The pope’s plaything

Picture a miniscule centro storico — really just a few blocks of old stone houses — the kind with a church and a butcher and a funeral parlor, and a road leading to the next town a few kilometers away. As in every such town, there’s a café where the elders and youth gather at separate tables to smoke cigarettes and watch the days fizzle into evening. It’s a quiet existence. Separation of the sexes and all.

It’s in such a town that we have landed, at the feet of Assisi, Italy’s “holy city” (as my wife keeps reminding me). Assisi, from our vantage point, crouches majestically on its hillside; behind it looms the Subasio, capped with snow. The sky broadens outward in every direction. It’s a marvelous landscape.

Somewhere in the “The Gay Science,” Nietzsche wrote that a mountain is impressive from far off. Once you’re on top of it, though, your perspective changes. It’s no longer so stately. It’s just a collection of trees, rocks and paths. I am reminded of this every time we go to Assisi. If you’re not in the market for holy relics or religious trinkets, there’s not much to do except stroll around and have a bite to eat.

In our town there is a 10-foot-high crucifix in front of the elementary school. As an atheist I can deal with religious imagery. Such things don’t put me off because to me they lack meaning. But I am adamant about such symbols not being part of the civic realm. They don’t belong in police stations, in courtrooms or — make that especially — in public schools.

To paraphrase a friend: Did I think living in a small village in central Italy, nestled in the region of St. Francis of Assisi, would be a secular cakewalk?

No, of course not. But what about the rest of the country? The Catholic religious saturation of public life isn’t an Assisan problem. It’s an Italian problem. You can’t go anywhere in this country without the crucifix being — excuse my French — shoved down your throat. It’s literally everywhere you turn. It’s even on the peaks of mountains (yes, there are even mountain climbers who attempt to “convert” nature). It’s so prevalent that most people — even most secularists — think its normal. It isn’t.

Thankfully, there is a proper place for the crucifix. It’s called a church. Or a home. Or a Catholic school (though one may rightly question the very idea of “faith schools”). It is emphatically not the public classroom, which should be a haven for secular education and social integration. If Italy is ever to hold its head high in the European Union, it must break its mischievous pact with the Vatican and stop ransoming its youth to the bishops. It must give up its de facto state religion once and for all. It must regain its independence and integrity, in short.

March 17, 2011 is a national holiday. We’re supposed to celebrate 150 years of the unification of Italy. Many Italians smile awkwardly at the thought of Italy being united because they know it isn’t. Not really. But it’s worth remembering that one of the fundamental freedoms won by the Risorgimento was the secular state. It was an exercise in putting the Catholic Church in its place by restricting its sphere of influence (and its landholdings). Of course, the Vatican bounced back under Fascism — and never went away.

I love this country. I’m proud of its rich cultural heritage, its contributions to art, science and gastronomy. But the world is laughing at us right now. Italy’s two most powerful men are a fount of endless shame and embarrassment. One lives like a gluttonous sultan out of the “Thousand and One Nights”; the other, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, is “a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat… responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime.” Both of these men, prime minister and pope, have virtually unlimited power to do as they please with this country. It is their plaything.

I don’t mean to assert that if the Catholic Church is politically hobbled the crooked will be made straight. That’s just one example, albeit a pervasive one. There’s also widespread nepotism, organized crime, political corruption and a countless other shortcomings. And every one of them takes cover in the shade of the church. Perhaps folding that umbrella would prove a promising start to further reform. It’s worth a try.

Contrary to widespread belief, Italy doesn’t need a violent revolution to right its wrongs. It doesn’t even need an Egyptian-style popular uprising. It needs a revolution of legality, which may prove far more difficult than beheading kings.

Published in The American

“Take Down Our Crucifix and We’ll Cut Off Your Arms”

I just finished reading Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (read it!), which took me two weeks in the subway going back and forth from work. I first encountered Jacoby when I read her book Freethinkers (read this too!), and have come to enjoy her logic-driven brand of cultural skepticism.

In Italy there is a culture war underway. It is not a debate over evolution vs. creationism. Somehow, despite the numbers (quoted in Dawkins’ latest book) that 32% of Italians believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted on this planet – in Turkey it’s 42%, in Sweden 9% (2005 stats) – there is no debate over evolution. There is a debate over crucifixes.

Now the Catholics are on the counter-offensive. Slogans like “take down our crucifixes and we’ll cut off your arms” abound, crosses affixed to the doors of UAAR and Radical Party offices, and even a mayor (a self-declared non-believer) who will fine 150 Euro to any teacher who doesn’t have a crucifix on the wall of his or her classroom. He’s even taken pains to put up crucifixes in public places where they had been absent. Another upped the fine to 500 Euro.

Last year P.Z. Meyers earned himself death-threats along with Christian “compassion” while blogging his way to fame over a communion wafer scandal. The scandal culminated in a photograph (you can see it here) of a desecrated communion wafer – or “cracker” as Meyers insists on calling it – along with coffee grounds, a banana peel, a copy of the Koran and – just to show he’s a fair-minded bloke – a copy of The God Delusion. When I jokingly asserted we should burn a crucifix or two in public (they burn flags here) along with a mezuzah and a statue of the Buddha I was greeted with frowns. Of course, burning or desecrating these objects is only meant to accentuate their existence as objects. Isn’t the prohibition against idolatry widely interpreted to mean, “Don’t bow down before objects?” And yet here we have a cultural civil war underway for the sake of a piece of wood and plastic nailed up above a blackboard.

As ever, it’s not about the wood or the plastic. It’s about tradition, an “ancient” tradition going back some eighty years to Mussonlini’s fascist government. Mussolini was greeted at the time by Pope Pius XI as “the man Providence has led us to.” The Lateran Treaty was signed, as well as a concordat with Hitler’s Germany. Hitler, for the record, has never been excommunicated by the Catholic church.

A big hep, hep, hep! for tradition.