Franco GARELLI. Religion Italian Style: Continuities and Changes in a Catholic Country. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. pp.230. $109.95 hc. ISBN 9781472436443. Reviewed by Brandon VAIDYANATHAN, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005

Sociologists are largely in agreement that Western Europe exemplifies the classical model of secularization, manifested in steadily declining rates of religious belief and participation. Italy, however, seems in some ways to be an exception to this trend. While institutional participation has gradually declined, religiosity in the sense of affiliation and belief is still strong and widespread in Italy. Garelli’s book, based on a nationally representative study (N=3160) conducted in 2007, presents a statistical portrait of this distinctively “Italian version of religious modernity,” which includes not only Catholicism, but also a growing Muslim population and alternative spiritualities.

Garelli argues that religion all’Italiana is, for the most part, a “flexible, easygoing, selective, ‘made to measure’” Catholicism (p.3). Religion in Italy today is marked by a growing individualism in people’s spiritual search, which nevertheless largely remains embedded in Catholicism. The majority of Italians retain selective aspects of Catholicism—particular religious beliefs, ideals, education, and spiritual resources for coping with life-challenges. Even atheists largely share a positive view of the role of religion in society: Italian atheism is more anti-clerical than anti-religious. Garelli sees Italians’ attachment to Catholicism as in part pragmatic—better to remain connected to some habitual beliefs and rituals than for individuals and society to be unmoored and without a stable point-of-reference. Yet Italians’ adherence to Catholicism is not a docile acquiescence, but is also critical of the Church, particularly of its “unwarranted, direct lobbying” in politics (p.4). Garelli identifies a fundamental ambivalence between, on the one hand, a receptivity to and encouragement of the church’s voice when it comes to issues such as national unity and keeping politicians accountable, and on the other hand, criticism and rejection of its authority on matters of sexuality and reproduction. For example, 78% of Italians agree with the Church’s denunciation of the “loss of fundamental values” in society, and its insistence on the “importance of family founded on marriage,” while 87% of Italians are in favor of contraception. Paradoxically, 58% of Italians agree with the Church’s condemnation of abortion, though 77% see abortion as morally permissible (pp.161, 176).

Because this book largely paints a statistical portrait rather than a historical or theoretical argument, in what follows I will summarize some of the more important and interesting findings presented in its main chapters. Garelli is careful to note the heterogeneity of Italian Catholics, and the book’s tables divide them into four categories, suggesting a continuum of religiosity: (1) Convinced and active (22%); (2) Convinced and not always active (32%); (3) By tradition and education (35%); (4) Agree with some ideas of Catholicism (“Catholic in my own way”) (11%). In addition, the tables in the book provide data on people of other religions and no religion.

Chapter 1 focuses on religious beliefs. More than 80% of Italians declare some belief in God, and nearly half the Italian population (46%) claim to be “totally convinced,” beyond doubts (p.15). Similarly, more than 80% of Catholics believe in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Garelli notes that the phenomenon of  “believing without belonging” that Grace Davie identified in the UK does not characterize Italy; rather, one is more apt to find a “belonging without believing,” where people profess to belong to a religion without commitment to its beliefs—indeed, 10% of Italian Catholics do not believe in God.  The majority of Italians also express little concern over typical agents of secularization such as science: 63% of Italians see science and religion as being independent areas of truth that are not in competition. While among the non-religious, 72% see scientific progress as making belief in God more difficult, only 35% of Catholics agree with this statement.       

Chapter 2 focuses on religious experience and practice. Here we find that 68% of Italians (72% of Catholics) believe that God watches over and protects their lives, and that 85% of “convinced and active” Catholics believe that “certain things happen because God wants to give you a message,” but only 50% of them believe in the existence of an “evil force.” Women are nearly twice as likely as men (35% vs. 18%) to attend weekly services; inhabitants of the South and Islands are more likely to attend than Italians living in the Center (31% vs. 20%); and Italians who have at least a university degree are actually more likely to attend weekly than those with only a high-school education (30% vs. 22%). Attendance levels increase steadily by age categories, with only 17% of the youngest participants (aged 16-25) attending weekly, compared to 45% of the oldest (age 66-74).

Chapter 3 focuses on religious socialization. Nearly half the Italian population (45%) has participated in religious instruction and social activities organized by the Church. Garelli does not find evidence that the participation of younger generations in such socialization is declining. The majority of Italians, however (56%), stop frequenting church environments for religious education or leisure activities by age 17. Most Italians claim that their religious faith has either remained stable (37%) or increased (23%) over the course of their lives, and more than twice as many Italians claim to have had positive religious experiences than negative ones (38% vs. 16%).

Chapter 4 examines Italians’ ambivalent relationship with the Catholic Church. For instance, 72% of Catholics think that “you can be a good catholic without adhering to the church’s indications regarding sexual morality.” However, 76% also think that “The Church must keep to its own principles without being influenced by prevalent opinions.” Thus, Italians seem to appreciate the Church’s uncompromising stances, even if they themselves do not wish to follow such injunctions. Garelli’s survey also found that very few Italians (31%) have a positive impression of Italian bishops; by contrast, more than two-thirds of Italians are positively disposed towards Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and groups carrying out voluntary activities. This chapter also reports that 47% of Italians think that the mandate on priestly celibacy should be abolished, and 44% are in favor of women priests.

Chapter 5 examines alternative spiritualities. Only 10% of Italians consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” The majority consider themselves as both religious and spiritual (46%), followed by those who consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual (33%).

Chapter 6 examines Italians’ views of the role of religion in the public sphere. Whether religious symbols should be displayed in secular spaces is a critical area of debate in Europe. While in France the focus has been on Muslim women’s headscarves, in Italy the key issue of contention is the display of crucifixes in public spaces. While the media portrays a heated debate about the issue, Garelli argues that this has been misleading. His survey finds that the majority of the population (76%) is actually in favor of displaying crucifixes in public spaces. Many see it as a symbol of universal value as well as of Italian history and tradition. When it comes to the Church’s intervention in the public sphere, however, Italians are more polarized: 22% think the Church should both make proposals and manage solutions and processes; 25% think it should give its opinion on specific issues, but not suggest solutions; 25% believe it should only address fundamental principles and not provide suggestions on specific issues; and 27% think the Church needs to stay out and occupy itself exclusively with spiritual concerns.

Chapter 8 examines the “increasingly plural diversity” of Italian society, particularly the effects of growing immigration. Currently more than 1.5 million Muslims reside in Italy. Italians show a fundamental ambivalence about increasing religious pluralism: the vast majority (69%) see it as a source of conflict; 58% see it as a source of enrichment; and 46% see it as a threat to Italians’ identity. 43% are opposed to Islamic schools, 59% to girls wearing headscarves in schools. Garelli notes that anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment is more prevalent in the North and the North-East.

The book ends without a concluding chapter, and leaves the reader wanting a clearer sense of the implications of this study for understanding secularization in Europe and more broadly. The data presented here are cross-sectional, and more discussion of longitudinal trends, in comparison to other studies, could have been helpful to situate its findings. The book also largely overlooks the role of Catholic lay associations, which is surprising given the influence both religiously and politically of groups such as Azione Cattolica, Comunione e Liberazione, Focolare, Sant’Egidio, and others. Garelli’s discussion of migration and Islam also says little about the role of race and ethnicity. Garelli’s book also doesn’t quite present the “Italian exceptionalism” that it suggests in the beginning, since it shows a generational decline in Mass attendance which has also been confirmed through recent pooled analyses of multiple datasets [See Vezzoni, C., & Biolcati‐Rinaldi, F. (2015). Church Attendance and Religious Change in Italy, 1968–2010: A Multilevel Analysis of Pooled Datasets. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion54(1), 100-118]. Nevertheless, Garelli’s book provides a wide range of vital information on the state of religion in Italy, making it a critical resource for scholars of the region.