The Crucifix Debates: No End in Sight

Can it be uprooted?

In 2003, the year I moved to Italy, I witnessed my first “crucifix debate” on television. Adel Smith, the controversial protagonist of that episode and the founder of the Italian Islamic Party, had caused a stink by demanding that all crucifixes be removed from public buildings in Italy. They apparently offended him, though he was raised as a Catholic. He even threw one out the window of his mother’s hospital room. Religious conversion is strong medicine.

Six years later, the debate is back. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France has ruled that crucifixes in Italian schools violate the religious and educational freedom of children. At the center of the debate this time is a non-religious Italian family who don’t want their children to be conditioned by religious symbolism in what is nominally a public classroom.

Some readers might be asking themselves, “But why are there crucifixes in public schools in the first place?!” To an American, this is unthinkable. But the Vatican is not in New York City. And it’s where the trouble began more than 80 years ago with what is known as the Lateran Treaty.

The Treaty was devised under the Fascist government of the 1920s, and it stated that Catholicism was the sole state religion. Part of the agreement stipulated the presence of the crucifix in all Italian schools and public buildings, where they remain to this day, and “religion hour” — the teaching of the Catholic religion in all public schools. The religion teachers are handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state. Roll over, Thomas Jefferson.

All of this flies in the face of the Risorgimento, of course. Italy, as an autonomous nation, was founded in direct opposition to the Church. The integralist Pope Pius IX famously referred to himself as a “prisoner of the Vatican,” and no pope after him — until the agreements with Mussolini’s government — would set foot on Italian soil. In a country proud to have moved past the Fascist era (there is even a national holiday to this effect), it is perhaps anachronistic that Article 7 of the Constitution proclaims: “relations [between the Catholic Church and the State] are regulated by the Lateran Treaty.” Why not overhaul that as well, one wonders?

What we have on our hands is essentially a human rights issue. Is there a place for religion in the public sphere of a secular democracy in the 21st century? Religious apologists have remarked that we might as well tear up the Union Jack and the Finnish flag (and the Danish one, I suppose, that bastion of secularism), all of which have crosses. They’ve also suggested that the flag of the European Union has an encrypted Madonna and child among its 12 stars. Or that Europe has non-negotiable “Christian roots.” In these claims one hears the pronounced voices of reactionary bishops more than those of civil servants in a modern democracy. Yet Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini and Italian Senator Rocco Buttiglione all made them, among others. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, topping them all, said recently that the EU court could “…go to hell. We’ll never take down the crucifixes.”

Even more telling are the attempts made by some Catholics to separate the crucifix from its religious context. As the Italian Bishop’s Conference put it, “The multiple significance of the crucifix, which is not just a religious symbol but a cultural sign, has been either ignored or overlooked.” Which raises the question: what culture are they referring to?

Italian culture is, like all other cultures in all other times, a grab-bag of goodies. Of the 3,000 or so years of recorded Italian history, Christianity has decidedly marked the last 2,000. But Judaism, it is often pointed out, has a longer history on the peninsula than the offshoot sect. Should Jews then insist mezuzahs be nailed to every doorpost of every public building from Bolzano to Syracuse? They have as good a case as anyone.

Of course, no one will take my little provocation seriously. After all, there are Jewish schools that cater to the needs of religious Jews. The same should be expected of Catholics.

Public spaces are for everyone. They are not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan or Buddhist. Taking crucifixes off the walls (Buttiglione comically suggests that a plethora of symbols should go up instead — a solution even more risible than their elimination) does not condemn Catholics to atheism. This conveniently misses the point. Religious freedom includes freedom from religion as well as the freedom of religious affiliation. People in their homes may display any symbols they desire, or even a multitude of them. They may frequent any house of worship or none at all. They may read the Gospels or the speeches of Robert Ingersoll. On this, I think, we all agree.

The promotion of the crucifix from a strictly Catholic religious symbol (Protestants don’t use it) to a “universal” symbol of inclusion and suffering is dishonest sidestepping. The conflation is simply insulting. Nothing could be less universal than a religion, especially one with an unbroken tradition of obscurantism, religious warfare, persecution and anti-modern policies. Besides, nearly all Catholics in the developed world flout Catholic dogma when it contradicts their immediate personal interests — without so much as flinching before the eternal fires of hell.

What more proof do we need that the European Union is bound by the modern secular principles of human rights and not the by cross (much less the crucifix)? Why not cut the head off the bull, as they say here in Italy, and abrogate the Lateran Treaty once and for all?

Published in The American

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