ROME – As in most major cities, apartment buildings in Rome typically have what’s called a portiere, or “doorman.” It’s the same word, by the way, used in Italian soccer to describe the goalie – which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense, meaning the “keeper of the door.”
The building where my wife and I live in Rome’s Della Vittoria neighborhood is big enough it actually has two, a young Italian man and a young Polish woman. Recently our female portiere announced that she’s leaving in September, and one day last week I asked what her plans are.
“I’m going back to Poland,” she said. “Things are better there.”
Then, in the most matter-of-fact fashion possible, she added: “They’re Catholics.” A more damning indictment of her experience of Italian Catholicism is difficult to imagine.
Granted, this young woman is of a fairly intense strain of the faith, highly devoted to various private revelations, for example, and generally unimpressed with the reform campaign of Pope Francis.
Moreover, at least in part, she was probably reflecting the general social and political drift of the two countries as much as levels of individual faith and practice. Poland, after all, is governed by a conservative coalition which, earlier this year, enacted a near-total ban on abortion; Italy, meanwhile, under its center-left government, appears to be moving towards adoption of a conservative anti-homophobia measure opposed by conservative Catholics.
Nonetheless, hers is not an uncommon experience for Catholics from parts of the world who arrive in Rome with a stringent spirituality, expecting to find such an outlook affirmed in the global headquarters of the faith, only to find instead what some wags have referred to as the hermeneutic of the Italian shrug – a sort of, “well, what are you gonna do?” outlook that tends to relativize universal law in favor of flexibility in concrete circumstances.
(In my experience, I’d say Eastern Europeans, Africans, and certain kinds of Anglo-Saxon Catholics are most susceptible to such rude awakenings, but of course there are many exceptions.)
It’s easy to lampoon many elements of the Italian Catholic experience – its addiction to government funding to the tune of more than $1 billion a year, its heavy bureaucracy, its occasional pomposity and inflated sense of omni-competence (bishops here actually give interviews about the tax code and public works), its penchant for ambiguity if not outright hypocrisy, and on and on – but nevertheless, I come today to praise Italian Catholicism, not to bury it.
Indeed, I would argue that one cannot fully understand universal Catholic culture and psychology without at least a passing familiarity with the matrix of it all here.
To begin, Italian Catholicism remains relatively vibrant, especially by western European standards. Overall, the national Mass attendance rate pre-Covid was about 25 percent, comparable to the United States and far higher than nearby Spain, France, and Germany. In the south of Italy, those rates get close to 50 percent. In large part, it’s because Catholicity is so thoroughly written into Italian DNA by now, nothing can ever fully erase it – no matter how long that cluster of genes may lay dormant in a particular case.
Because they lived under a theocracy in the form of the Papal States for centuries, Italians have the most realistic view of the clerical class anywhere in the Catholic world. They don’t put priests on a pedestal, and they’re all but impossible to shock in terms of scandals. That’s perhaps the principal reason the clerical sexual abuse crisis hasn’t erupted here in the same intense form as, say, Ireland or the US – Italian Catholics may be as horrified and disgusted as everyone else, but they’re not terribly surprised.
Moreover, Italian Catholics don’t expect clergy to be superhuman in other ways either. For instance, there’s no taboo here about clerical ambition – it’s expected, and, anyway, it’s seen as preferable to the alternative, which is understood to be menefreghismo, roughly meaning an attitude of “I don’t give a damn.”
In addition, because Rome once ruled the world, and because so many Italian families have at least one relative who either is or was a missionary overseas, Italian Catholics instinctively tend to think in global terms about the Church. Unlike many American Catholics, they don’t presume that Italian issues or concerns ought to be priorities for the rest of the Catholic world too.
Italian Catholics also have a commendable capacity to live with contradiction, reflecting a healthy sense of the complexities of things. Small case in point: I recently want to a local pharmacy for a Covid test, and I noticed a poor box to support the hospital founded by Padre Pio atop a shelf. Upon further inspection, it was the same shelf that offered the pharmacy’s collection of jumbo-sized boxes of condoms.
Here, the sacred and the secular have been forced by bitter experience to work out a modus vivendi, for the most part respecting the legitimacy and autonomy of the other.
(As one expression of that spirit, Italians have always had a nuanced understanding of rules and laws as ideals which have to be tweaked based upon the complexities of a given situation. That’s always the unspoken subtext to every seemingly draconian edict from the Vatican, by the way, one often missed by Anglo-Saxon sensitivities.)
Finally, the glory of Italian Catholicism still is, and always has been, the parocco, or the local pastor. While Italians may be terribly anti-clerical in some ways, voicing loathing for the Vatican and for the Italian hierarchy, even the most aggressive atheist usually has a soft spot in their heart for Don Marco down the street.
Across the country, Catholic pastors hold neighborhoods and, at times, whole towns together in moments of crisis. They know everyone on a first-name basis, including their deepest secrets, and they’re omni-present in the life of the community. Popes, prime ministers, mayors, and captains of industry come and go, but the parocco is forever.
That truth reflects another invaluable instinct, essential to good health and even survival in Catholic life, which is that while the best theatre may be in Rome and the Vatican, the real life of the church is always at the grassroots.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr