Abolish the Lateran Treaty!

Sometimes I wonder which is preferable: to live in a place like the US, where religious nuttiness is rampant among the population (and certainly not unknown among politicians), or a place like Italy, where the population is largely complacent and indifferent thanks to an unoffical State religion and politicians submit sheepishly to the whims of the State church.

American separation has led to a lively “cafeteria style” marketplace for all religions to compete for customers. Italy, on the other hand, has the Vatican: it’s a separate country nestled in the city of Rome, an autocracy and a theocracy (the last in Europe, I believe) which has the constitutionally-recognized right to interfere in Italian political life and – and this is the kicker – immunity from interference from the Italian government.

In fact, the Italian constitution is schizophrenic on this issue.

Art. 3

All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without
distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and
social conditions.

Art. 7

The State and the Catholic Church are independent and sovereign, each
within its own sphere.
Their relations are regulated by the Lateran pacts. Amendments to such Pacts
which are accepted by both parties shall not require the procedure of
constitutional amendments.

Art. 8

All religious denominations are equally free before the law.
Denominations other than Catholicism have the right to self-organisation
according to their own statutes, provided these do not conflict with Italian law.
Their relations with the State are regulated by law, based on agreements with
their respective representatives.

And it goes on like this, first establishing perfectly reasonable things like freedom of conscience, and then goes on to contradict itself by stating that the Catholic church has an entirely separate set of rules which govern its relations with the state (rules which highly favor the church and undermine the secular nature of the constitution.)

The Lateran Treaty (“All foreigners in official ecclesiastical employment in Rome shall enjoy the personal guarantees appertaining to Italian citizens, in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom of Italy.”) is the basis for an immense amount of biased and unfair treatment of non-Catholics in Italy as well as enormous and completely unjustified privileges for Catholics and clergy. They need to be abolished if Italy wishes to become a truly European nation based on secularism and rule of law and emerge from its illiberal, fascist-tainted past.

Of course, without Italy’s gentle nursing, the Vatican would probably wither away and disappear from the face of the Earth. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing for anybody.

The Italian Parliament is not secular

Italy’s Northern League wants a crucifix in Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament. They’re taking the Lautsi vs. Italy decision as carte blanche to impose their religious views in every angle of Italian life. The problem is, according to Cronache Laiche, they’re right:

Hanging a crucifix in Parliament is an act of coherence. The opposition, istead of lashing out, should have approved – even raised the bid – asking to hang a crucifix, a huge crucifix, in every angle of the Chamber and Senate as a warning to anyone who still thinks that the secular State functions independently of religion. A provocation? No, just the unavoidable truth. So that Europe and the entire world can see who we are, not that which we pretend to be.

Seriously, I thought they already had crucifixes in Parliament. How did they not get them on the walls before now?

The State Crucifix

Review of Il Crocifisso di Stato By Sergio Luzzatto Einaudi, 2011. 127 pages

“Without the crucifix on the wall, they say, Italy would no longer be the same. I agree… it would be fairer, more serious, better.” These words grace the cover of Sergio Luzzatto’s compelling polemic against the “crucifix of the state.”

In Italy, no public building — be it a police station, courtroom or classroom — is without a crucifix appended to the wall. Many have argued that its presence is innocuous, or a matter of traditional identity rather than religious proselytizing. But whose identity? Certainly not that of Italian Jews like Marcello Montagnana, who raised the issue in the 1990s; or his wife, Maria Vittoria Migliano, whose opposition to the omnipresent symbol began in the 1980s. Or the growing number of secularists and non-Catholics who see in the state-sponsored crucifix a flagrant violation of Italy’s constitutional secularity and their right to freedom of conscience.

Luzzatto, who teaches modern history at Turin University, recounts the history of this ubiquitous Catholic symbol beginning with its rise in the Middle Ages as the signifier par excellence of discrimination against heretics, Jews and Muslims. Given its lengthy history of intolerance, it’s ironic that today’s Vatican wishes to pawn it off as the equivalent of a pizza margherita: bland, neutral, inoffensive. Even worse are the politicians who can’t agree on anything but the need for the crucifix — right, left and center all fall in line the moment the pope raises an eyebrow. This is astonishing for anyone familiar with the exceedingly partisan nature of Italian politics.

Author Natalia Ginzburg, according to Luzzatto, furnished the “Ur-Text” of arguments in defense of the crucifix. Her 1988 article was published in L’Unità, the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party, and has been mined for decades by those wishing to preserve the public exposition of the crucifix. For Ginsburg, the crucifix is “silent,” “represents human suffering” and — perhaps most egregiously — “has always been there.”

Well, no, it hasn’t really. Luzzatto demolishes the inconsistency of Ginzburg’s thesis. The crucifix was affixed to the public wall at a precise moment in Italian history. It became a mandatory presence under Mussolini’s Fascist state. How’s that for benign, silent, universal? This book is a welcome corrective to such historical myopia and — for lack of a better term — bad faith.

From The American

More fun with comments

The following brief exchange is from the comments section to my recent post. I’d mentioned that Martin Yanosek – a commenter from Stanley Fish’s original NYT piece – wasn’t being clear. Did he agree with Fish, or did he agree with the judges? Or, improbably, both?

Anyway, he found my blog and cleared things up as best he could. I admit I’m still in the dark about his reasoning, though, and I’ve begun to suspect he may have been one of the judges in Strasbourg.

Martin Yanosek says:

Hello there, Mr. Di Martino! I agree with the court and, although I admire Dr. Fish’s analysis, I think Italian parents should be allowed to let their kids study in the presence of the crucifix. You’re right, though. I don’t know about “all” Italian parents. Only God does! You do believe in God, dontcha!?*

Oh, Mr. Di Martino, I see that I missed answering your question about how the crucifix is Christianity’s greatest symbol. In its evolution as a symbol one must take into consideration the cosmic irony of the crucifix’s meaning over time. The crucifix’s meaning has evolved from that of a purely utilitarian implement of torture to today’s meaning of everlasting life. I think the tremendous irony inherent in the evolution of the crucifix’s meaning is what makes it Christianity’s greatest symbol. I hope I answered your question. Regards, Martin Yanosek

Marc Alan Di Martino says:

Martin, I appreciate you taking a moment to clarify your stance. That said, your position is still unclear. You wrote, “If the Vatican was headquartered on Long Island I would probably disagree with the court’s ruling.” Why is that? Were that the case, and by your logic, American parents would have the right to have their children educated “in the presence of Christianity’s greatest symbol.” Or is it okay if it’s in a country you don’t live in, but not okay when it’s in yours?

As for the symbol itself, does it matter at all that most Christian denominations don’t recognize the crucifix as their symbol? Not to mention non-Christians and non-theists – which is quite a lot of us, even here in Italy. Don’t we have the right to have our children educated in the presence of our symbols? Or are we expected to submit before the irony of the holy Roman torture device?

Martin Yanosek says:

Long Island doesn’t have the tradition of Roman Catholicism that Italy does. Long Island has more of a Great Gatsby tradition. Without our traditions life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof of St. Peter’s Basilica! We should submit to the irony of everlasting life! Peace be with you, Mr. Di Martino! Amen.

Marc Alan Di Martino says: 

Just to recap, Italy has numerous traditions other than Roman Catholicism. It’s still just another religious confession, and it’s not even the oldest one we have. Shalom, Mr. Yanosek.


Lautsi vs. Italy: UAAR press conference

Raffaele Carcano has a great moment (below, in Italian) when he notes that, in Pakistan, a Christian may be put to death for “offending” Islam. How might that sit with Italy’s defenders of the faith? After all, it’s a question of tradition.

By the logic of yesterday’s decision, why not return to outright proselytizing, forced masses, or kidnapping children from non-Catholic families? Why stop at the presence of the crucifix? Hell, let’s make a quantum leap back to the dark ages, dust off the iron maidens and fill those torture chambers. Because that’s the direction Europe is now pointing in.

It’s been a dark week here in the European Union.

Hypocrisy exposed

Luigi Tosti was kind enough to leave this comment on my post (translation mine):

Thank you all for your solidarity and support. I’m an atheist. At first I placed the symbol of the UAAR (Italian Union of Atheist and Agnostic Rationalists) next to the crucifix, claiming as an atheist the same rights as Catholics. This symbol was immediately removed because it was deemed offensive to Catholic sensibilities. Later I asked permission to place a menorah next to the crucifix as a reminder of pope Ratzinger’s words, which assert Europe’s “Judeo-Christian” roots. I did this because I know that Catholics are racist hypocrites and they’d never have allowed a Jewish symbol to be placed by the crucifix. And, in effect, I was right, because I was denied even this. Evidently, this is because the menorah, too, offends the sensibilities of the “superior” Catholics.

There it is, in a nutshell. His was a brilliant gambit which exposes this hypocrisy for what it is. He attempted to bring other symbols – atheistic and religious – into the arena, knowing full well they would be objected to. That’s discrimination, plain and simple. You can’t force someone to submit to your symbol, deny them their own symbols, then claim the moral high ground. Tosti calls them “racist hypocrites” – a term I thought was a bit strong, until I watched a few debates he did on TV. He was basically attacked by a rabble of priests and Catholic politicians, who called him “ignorant,” “a slacker,” and “intolerant” and obsessively refused to let him speak. But the truth is, they’re squirming. Watch:

(You don’t have to know any Italian to get what’s happening.)

More Bibles, please!

Hooray! The Regione di Veneto is passing out Bibles to all the students! Here’s why:

“We’re convinced that the shift towards secularism, often rooted in the precepts of relativism and nihilism, cannot be an effective response to a world in continual evolution…”

What was that about “continual evolution?” According to the Regione di Veneto website,

“The secular laws of our nation are written in the Bible, and it contains the religious norms of our spiritual life. To clarify, our proposal of obligatory Christian education does not infringe upon the Concordat.”

The Concordat means the Lateran Treaty, the agreement with the Catholic Church that public schools will be draped with crucifixes and students will receive (optional – meaning you can sit in the hallway for an hour if you choose) Catholic religious education. In a sense, this is even worse: it’s obligatory, as the website makes clear. What about all those students from non-religious families? They are to be taught that even secularism is Christian, Christian is Catholic and there is to be no escape from Jesus, ever.

Italy is in the throes of a full-fledged War Against Secularism. Everyone from Joseph Ratzinger to the law-makers in Parliament to the regional and local levels of government are caught up in a crusade against the very principles of secularism. Which is ironic, because the Italian Constitution defines laicity, or secularism, as a “supreme principle of the State.”

I hope the students actually read their Bibles instead of trashing them, though. There would be no better way to make ardent secularists out of them.

Post-prayer reflections

So the National Day of Prayer 2010 has come and gone. President Obama’s proclamation contained the following words,

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 6, 2010, as a National Day of Prayer. I call upon the citizens of our Nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I invite all people of faith to join me in asking for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us.

Apparently, on National Day of Prayer, those “freedoms” do not extend to the freedom from religion. Non-religious Americans have every right to feel abandoned by their government on such a day. In inviting “all people of faith”, President Obama is slicing up the American people into those of faith and the rest of us who, on one day a year, are essentially barred from participation on a nationwide scale. Not only is this idiocratic, but it is unnecessary and counterproductive.

And where in the Constitution is there any mention of it being the President’s responsibility to proclaim such things as national prayer days? I’m not a constitutional scholar, but my understanding is that the government is bound to neutrality on religious matters and those of individual conscience. So it was slightly shocking to read:

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of April, in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fourth.

The year of our Lord two thousand ten? Clearly, this was a call to Christian prayer, neatly undermining the much-heralded pan-religious propaganda of the event in question. I, as an American citizen, do not recognize the year 2010 as the year of my Lord, or any Lord whatsoever. That, as we say, is a private matter of conscience. It has no place on White House letterhead.

My unremarkable loss of faith story

I have been unofficially appointed “God columnist” for this magazine. Don’t ask me how that happened, because I don’t even believe in it. God, that is. It’s not quite right for me to use gender-specific pronouns when speaking of what, to my mind, doesn’t even exist.

I think my appointment has to do with the fact that I can’t seem to stay away from the subject of religion. Try as I might, I can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere I look. To tell you the truth, I don’t really mind it unless I’m expected to revere it, pay it “respect,” or financially support it in any way other than voluntarily.

Then there are those other itsy-bitsy issues that keep popping up like the National Day of Prayer. Some of my secular friends are bewildered as to why we atheists are upset at something so benign, so negligibly harmless as a government-sponsored prayer day. It may sound silly, but once God gets its foot in the door, all sorts of unsavory things scamper in with the breeze.

I know this because I live in Italy, where the constitution states that all religions are equal, but that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state is governed by the eighty-year old Lateran Pacts. Crucifixes are stuck to the walls of public schools, courtrooms and other buildings. There is even a Catholic religion-hour in school, with teachers handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state.

In the eyes of a secularist, this is a bad thing. It means that non-Catholics are put on a separate plane in public life. Where are our symbols, we ask? The answer from the religious apologists is telling, though. No longer are they mouthing off about “truth” and “salvation” in defense of their symbols; now they use more acceptable terminology like “The crucifix is an inseparable part of Italian culture,” or “It is a universal symbol of love.” As some skeptics have pointed out, that is also a working definition of pizza.

But now for my unremarkable loss of faith story. Losses of faith stories are fascinating, don’t you think? They exude an air of epiphany similar to that of religious conversion, at least on the surface. The truth is that I, apparently alone among my countrymen and women, came of age in the United States of America — the most devout developed country on earth — without so much as ever having peeked between the pages of a Bible. In fact, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this (but isn’t that what personal anecdotes so gingerly proffer?), but I wasn’t even aware that the Bible was about the Jews.

Of course, I knew I was Jewish. I just had no idea what that meant on a historical scale. Religion was perhaps the only subject — right next to politics — that was never addressed in our home. Years later, my sister would come to regret this omission. But it wasn’t deliberate. Our parents were simply not religious people, and the enlightened suburb of Baltimore we lived in was not Bible-drunk. In many ways it was the archetypal American secular experience.

It wasn’t until I came to Italy that I realized what I had missed. When I met my wife, she had just gone through an idol-smashing of her own, in which she had managed to break through the wall of traditionalist religion that society and her family had built around her. She had become infatuated with Judaism. That’s when I began to read the Bible, because being Jewish suddenly seemed electrifying and special. This was no longer midtown Manhattan.

I read the Bible, or “Tanakh,” as I learned to call it. I felt I needed to grasp Jewishness at its core. As I read, I tried hard to believe what I read. I began — for the first time — to employ expressions like “God willing” and “Thank God.” I tried praying, although I knew no Hebrew. I would mouth the words I read in transliterated Roman characters: “Baruch atah adonai, eloheynu melekh ha-olam…” Over time I began to make some sense of all this newness. I began to think deeply about God, observe a very personalized form of kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), attend synagogue on holy days and fast on Yom Kippur. This lasted for about three years. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.

Looking back, I realize I censored myself at every pass. I constructed an ad-hoc reality for myself out of holy books. I wouldn’t even read novels on shabbat because I wished to preserve some of its holiness. No matter that I worked on that day. God didn’t want me to be unemployed, did he? Then who would praise him? I’d stroll home from work, basking in the glow of the dying sunlight, then dutifully search out the first three stars which marked the beginning of the profane week ahead. It wasn’t much of a Sabbath, but I managed to make it feel special. I knew I could feel the presence of the shekhinah, the divine essence, descending on the world each week.

Or maybe it was just the smog at Largo Argentina.

– Published in The American

National Day of Prayer is such a bad idea

I’m not even sure I can find the words – without offending almost everyone I know – to describe why this is such a bad idea. “What is so offensive about God?” It’s this kind of question that creates atheists.

Those, myself included, who do not think God – or any type of “higher power” – exists (except in the minds of the faithful), might answer, “Nothing is offensive about God, as long as you keep Him or It out of public life.”

National Day of Prayer is clearly in violation of this principle. Non-theistic Americans are being told, “Unless you pray, you are excluded. Your government encourages you to pray.” For what, pray tell? Money? Power? To stave off disaster from our shores? To win the lottery?

If you do believe in God, or any of the many gods on offer, that’s your business. I respect you, even if I may not respect your belief. I will not lobby for our government to enforce an National Day of Unbelief. And I will remind you that the only type of society in which both you and I are equals is a society which nurtures each individual’s right to believe, or not believe, in accordance with his or her own conscience.

I don’t especially want to turn you into a non-believer. I don’t care to debaptize you or your children. Calm down. There is no atheist inquisition out to get you. All we want are the equal rights guaranteed to all citizens by the constitution, with no favoritism of the religious over the non-religious.

And I would expect religious people to be a bit more up in arms over this as well. Do you really want your government trampling over your personal relationship with God? Rev. Barry Lynn has a great piece in which he writes,

Government is supposed to be neutral on religion. It has no business telling people how, when or where to pray — or even if they ought to pray. Government does lots of things well, but meddling in our private religious lives is not among them.

I know people who think we atheists are “obsessive” about separation of church and state. But this is a very real, and important, battle none of us can afford to lose.

“Will you ask that ‘under God’ be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance? ‘In God We Trust’ from money? Will you people not stop until you have destroyed God entirely?”

This is typical Fox News talk, and not really worthy of serious discussion. But, for the record, it wouldn’t be a bad start.

Because once you open the door to God, all sorts of opportunistic little critters start scampering in. And, trust me, you don’t want them around.