Religion is a force which pervades all aspects of life in Italy. In order to truly understand the country and people of Italy, it is imperative to comprehend the role of faith in Italian culture. Churches, shrines and monasteries are common throughout the country, exemplifying some of the best architecture ever created. Even in the artistic treasures from the Renaissance era, religion is a recurring theme. Although Italy is culturally diverse, it is united linguistically (for the most part) and religiously. Roman Catholicism is the largest religious group in Italy. Catholics make up 87.8% of the population, with 36.8% considering themselves practicing Catholics and 30.8% attending Church every Sunday.
Christian holy sites, that have been venerated for thousands of years, are peppered throughout the land and innumerable churches have found their foundation on ancient Roman temples or been built above shrines associated with mysterious religions from the past such as Mithraism. For thousands of years Rome has been a focal point for Roman Catholics and the Pope, who is the official head of the Catholic religion, resides in the Vatican City though to be within Rome, Italy by many people. The Pope is not only the head of the Catholic Church; traditionally, he is also the Bishop of Rome and successor to Saint Peter, Rome’s first bishop.
In today’s era, Italy is considered a secular modern European state and the traditional power once held by organized religion is gradually declining. The law provides for freedom of religion and there is no state religion. However, the Catholic Church with its sovereign status and historical political authority within Italian culture is still allowed certain privileges. For example, the Church can select Catholic teachers to provide instruction in public schools, although the course is optional for students.
Secular practices may have penetrated the Italian culture over the years but certain religious rites are still faithfully observed. Every year, many festivals are celebrated that have their origins in Christianity. A large number of Italian wedding ceremonies still take place in churches and the First Holy Communion is a religious part of Italian culture that is observed by a major number of people in the country.
However, although the Italian population is primarily Roman Catholic, there are many other significant minorities which include Protestants and Jews. Jewish synagogues are present in approximately 21 cities. Jehovah’s Witnesses form the second largest denomination among native-born citizens. Increasing immigration, legal and illegal, has been adding to the growing groups of non-Christian residents in Italy. Muslims migrants from North Africa, Albania, the Middle East etc. have been adding to the Muslim population which, according to some statistics, has become the second largest religion in Italy. Other religious minorities in Italy include Buddhists, of both, European and Asian origin, Scientologists, Waldensians and Mormons (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
Other significant religious communities finding their way into Italian culture consist of Orthodox churches, Japanese Buddhists, the Baha’i Faith, and South Asian Hindus. Recent polls show that approximately 14% of the Italian population consider themselves to be either Atheists or Agnostics.
Religious freedom has been conducive to developing generally good relations among the different religions being practiced in Italian culture, however, in certain cases; the influence of the Catholic Church in matters of public policy has proven to be controversial.