Laicity in the era of identities
Agostino Giovagnoli 5 March 2008

In 2007 only, at least twenty one books were published in Italy with the word laicity in the title. More than representing a life index, the publication of such a large number of texts on this topic probably constitutes a sign of crisis in the principle of laicity. Thirty years’ ago, Pietro Scoppola countered a controversial reading based on the juxtaposition between clericalism and anti-clericalism, a historiography capable of reading “atheism, laicism and anti-clericalism […] even as religious phenomena […] not extrinsic to the religious experience itself […] as a fact within itself, especially in the modern and contemporary age”. In the same years, Enrico Berlinguer resolutely excluded anti-clericalism from the horizon of Italian communism and interpreted the idea of laicity in juxtaposition to ideological atheist or antitheist positions. The “reconciliation” in the seventies of Catholics and laics constituted the last word on a long and tormented journey, deeply scarred by the peculiarity of Italian history.

At this stage, it seems to me that it is possible to connect sentence n. 203 of 12th April 1989 which the Constitutional Court used to include laicity as one of the main principles of the Republican Constitution, sanctioning, even symbolically, the full convergence of Catholics and laics, on the State’s recognition of laicity. This was to mark the cusp of a journey whose beginning saw a Risorgimental dissention. Today, however, a different feeling prevails surrounding the idea of laicity. Even if it is not easily decipherable, there is currently a semantic decline, which not only feeds on the protagonists of the debate, but rather on all sides. It seems to me that from such a decline, today there emerges quite clearly at least two aspects, seemingly contradictory, but which on a historical level, result as converging. On the one hand, it seems that laicity and religion are growing apart, compared to the culture of growing closer together as in the previous decade, as already noted. On the other hand, the connection between laicity and the State seems less clear and less direct. That is to say that there is now the tendency to interpret this term out of an institutional context and in a more cultural or social key rather than juridical or political; here also there is a contrast with how it used to be a few decades’ ago. In brief, more distance between laics and Catholics and, together, a weakening of the State’s laicity: a disposed combination which outlines a very different situation to the harsh juxtapositions from the eighties between clericals and anti-clericals, the latter who, however, made a clear assertion of the State’s laicity. In fact, even if in recent years, there has been, among ecclesiasts, a reported increase in laic or anti-clerical orientation, on a national, and especially, European level; while there have been complaints on more than one occasion among laics, of a new ecclesiasticism in the political debate.

Today, the typically nineteenth-century question, on institutional relations between the State and the Church no longer seems to be so central. Under this profile, there was perhaps more continuity between Italy of the 20th September 1870 and that of a century after, compared to how much there is between the latter and Italy today. In my opinion however, it seems to also apply for this observation, formulated on several occasions by Scoppola, in whose opinion the clash between “clericals” and “anti-clericals”, even in its different forms it takes on each time, always reveals a weakness in the arguments on both sides and, more on the whole, a weakness in the principle of laicity.

Laics beyond laicity

It was the laic culture which was the main contribution in the transformations of laicity. As has been observed, in recent years, the positions of those who define themselves as “devoted atheists” – such as Giuliano Ferrara and “Il Foglio” – have become ever more visible. And they tend to highlight the links between the Christian tradition and Western civilisation, on a cultural level rather than a religious one. In their case, the distance between a traditional laicity identified with the neutrality of the State and the different religious bearings of its citizens. Less obvious but in many respects even more interesting, is the ongoing evolution between laics – intended as “those who do not recognise any Church” – who do not share the opinions of “devoted laics” and, even, vehemently contest them. Even among them, in fact, there is a semantic decline, as previously mentioned, and it seems largely connected to the influence of the scientific-technological debate, especially to developments in the field of medicine, innovations in genetic engineering, and to more recent biomedical problems etc., as in the case of various signatories of the “Laic Bioethics Manifesto”, spread in Turin on 25th November 2007.

There has in fact been a spread of the conviction that in recent years there has been a “technical and scientific revolution”, emphasised by some and criticised by others, so much that even the actual idea of “human nature” was questioned. In this context, what is generally considered as laic bioethics is transforms into a sort of social theory and political doctrine. There is, in fact, a tendency to identify freedom tout court with the free individual use of the technical and scientific intervention on one’s own “human foundation” – in view of one’s personal self-realisation – in the conviction that “freedom and the quality of the life of the individual (…) is, today, in Western societies, largely assured by research in biology” (cfr. Laicità. Una geografia delle nostre radici (Laicity. A geography of our roots), by G. Boniolo, Einaudi, Turin 2006). It is a reduced statement with regard the freedom obtained over time from an extremely vast historical and juridical debate, to which we can add a juxtaposition between “laicity” and “religion”, which even this is, for certain aspects, new, and according to which freedom is essentially incompatible with a faith in transcendence. Such a development in this way of thinking pushes us to identify laicity with secularization, two terms which, even if can clearly be referred to connected phenomena, have been used, and continue to be used with very different meanings, in particular, in the French (and not only) cultural debate. Furthermore, there has been for some time now an ongoing closed discussion in the sociological field on the relationship between scientific validity and the ideological load in the category of secularization; while many today doubt the possibility of using this paradigm to describe the religious situation in the contemporary world, and others even consider it to be a “phenomenon of the past, albeit a recent past” (Filoramo).

Finally, in light of its most recent forms of radicalization, laicity is not a characteristic of institutions but it is expressed especially in an “intellectual behaviour” – generally, considered intrinsically superior to others and therefore in merit of prevalence -, which also corresponds to a style of social relationships, considered to conform to human “nature”. Similar statements – as well as giving rise to perplexities regarding the presumed natural foundation of laicity exactly when there are doubts on the existence of a universally recognised human nature – open the path to problematic conclusions under the profile of laicity intended as a group of institutions and procedures based on respecting different opinions and which aims to ensure there is the freedom to express it. It is a case of how many propose excluding “non-laic” opinions from the public debate, the auspice being that “such opinions are upheld on a private and personal level, without having any public weight”. In some cases, the conclusions are even more drastic. In fact, the identification of laicity with an intellectual behaviour, weakens that very possibility of recognizing a laic State: “an institution – it states – is not laic as such but […] in its intentional outcome, or rather, of the actions of men who have a laic behaviour and who consider such a behaviour to be of value for which and with which they live, and which pushes them to build and/or to work towards situations which allow this”. In brief, it finishes paradoxically by rejecting the laic State in the name of laicity. The statement of individual freedom in relation to scientific research and to the full application of innovative technologies is, in fact, considered explicitly incompatible with an institutional or procedural concept of laicity. “A laic person cannot refer to a State (…), even with a majority, the task of deciding what is the right or good existence, or rather, what is the way of living, or part of life which we should attribute value to.

As a consequence a laic person will fight until a particular type of existing is established, perhaps democratically”. In this sense however, the essential core of laicity seems to be the pluralism of individual choices: that is to say the “strong laicity” which Giovanni Fornero spoke of, is incompatible with the statement of a specific religious or philosophical opinion. Not so much for intrinsic reasons – such as the distance between “the sacredness of life” and “the quality of life” – but because it is founded on a radical ethical individualism. In doing so, radical laicity distinguishes itself from the traditional type, to guard the neutrality of the State with regards the different ethical or religious opinions of its citizens, and to take on the role of a “biased” voice alongside the others, whether religious or not, or from different religions; tolerant or intolerant; interactive or fundamentalists etc. who pervade contemporary society.

The peculiarity of these opinions becomes even more evident when compared to other laic voices, which, as the previous ones, do not come under the “devoted atheists” and which, moreover in very different ways, preserve a strong connection with the traditional lesson of laicity. For example, there are those, such as Gian Enrico Rusconi, who reject one of the premises of radical laicity and, that is to say, the drastically innovative course of the technical and scientific revolution into the biomedical field. Rusconi does not have any problems indicating once again the “old” road of a common morality to believers and non-believers, based on the principle etsi deus non daretur.

Others, however, such as Jurgen Habermas do not refuse to acknowledge the jump in quality introduced by technical and scientific innovation, but state that even on its own turf of where it is applied, individual freedom reaches its limit, at least in terms of freedom of the other and his right to self-realisation. He has criticized the exasperated individualism of radical laicity, highlighting the reciprocal vulnerability which is essential for relations between individuals – or the participation in a common human condition – and observing that even biographical individualization, taken on by radical laics to support their opinions, is always realized by socializing with other individuals. Furthermore, as we have seen, Habermas assumes a tolerant and open position with regards absolute values – including religion ones – in his search for a shared public ethic and for normative choices which are erga omnes (cfr. The debate published by “Reset”, November-December 2007). It is an opinion which seems, in theory if not in practice, to be on the whole connected, more than many others, to the lesson of laicity.

Catholics and the State between religious secularization and pluralism

As far as Catholics are concerned, it has been remarked that, in recent years, there has been an ever more critical behaviour towards the theme of laicity. The term continues to be used, but often there is an attempt to refine it, distinguishing some forms considered acceptable and less acceptable by others, resorting back to terms such as healthy or correct laicity. This “battle of adjectives” is not only connected to a traditional distance from the laic State, but is also connected to an ongoing reworking of the idea of laicity: that is to say, we are not dealing with a return to the past, but with something new.

In a recent parliamentary hearing, the secretary of the CEI, Monsignor Giuseppe Betori criticized the consequences of the State’s behaviour which would end up leveling the various religions, provoking “a tendency to resort back to the common law of discipline of the religious phenomenon” which is neither “founded nor coherent with the constitutional design outlined by articles 7 and 8 [of the] Const[itution]”. Furthermore, it is not even “in line with the cultural tradition of our country and with the religious feeling of the majority of the population”. As can be seen, in doing so, the peculiar weave which has developed over the years between the Catholic tradition and Italian society, is especially highlighted. Such a weave comes under the largest debate on national identity in recent years – in which Catholicism is indicated as an essential element – which implies a way of seeing the State not so much as an institutional reality, but above all as an expression and guarantor of a community: which Manzoni defined as “one of arms, languages, of altar/memories, of blood and heart” and which today is usually defined less poetically, as a project for cohabitation based on an ethno-cultural aggregation or as a product of a socio-ideological “invention”. In light of this, Monsignor Betori has recalled “the problems brought about by the spread of new religious movements and sects, as well as [the] questions connected to the phenomenon of inter-culturalism and multi-ethnicity”. In fact, in his opinion “the requirements which favour the integration of new groups and therefore peaceful cohabitation, should not translate itself in unjustified subsidence faced with doctrines or practices which bring about social unrest and which go against principles of our juridical civilization which cannot be renounced”.

This, as well as other examples, lay in a context where recalls back to laicity, still common among Catholics until recently, appear to be less effective. Recently, for example, still in harmony with the prevailing tendencies of the nineteen-seventies, there have been many reports of this supposed return to a Gentiloni-style draft of relations between the State and the Church, hoping for an increased understanding of laicity to encourage abandoning contingent interests and increased detachment of the Church from power. In fact, in these cases the recall to laicity accompanies a lack of belief in the miraculous strength of believers exercising their power, and which considers the possession of powerful means to be a factor of corruption of the most authentic religiousness. But the comparison with the Gentiloni pact is not always suitable: in fact, in recent years the main problem has not been the relationship of powers or the “marriage of interests” with a reciprocal exchange of advantages. In fact, as can be seen, there has often been discussions of ethically sensitive issues which recall “non-negotiable values” and which do not immediately appear to contrast the search for an authentic religiousness. In these cases, the reports of the Church interfering in politics find that Catholic are less sensitive than in the past, even if decidedly democratic. Laicity is today evoked less effectively even to reject positions of ecclesiastic authority which seem to contrast the autonomy of laic Catholics in politics, nevertheless also recognized by this authority (even Benedict XVI has insisted on this point at the Conference of the Italian Church in Verona in 2006 and on other occasions). In fact, such autonomy has developed in the last two centuries, after the French Revolution, while non-Catholics were denied to the ecclesiastic institution and the right to intervene in politics, and vice versa, Catholics were given the right to hold positions, as citizens, of their tradition and sensitivity. However, today there is an increasing inclination even by non-Catholics to break with such preclusions, giving the role of privileged interlocutors – both as a controversial juxtaposition and conciliatory behaviour – to the religious authorities – not only Catholic – rather than to religious citizens, like the Catholic followers. In such a context, there is less room for mediation between different politico-cultural traditions, long practiced by “non-clerical” Catholics and especially by democratic Catholics. It is also these effects of the current tendency which “de-institutionalises” the relationship between religion and society.

As we have seen, weakening the principle of laicity among Catholics does not result in a decreased interest in the role of the State in society. Rather than acting – as in the past – in accordance with an anti-institutional logic, defending rights or looking for privileges in defense of “biased” interests, the Catholic Church today seems to involve the State in supporting the moral values and social tendencies which it judges to be essential. The marked juxtaposition between Catholics and radical laicity, which is also seen in irreconcilable interpretations of the common good and the relationship between the individual and society, has already been highlighted. In both cases, there is a tendency to consider the laic State as having surpassed the mould of the eighteen hundreds, “neutral” on a moral and religious level and which solidly attests the statement of its authority. But such surpassing happens in different directions, outlining a sort of capsizing of traditional positions, with Catholics who resort to the authority of the State to oppose the incentives towards an ever broader individual self-determination, and with laic who are interested in extending their private space and limit as much as possible the influence the State has on personal decisions.

Religion and society from the past to the future

Without interrupting the European secular debate on laicity, a new situation came about, as summed up by Claudia Mancina: “the same field of comparison has changed” following a transformation also of European societies into multicultural societies and with the emergence “of an ensemble of questions which, even though are concerned with private aspects such as life and death, the body and procreation, come from a field of exclusively personal choices due to innovations in technology which have attacked it”.

In fact, a lot is changing in multicultural and multi-religious societies. Laicity has developed in Europe in a context which is especially pluri-confessional – and pluri-religious only to limited degree, in particular, thanks to the presence of Jewish minorities and to the alternative of atheism, which is especially contemporary, – while today multiculturalism and multi-religiousness appear as dominant tendencies. In a context which has changed so much, it no longer seems possible to continue using traditional forms of laicity, but their legacy is still alive even though it is pushing in seemingly opposing directions. On the one hand, people would want the State to work towards defending a series of Christian values, which are not strictly characterized as confessional and globally expressive of Western civilization, abandoning the equidistance toward the religious opinions of its citizens, which are becoming more and more diverse. On the other hand, however, respect for an ever wider ethical and religious pluralism inspires a refusal of State protection of whichever moral value, even if shared, irrespective of its specific religious motivations. In doing so, the authority of the institutions which oversee common life is reduced. In brief, on the one hand, the multiplication of various religious and moralistic tendencies is moving towards a lower rate of laicity in institutions. On the other hand, the transition from a pluri-confessional society to a multi-religious cohabitation seems to bring about the transformation of laicity in indifference, which increasingly extends to different tendencies and behaviours of the citizens.

In reality, the laic State, founded on a constitutional pact where everybody is recognized, appears to be eroded by the conflicts between different tendencies expressed by the various identities present in contemporary society. It is not a coincidence that today there is a tendency, on the one hand, to put forward the introduction of an increasing series of “conscientious objections”, through which each individual can maintain their coherence with values, even if they are contradicted by a law which does not share them. On the other hand, there is a preference for the introduction of optional laws, which give each citizen the choice of whether to make use of the available options, especially those made available to use by scientific and technological progress, based on ones own convictions. In both cases, there has been a reported decline in the ability of synthesis in politics, the constitutional agreement and in public institutions; in brief, of a “common home” where everybody can find themselves within principles and rules which are unanimously shared.

To a certain extent, the current situation seems to spring from a parabola which reflects the alternate happenings of the “institutional strength” of the Church and of the State in Italy, in the context of a more general decline of all the institutions in contemporary society. In fact, as has already been observed, the laicity crisis does not reveal the strengthening of one of the two sides but the weakening of both. As has been observed, for many years after the Risorgimento the Church and the State connected as opposing and competing institutions, while upon the spread of the notion of laicity in public institutions, there was not a strong secularization of society yet. As a result, as can be remembered, the juxtaposition was strengthened while conciliation on the theme of laicity between Catholics and laics was being outlined, on the backdrop of a society which was becoming more and more secularized. Today however, Catholics’ perplexities and hesitations as regards laicity and harsh criticism towards hyper-secularising opinions accompany the search for a closer relationship with public institutions. Whereas, for some political leaders, not just Italian, there is, at least speculatively, an interest in similar attitudes which, despite contrasting traditional laicity, nevertheless offers an edge to the authority of the State, ever more harassed by the fragmentation of contemporary society.

Agostino Giovagnoli teaches Modern History at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. His books include Il partito italiano (Laterza, 1997), L’Italia nel nuovo ordine mondiale. Politica ed economia dal 1945 al 1947 (Vita e Pensiero, 2000), Storia e globalizzazione (Laterza, 2003), and Il caso Moro. Una tragedia repubblicana (il Mulino, 2005).

This article was published by the magazine Reset in its January-February 2008 issue (no.105).

Translation by Sonia Ter Hovanessian



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