Internal competition in a national religious monopoly: the Catholic effect and the Italian case.

Author:Diotallevi, Luca


In American sociological literature, the "Catholic effect" refers to findings from national and cross-national surveys indicating that, ceteris paribus, national or local Catholic monopolies showed more religious vitality than other monopolies, especially Protestant ones. The so-called "Catholic effect" has been examined but not explained (lannaccone 1992b:170-171; Chaves and Cann 1992:285). An analysis of the religious situation in contemporary Italy (Diotallevi 1999a, 1999b; Garelli 1991; Cesareo et al. 1995), which at first appears incompatible with leading paradigms, cannot only contribute to the explanation of the Catholic effect but also lead to some reflections on both religious market theory and the old paradigm.

In fact, the Catholic effect, as evident in Italy, reveals some limits of both explanations of the relationship between religion and modernization: the "old" secularization approach to religion in modernity (Wilson 1985; Dobbelaere 1981, 1984; Tschannen 1992) and the "new" theory of the religious market (Stark and lannaccone 1992, 1994; Stark and Finke 2000). Italian rates of church attendance, religious participation, mobilization or commitment are much too high to satisfy either model. These rates are too high for such a socially advanced society according to the first model, while the Italian religious market is too monopolized and too regulated to satisfy the other model.

Italy is an important case; in terms of dynamics, intensity, and quantity, Italy may be, after the US, the second religious market among large Western countries. The theoretical weakness of Italian sociology of religion (Burgalassi 1993) lies in its tendency to consider the Italian religious situation somehow an exception to general rules, and to pay little heed to international theoretical debate. Italian sociologists of religion should have taken advantage of the unusual coincidence of modernization, religious monopoly, and religious vitality to explore the myth of secular modernity and to contribute to recognizing and solving the Catholic effect. Instead, they failed to take advantage of this opportunity. Not only has this meant that the relevant Italian case has remained enigmatic, but that foreign scholars have not received contributions regarding what is one of the most important examples of the Catholic effect.

The Italian case is used by this paper to explore the Catholic effect as a question of general rather than particular or local interest, beyond both Catholicism and Italy, with crucial implications for sociology of religion in general (see also Beyer 1997).

Italy is incompatible with the "old paradigm"

In sharp contrast to the French case, it is difficult to successfully apply the classical secularization approach to Italy. The French case has been well documented, where "coincidence between the map of the religious practice and the map of modern (cultural as well as economic) activity seemed to provide conclusive evidence to support the secularist hypothesis of religious decline" (Hervieu-Leger 1990:S17). "Modernity and religion are mutually exclusive" (S15), (1) in particular, modernity and "church-oriented religion," which is pushed to the edge of modern life or undergoes broad internal secularization (Luckmann 1969). Using Hervieu-Leger's indicators, the level of religious (and church-oriented religious) decline is actually far lower in Italy than in France (Diotallevi 1999a, 1999b), and its territorial map has no regular relationship with the map of cultural and economic development (Diotallevi 1999a:160183).

In regional terms, there is a well-known social and economic difference between the North and the South of Italy. (2) The northern regions are among the most advanced in western countries; the southern are among the least developed, most conformist and most traditionalist in Western Europe (Trigilia 1993; Cartocci 1994). Yet, in contrast to France, the map of cultural and economic development does not have an inverse relationship with that of "church-oriented" religious commitment, as measured by density of the ecclesiastic workforce, ease of recruitment of new native-born clergy, attendance at religious services, etc. (Diotallevi 1999a:174). There are now more Italian seminarians in the North than in the South of Italy. In the South, as amply noted (Burgalassi 1970; Orlando and Pacucci 1993:255, 269-271; Cartocci 1994:176), religious conformity appears to be greater, but is not associated with religious attendance and participation. The myth of a "religious South" does not stand up when various dimensions of "church oriented religion" are examined.

Further, historic trends do not match the secularist theory either. In the 20th century, "church oriented religion" spread more in the North than in the South of Italy. Data support this observation. The clerical workforce has held steady: there were 32.2 ecclesiastics per 10,000 inhabitants in the North in 1995 (+5.8 against the Italian average), 29.8 in the Center excluding Rome (-1.9) and 19.5 in the South (-35.8) (Diotallevi 1999b:80). In 1881 the figures were 32.3 ecclesiastics per 10,000 inhabitants in the North and 46.9 in the South (Salvemini 1940:214). Further, weekly mass attendance has remained largely stable over the past three decades (about 29-33 percent, see Cesareo et al. 1995; Diotallevi 1999a:164-168). Ordinations of diocesan priests have remained constant over the past 20 years (Diotallevi 1999a:133ss). There are now 400-500 ordinations annually in Italy, compared to 100-150 in France; in the 1950s France had a smaller population and ordained more priests. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the n umber of people declaring "no religion" showed only a slight increase in Italy.

Yet Italy has undergone massive modernization in the last 150 years. In the last century, a national State was constructed in opposition to the Catholic Church (1861), the Papal State in central Italy was occupied and dismantled (1870), the Pope issued a "non expedit" against the participation of Catholics in public life in the new Italian state, and a public, anti-clerical, educational system (from elementary school to university) was created. More recently, state religion was abolished and divorce and abortion were legalized, both also through national referendums in the 1970s and l980s. The dominant Christian Democrat confessional party (Democrazia Cristiana has weakened and dissolved over the past decade.

Italy, therefore, is about as secularized as France. Yet this deep-reaching and continuing secularization has been taking place even as church-oriented religion appears to hold its ground. The crisis of church religion predicted by the "old paradigm" has not been provoked, at least not to the extent seen in other advanced Western European countries.

Chaves and Cann's (1992:286-287) analysis of the French case was limited to the social, and especially political, environmental factors, which the old paradigm considers sufficient to determine the crisis or success of religion. The religious situation in Italy, however, cannot be explained only using the same environmental factors as are used in the French analysis. An analysis of the religious situation in contemporary Italy should also include the response of traditional religious organizations to social transformations in the environment.

In effect, the response of Italian Catholicism to the challenge of modernization, through strategies firmly governed by Rome, was to elaborate and employ a more flexible variant of the "ecclesiastization of Christianity" (Kaufmann 1988). This strategy allowed Italian Catholicism to reverse, or at the very least to resist, the originally anti-clerical nature of the modernization process, transforming it into 'protected' or 'defensive' modernization (Moro 1988). Recent literature suggests that the organized presence of the Catholic Church, and its ability to guide and regulate individual religiousness, was increasingly more effective in the North than in the South during the last century, both in absolute and relative terms, despite the more intense modernization in the North.

The Italian religious situation, then, differs quantitatively but not in essence from that of France and other secularized European countries. All are secularized but show different degrees of religious crisis. And old paradigm analysis functions for contemporary France, and surely for many other countries, but since religious supply is not taken into account, it cannot capture the essential data for understanding the lack of coincidence between social modernization and the crisis of religion in Italy. One of the various reasons why the old paradigm has been successful is the fact that many Church religious traditions in advanced European countries, including Catholicism, have faced modernization with similar and unsuccessful strategies. Italy is the exception, and reveals an unexpected variant of ecclesiastic modernization strategies. In fact, Hervieu-Leger looks for modern forms of religion above all outside church-oriented religion (Hervieu-Leger 1990:S21). "Modern" forms of religion, however, may also be found, atleast in Italy, within the ecclesiastical world, and not only outside them or in opposition to them.

In contrast to Luckmann's conclusions (1969), internal secularization is not the only successful church religious strategy to cope with modernization and secularization. The Italian response, in fact, has been different. An explanation for Italian Catholic performance may be found allowing for modernization and secularization without conceptualizing a proportional decline of religion. More attention to religious policies and polities must be paid than is the case using the "old paradigm." Church religion can develop more strategies and institutions than the "pillar model" or the defense of "national identity" generally considered by this paradigm.


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