The crucifix post-Strasbourg

Carla Corsetti, the Secretary of Democrazia Atea –  Italy’s only explicitly atheist political party – has penned a response to the Strasbourg ruling that religious symbols in public schools are not in violation of human rights. Corsetti is a lawyer who has herself appealed to the Administrative Regional Court (TAR) of Lazio over the presence of the crucifix in her son’s schoolroom. Here is that link, in English.

Winners and Losers by Carla Corsetti

Culture wars have neither winners nor losers; either everyone wins or everyone loses. The difference is measured by who is aware of this and who isn’t. And we are among those who understand the universal value of certain conquests. The European Court has told us that the crucifix is a passive symbol, inert, and it has told us that decorating public schools with it isn’t in violation of human rights.

This interpretation – which we do not share – won’t stop us. We don’t feel culturally defeated and, on closer inspection, the Catholics themselves are the losers. After this ruling no Catholic will be able to calmly assert that the crucifix is a symbol which “unites”, or that is it shared peacefully. After this ruling the crucifix is trapped between those who wish to impose it through abuse of power and those who refuse to submit to it. By now the crucifix is unequivocally, definitively and irreversibly the symbol of a bullying religious confession at the expense of those who are not its members.

Catholics were unable to defend the crucifix as one defends the most precious things, which are to be cherished with discretion and in private. At the cost of imposing it they’ve deprived it of its religious significance, presented it as a cultural symbol and accepted its secularization. They weren’t even upset when someone justified its ostension as part of the furnishing of a public classroom, along with the chairs and the wastebaskets. They were the first to desecrate it.

We will accept the cultural and legal challenge while continuing to call attention to the fact that this is a symbol of death, a symbol which has accompanied genocide and war, massacre and rape, dirty business and paedophilia. It doesn’t belong to us, not even culturally, and from today onwards we have yet another reason to remove it from our children’s sight.

And here is a revamped crucifix reflecting the new reality.

It's our symbol, too, right?


Judge Luigi Tosti discharged for refusing to serve beneath the crucifix

Yesterday the Italian judge Luigi Tosti was officially discharged for refusing to serve in a courtroom adorned with the crucifix. The crucifix is a mandatory presence in all Italian public offices, classrooms, courtrooms and police stations. If you are a non-Catholic, non-believer or believer with respect for separation of church and state, well…you’re out of luck.

Tosti “had repeadedly and in vain called for the removal of the crucifix from the courtrooms” – according to the UAAR’s website – “or, instead, that all other religious symbols, and in particular the Jewish menorah, be displayed as well.” We can now see what that reasonable request got him.

What sickens me is that the Italian government is incapable of abiding by its own secular constitution. What’s worse is when they attempt to throw the crucifix at us as if it were itself the very symbol of the secular nature of the state. It is incessantly referred to as neutral, silent, universal. A gathering place for Jew and Gentile, believer and non-believer. The most ecumenical goddamn thing you ever saw. How can you not just love it?

What is neutral about the Inquisition? What is silent about the Crusades? What is universal about any religious confession?

They like to use those words because they are abuzz with secular meaning. It’s a bit rich, though, coming from men like Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone and Joseph Ratzinger, and not unlike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prattling on about “human rights” at the UN. But anyone can see that it’s a pack of lies; the crucifix is as divisive a symbol as ever humanity has devised.

But this isn’t about the sordid history of the crucifix as symbol of religious might and theocratic muscle; it’s about freedom from religion. It’s about the neutrality of the state in religious affairs.

This week Italy celebrates its 150th birthday; it was born in opposition to that very same august religious institution – the Catholic Church – that it kneels before today. Three days from now, on March 18, the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg will give its final decision as to whether the public display of the crucifix is unconstitutional. You can be sure that, no matter what, not a single crucifix will come down. If the Vatican is indeed a sinking ship, Italy has vowed to go down with it, crucifix in hand.

This is a mischievous pact. There is no religious equality here, no breathing room from state-sponsored Roman Catholicism. Not even a judge is safe from the maw of this weasel-theocracy, the kind without even the courage to call itself one. Given the choice between safeguarding the constitutional rights of its citizens and kowtowing to the gluttonous bishops, Italy consistently chooses the latter. What a disgrace.

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

Sucking up

Franco Frattini, Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, keeps piping up about the “right” to display the crucifix in Italian public schools. He’s bristling over the Strasbourg Court’s hearings; soon they will have to make a decision over whether or not the crucifix can be legally affixed to the wall in public classrooms in Italy.

There are almost no politicians in Italy willing to stand up to the Church on this one (surprise, surprise). Left or right, it makes amost no difference. In fact, it was the State that appealed to Strasbourg after the court had decided that crucifixes were unlawful. The State doing the bidding of the Church. All in the name of brainwashing its own children from the time they are old enough to get an education.

Italians have broadly failed – and their representatives most miserably of all – to understand the principles of secularism. They want that label on their constitution, but are frightened to follow it up in practice. The pope gets angry and stamps his foot and frowns. And they, in parliament, are his subjects.

Go to Hell! We’ll Never Take Down Our Crucifixes!

Italy’s getting scary again.

Ignazio La Russa, who has no degree in science and is therefore unworthy of having views on religion, went off his nut on Italian tv the other evening. The debate over the EU court’s judgement that crucifixes in public classrooms are a bad idea is off and running. Berlusconi has said that Italy will defy the court and the EU, and that no crosses are coming off the walls of any classrooms.

His position was backed up by the homophobic, conservative Catholic politician Rocco Buttiglione. Buttiglione’s brilliant solution to the problem of religious symbols contaminating public spaces is apparently to multiply them. The more, the merrier, he said. Just don’t take down them crosses! Perhaps my mezuzah proposal wasn’t too radical, after all.

Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, you can grasp the meaning of what La Russa is getting at here. He calls Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a well-known mathematician and one of Italy’s only public atheists, a man without a degree (!) who “puts up and takes down crucifixes as if they were bath towels.” He then castigates the show’s host for not standing up for the dignity of the cross, telling him he is beyond absolution for his sin of silence.

Of course, he’s no Christian integralist, an afterthought he throws in as a final consolation. In case you thought maybe he got off on the wrong foot. “They (the EU?) can go to hell! Well never take down our crosses!!”

“Atheist Piece of S*%t!”

Corriere della Sera ran a story today on the family whose case went up to the European court in Strasbourg, resulting in a ruling unfavorable to the Vatican, yet quite favorable to all Italian passport-holders.

Sami, whose parents are at the helm of the controversy, told the Italian daily that at one point during the proceedings (which began in 2002 – seven years ago!) he was surrounded by his classmates and beaten up to the tune of “Atheist piece of s*%t!”  Mighty Christian of them, eh?

So much for those “universal values” of Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. The crucifix, even at the scholasic level, encourages irrepressible division between Catholic students and those who don’t wish to see a crucified Jesus every time they turn their heads in class. Archbishop Bertone made a hilarious comment that the EU was going to take away Italy’s dearest symbols (crucifix) and replace them with Halloween pumpkins. To appreciate Bertone’s sense of humor, it’s worth noting that Halloween is not a recognized holiday by the Catholic church. It’s even considered spooky.

If they refuse to take down the crosses, I think we should begin a campaign to put up mezuzahs on every doorpost in every public structure in Italy. It’s only fair, after all, as the Jewish people have been here since before Jesus was, well…circumcised.