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Under the terms of the Latern Treaty of 1929 between Mussolini and the Catholic Church, the city of Rome was recognised as the centre of the Catholic world. The treaty resolved the uncomfortable standoff that had resulted form Italian unification and the effective removal from the Church's hands of secular power: the pope recognised the Italian state with Rome as its capital, the Vatican was declared an independent state and Catholicism was made the state religion of Italy.


Times change and in 1985 the Vatican and the Socialist prime minster Bettino Craxi renegotiated the treaty. As a result, Catholicism is no longer the state religion and compulsory religious education was dropped.


In a sense, this just reflected reality. Church attendance had fallen from 70% after the war to 25% and nowadays many children are not baptised, But the Church moves slowly. In 1978 a Polish Pope John Paul II was put at its helm. An archconservative, he has been seen as having played a major role in the collapse of the communist bloc in the 1980s and 1990s. On social policy issues was not afraid to confront critics and remained steadfast in his opposition to contraception, abortion, the idea of women priests and a host of other novelties till his death. In Italy especially, he was quick to criticise hedonism and consumerism, fuelling the impression some had of him as overly puritanical. At the same time, however, he won the hearts of Catholics around the world with his indefatigable papal tours, taking the faith to the faithful. He continued to undertake this punishing schedule, in spite of his advanced age and concerns of his health till his death.


Religiosity among the Italians appears often to be more a matter of form than a serious belief. First communions, church weddings and religious feast days are an integral part of Italian life. In the same way that the royal family is part of the ritual scenery in the lives of many Britons, so the papacy is a kind of royal family to Italians.

Stray Flock
Most Italians claim to be Catholic, but ask them about the malocchio (evil eye) and see what happens. Some will make a simple hand movement (index and little finger pointing down, with the middle and ring fingers folded under the thumb) designed to ward off evil spirits. Others, if pressed, might admit to wearing amulets. A pregnant woman might wear a chicken's neck hanging around her own neck to ensure that her child is not born with the umbilical cord around its neck.  Insurance agents can have difficulty discussing life insurance policies with clients, as many of them don't wnt to discuss their eventual death, or the possibility of suffering serious accidents. This phenomenon is know to sociologists as Catholic paganism.


It is sometimes hard to draw the line between faith and superstition. Busloads of Italians still crisscross the country on pilgrimages to venerate one saint or another. The present pope is big on beatification: the latest to receive the honour is Padre Pio beatified in May 1999, and at the time of writing a tribunal was considering the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997. In general, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the majority of people who express their faith in this regard are hoping for a little intervention on earth rather than spiritual improvement.


Some 85% of Italians professed to be Catholics in a census taken in the early 1980s. Of the remaining 15%, there were about 500,000 evangelical Protestans, about 200,000 Jehovah's Witnesses, and other, smaller groups, including a Jewish community in Rome and the Valdesi (Waldenses; Swiss-Protestant Baptists) living in small communities in Piedmont. There are also communities  of orange-clad followers of the Bhagwan Rajneesh who are known in Italy as arancioni.


The big surprise to emerge from the census is the growth of the Muslim population, estimated at anything from 600,000 to one million and thus the second-largest  religious community in Italy after the Catholics. A fitting symbol for this novelty in the heart of Crhistendom was the inauguration in 1995 of a big Saudi-financed mosque in Rome.


Many Italians speak some English because they study it in school but it is more widely understood in the north, particularly in major centres such as Milan, Florence and Venice, than in the South. Staff in restaurants often speak a little English but you will be better received if you at least attempt to communicate in Italian. For an introduction to the Italian language some useful words and phrases, and a glossary of common food terms, click on Language.

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