference. He told ecclesial leaders that the church must rid itself of “stale and repetitive” structures, and be closer to the poor and disadvantaged.

Among the various challenges the Italian bishops will have to grapple with as their national synod process moves forward is a growing apathy toward the church, and religion generally, as well as a related loss in tax funds that support church administration and a variety of charitable projects.

According to the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR) in Italy, which frequently publicizes data harmful to the church or that highlights its failures, young people are increasingly opting out of religious studies in school.

Citing data collected by the Ministry of Education and shared in response to a specific request, the UAAR said that over one million students in public schools are no longer enrolling in the classic Insegnamento della Religione Cattolica (IRC), or “Instruction in the Catholic Religion,” which is a course offered on a weekly basis for interested students.

The course is the product of the 1985 Concordat between Italy and the Holy See. It modified the terms of the 1929 Lateran Pacts, which established the Vatican City State as a sovereign entity and regulated relations between the Holy See and Italy.

Perhaps the most significant result of the 1985 agreement was the formal declaration that Roman Catholicism was no longer the state religion of Italy. Under the Concordat, religious education in public schools was no longer mandatory, but was left as an option for those interested.

According to UAAR, there is an increasing disinterest in IRC courses in public schools.

“Among the many data that the Ministry of Education makes available on its single portal of school data, those relating to IRC are missing,” said Andrea Borruso of the #datibenecomune organization, which collaborated with the UAAR in its request for the data on IRC enrollment.

Until now, Borruso said, “the only source of information regarding such a relevant topic that involves what happens in Italian public schools was, paradoxically, the Italian Bishops’ Conference, which however only rattles off percentages for macro-areas.”

“The hope is that following this joint initiative, the data will be published in an open and interoperable format directly by the ministry,” he said.

Roberto Grendene, undersecretary of UAAR, said the data set provided to them did not answer all of their questions, such as what alternative choices are for IRC courses, but it does signify “an important first step, which allows us to extract new and interesting information.”

In total, for the 2020-2021 school year, of the 7,214,045 students attending public schools, around 1,014,841, meaning just over 14 percent, chose not to enroll in IRC courses. This is an increase from previous years: Around 12.9 percent opted out of IRC courses in 2018-2019, and 13.5 percent opted out for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Disinterest in the course changed depending on the region of the country, with students in northern regions opting out of the course in higher numbers than those in the south.

For example, Italy’s Tuscany region had the highest level of disinterest in the course, with around 25 percent of students opting out of IRC courses. This was followed by the Emilia-Romagna region, where 24.8 percent of students opted out, and Liguria, where 24.6 percent of students did not enroll in the course.

The lowest rates of students who opted out, on the other hand, were Molise, Campania, and Basilicata, which each had fewer than five percent of students choosing not to take the course.

One of Italy’s target areas for its synod process is engagement with young people, which, according to the data set provided to UAAR, is a challenge for Italy’s aging church leadership, which will have to get creative in order to find a solution.

In addition to this, Italy’s bishops will also have to navigate the increasing loss of taxpayer funds through what’s called the “8×1000,” or the “eight per thousand,” meaning a share of everyone’s personal income tax the state distributes between itself and a charitable entity of the taxpayer’s choosing.

Under the 8×1000, taxpayers may choose one of several approved charitable entities, religious or secular, to which funds will be allocated; they are not required to choose anything.

Given that roughly 75 percent of Italians are Catholic, of those who do make a choice, around 70 percent choose the Catholic Church as the recipient of their funds, which are managed by CEI.

For those who make no selection, the 8×1000 funds are divided among the various recipients in proportion to the selections that were made, meaning the bulk of those funds benefit the Italian Catholic Church, providing it roughly one billion euro annually, which CEI allocates toward a variety of charitable initiatives as well as administration and overhead.

However, despite the large sums CEI draws in every year through these tax funds, the amount of the 8×1000 designated to the Catholic Church has been in steady decline for years and fell to an all-time low in 2020, dropping from 31.8 percent to 29.03 percent, according to a recent report from the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance.

Part of that drop was pandemic related, but it also reflects an increasing trend to allocate funds to state causes, such as national disaster relief, ending world hunger, assistance for refugees, and investment in school buildings.

CEI recently published an ad in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, explaining what the 8×1000 was, how they use the funds, and encouraging taxpayers to choose the Catholic Church as the recipient of their money, signaling an effort to draw in more contributions and to make up for its losses in the past few years.

This is happening at a time when Italian church leaders are also facing increased pressure to organize a national inquiry into clerical sexual abuse, which, if it happens, could damage the church’s reputation and further strain CEI’s incoming cashflow.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen