So Patti Smith is playing the Vatican

When I first heard the news on Facebook the other day that Patti Smith was going to play the Vatican Christmas concert in Rome on Dec. 13, I thought my friend was just pulling my leg. Since then the news has gone viral. She’s the talk of the town, much as she was when I arrived in NYC in 1995 to see her on the cover of the Village Voice. I’ve loved Patti as much as anyone, I suppose. Her music and her style have influenced me (at least the me of my twenties) more than most. That said, it’s been a while since I’ve really followed her. I began to rethink our relationship after I went to see her at the Auditorium in Rome in 2007. She had draped a Palestinian flag over the stage. I have nothing against the Palestinians, mind you, but I was there for the rock-and-roll, not the politics. But, as my friend retorted, you don’t get Patti without the politics. So be it.

Which brings us to Pope Francis and the Christmas concert. A great many people are enthusiastic to see Patti accept the pope’s invitation. There is even a photo of the two of them greeting each other in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year (staged, no doubt). Patti has always had a strong spiritual streak throughout her work, though she has been quite critical of (organized) religion. Her most cited lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins / but not mine…” might even have pitted her as a papal antagonist. So what’s going on here?

I don’t mean to piss in the Christmas pudding (if that’s the expression), but I’m a bit disappointed in Patti for having accepted this invitation. I’ve been at odds with myself for a day and a half over just why, having had some trouble putting my finger on what irks me. And I’m not sure I’ve figured it out (perhaps I’m just being Grumpy Atheist Guy, who knows?), but I do feel the need to try and put my thoughts down. Especially because I can’t find another atheist blogger who has had anything negative to say about this yet.

I’ve spent quite a lot of blogspace writing about the Catholic Church (see my list of posts Crucifixes and Creationists) and its invasion of Italian life, both public and private. In my view, they are not a jolly bunch of men running around Rome in antique dresses. They are, rather, a powerful, power-hungry and enormously invasive political machine – the oldest institution in the Western world, as they love to say – with retrograde ideas about human well-being and dogmas which are largely incompatible with modern conceptions of human rights. They are also losing ground and numbers in a way which has forced them to reposition themselves in society.

Everyone knows religion depends on follwers to thrive, not unlike social media. In a world which is becoming more and more secular, with more and more Catholics leaving the church, the Catholic Church is in a existential crisis. Sometimes I tune in to Radio Maria, the official Vatican radio station, while I’m in the car. I like to keep up with what they say to their constituent, so to speak. It’s not uncommon to hear them speaking at length about how the Church is focusing on how to reach out to the youth. It even has a name: la Nuova Evangelizzazione (the New Evangelization). I see things like the Patti concert not as an interesting side note on Francis’ musical tastes (“Hey, he likes Patti Smith. Cool!”) but as part of a larger re-make/re-model strategy in the Catholic Church. It’s marketing, plain and simple, and Francis is their cover girl.

I’m a cynic, I know. Why am I attempting to ruin something so benign? If it’s true, as my friend pointed out, that “you don’t get Patti without the politics” then what is her political message now? I can’t imagine she is unaware of how antagonistic the Catholic Church is to the cause of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, secularism, and a host of other problems which are par for the course. Not to mention Francis’ recent involvement in an exorcists’ conference in Rome, and all the superstitious nonsense that entails.

Here is Patti’s unforgettable portrait of Dot Hook:

She’s real Catholic, see. She fingers her cross and she says
Theres one reason. Theres one reason.
You do it my way or I push your face in.
We knee you in the john if you dont get off your get off your mustang Sally…

(“Piss Factory”, 1974)

Perhaps Patti Smith is just another of the millions who want to believe that Pope Francis represents change in the Catholic Church. He has swept aside his unsmiling predecessor Benedict XVI with one of the greatest institutional facelifts in history. But, here in Italy, we haven’t seen much actually change on the ground. Despite Francis’ rhetoric, the Church is still a tax-exempt, multi-billion dollar business. It still clings to its innumerable fiscal privileges. It still insists on preaching to children when they are just barely out of diapers. It is still a greedy, self-serving tinpot kingdom living off the Italian State at the expense of its citizens. For these resons and many others I can’t bring myself to sing “Gloria” at the news of the upcoming concert.

Perhaps “Free Money” would be more appropriate for her new cronies. It’s something they know well.

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The freedom of unbelief

Liberi di non credere
By Raffaele Carcano
Editori Internazionali Riuniti, 2011. 379 pages (in Italian)

The PD should be advocating a more secular agenda.

Raffaele Carcano, who heads the UAAR, Italy’s association of atheists, has written a vademecum on the current state of secularity in Italy. Here the reader will find no philosophical arguments for atheism, no attacks on religious belief or even a catalogue of indecent behavior by the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Instead, Carcano guides the reader through the routine abuses of the rights of non-believing citizens: from the suppressed atheist bus campaign in Genoa to the Lautsi vs. Italy ruling that crucifixes in public classrooms are not in violation of freedom of conscience, the hand of the Vatican is never far from the puppet theater of Italian politics.

Secularism is on the rise, however. Non-affiliated Italians, according to a recent study cited, represent nearly 20 percent of the population and the number is growing. Compare that figure with the only two percent belonging to minority (non-Catholic) religions and you realize they represent a fair slice of the citizenry. Yet they have almost no voice or visibility. Moreover, their rights are trampled by such institutional perversions as the “8 per thousand” religious tax (income tax routed to the Church), Catholic religious teaching in public schools, and the ostentatious display of (exclusively) Catholic symbols in public spaces. Add to this the tendency of Italian media to pander to the Catholic Church and report every grunt and groan of its leaders uncritically.

Then comes the political class, to which the author devotes two full chapters, serving up an analysis of the near-total abandonment of secular causes to which few politicians — right or left — give more than lip service. In fact, the Democratic Party takes the brunt of the criticism for being practically the only center-left party in Europe that doesn’t lift a finger to advance a secular agenda. The only parliamentarian noted for her devotion to secular causes is Emma Bonino, who was shot from both sides during her 2010 campaign for the governorship of Lazio.

The Italian situation is contextualized throughout the book with reference to the European Union and the United States, even going back to ancient times (the first recorded book burning, according to Carcano, was of the “impious” Greek author Protagoras). The tone is sober, but not without the appropriate irony. The reader comes away with the impression that Italy is less a modern secular nation than a kind of milquetoast theocracy. Non-believers may no longer be tortured or burned for their impiety, true, but they are consciously marginalized and proselytized to by a cynical political class and their hubristic clerical bedfellows. Which, one might add, is nothing to be proud of in the 21st century.

From The American

Italian towns

I wanted to share this wonderful (and disheartening) cartoon. Anyone who has ever been to Italy has noticed that Catholic churches are far grander than any other structures. It’s no mystery that immense amounts of public money are funneled directly to the Vatican through various fiscal mechanisms such as the 8 per mille tax when they aren’t forked over directly for maintenance and the construction of new churches. Churches which are getting emptier every year, one might add. In these hard economic times, the grand old churches which make Italy such a quaint country-sized museum are beginning to look rather suspect.

"Italian towns"

Here’s Mark Twain on the Milan Cathedral (from The Innocents Abroad):

Howsoever you look at the great cathedral, it is noble, it is beautiful! Wherever you stand in Milan or within seven miles of Milan, it is visible and when it is visible, no other object can chain your whole attention. Leave your eyes unfettered by your will but a single instant and they will surely turn to seek it. It is the first thing you look for when you rise in the morning, and the last your lingering gaze rests upon at night. Surely it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived.

The building is five hundred feet long by one hundred and eighty wide, and the principal steeple is in the neighborhood of four hundred feet high. It has 7,148 marble statues, and will have upwards of three thousand more when it is finished. In addition it has one thousand five hundred bas-reliefs. It has one hundred and thirty-six spires—twenty-one more are to be added. Each spire is surmounted by a statue six and a half feet high. Every thing about the church is marble, and all from the same quarry; it was bequeathed to the Archbishopric for this purpose centuries ago. So nothing but the mere workmanship costs; still that is expensive—the bill foots up six hundred and eighty-four millions of francs thus far (considerably over a hundred millions of dollars,) and it is estimated that it will take a hundred and twenty years yet to finish the cathedral. It looks complete, but is far from being so. We saw a new statue put in its niche yesterday, alongside of one which had been standing these four hundred years, they said. There are four staircases leading up to the main steeple, each of which cost a hundred thousand dollars, with the four hundred and eight statues which adorn them. Marco Compioni was the architect who designed the wonderful structure more than five hundred years ago, and it took him forty-six years to work out the plan and get it ready to hand over to the builders. He is dead now. The building was begun a little less than five hundred years ago, and the third generation hence will not see it completed.

Now doesn’t that sound like a colossal waste of resources to you?

The cost of the Catholic church

Well, it seems the new government expects everyone to do their part in getting Italy out of its current economic straits – except, you guessed it, the Catholic Church. When asked a direct question on the subject, PM Mario Monti reportedly answerd that “he hadn’t yet considered” making the outlandishly privileged Church pay tax on its commercial assets (an estimated 1 out of 5 properties in Italy are in Church hands). Which is outrageous. Really, the list of offenses just gets longer and longer. Why should anyone be this privileged – above all the richest (and arguably most corrupt and morally bankrupt) country – yes, it’s another fucking country! – on Earth? Can anyone explain to me why those of us who oppose such privileges haven’t yet reached a critical mass?

There’s a new website (icostidellachiesa.it) detailing the actual cost of the Catholic Church. It’s a frightening read. And since most Italians have absolutely no idea how they are financing this freeloading institution, the time has come to educate them. This is the elephant in the room, Italy.

It’s Going to Be a Very White Christmas

Northern mythologies

Some people are saying it’s a bit early to start worrying about Christmas. In the US, ’tis the season to be merry as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey exits the small intestine (or is it the large one?). In Italy, people begin bustling on December 9, the day after they celebrate the Immaculate Conception (“immaculate”, that is, since Dec. 8, 1854 when that rogue Pius IX said so). What was it before, I wonder? Just another normal, sex-begotten conception methinks. You can only undo that with dogma.

But that’s not the point of this post. I’m not even baptized, so none of this theological hemming and hawing means much to me anyway. Besides, anyone who reads this blog is aware that virgin births, transsubstantiated wafers, celestial voyages of the dead and stigmata are not “my kink” (as they say in the world of sex-blogging). Though I admit I find them fascinating and relevant to understanding the passions and prejudices of my fellow citizens and – in some cases – family members.

“White Christmas”, in fact, is the name given to an anti-immigrant movement in Northern Italy. Yes, it’s those Ku Kluxers again, the Northern League, who are behind this. The “white” in White Christmas – as I hope you guessed – doesn’t refer to snow or the snowy purity of the baby Jesus on his (sic) birthday, but rather to the milky complexion of the militant Christians that inhabit certain regions of the chilly Lombard north. And they don’t like immigrants at their eggnog parties, either.

So they are taking to the streets this Christmas season in pure holiday spirit: by sending the cops around to immigrants’ homes to make sure their papers are in order. If not, they are to be thrown out (yes, on Christmas, if that wasn’t yet clear). One might imagine that such a violation of Christian “DNA” might get these rogues excommunicated, but one would be wrong. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, reportedly gave them but a little slap on the wrist.

Yet another marriage between church and state, as this crusading has been approved – and is being copied in other townships – by the local government. No cross, no crown?

Is this really the way to deal with immigration in a country with no real assimilation program for immigrants? Not even the all-encompassing, all-accepting, all-loving representatives of God on earth are raising their powerful finger in protest? I mean, we’re not talking about Muslims or Jews, or even atheists (boy, I’d hate to have to rely on them to get me out of a jam), but fellow Christians. Is this really the best the Vatican can do to spread its message of universal love and the transcendent power of suffering?

Here’s another tempting thought: immigrants without papers don’t vote, now – do they?

The Crucifix Debates: No End in Sight

Can it be uprooted?

In 2003, the year I moved to Italy, I witnessed my first “crucifix debate” on television. Adel Smith, the controversial protagonist of that episode and the founder of the Italian Islamic Party, had caused a stink by demanding that all crucifixes be removed from public buildings in Italy. They apparently offended him, though he was raised as a Catholic. He even threw one out the window of his mother’s hospital room. Religious conversion is strong medicine.

Six years later, the debate is back. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France has ruled that crucifixes in Italian schools violate the religious and educational freedom of children. At the center of the debate this time is a non-religious Italian family who don’t want their children to be conditioned by religious symbolism in what is nominally a public classroom.

Some readers might be asking themselves, “But why are there crucifixes in public schools in the first place?!” To an American, this is unthinkable. But the Vatican is not in New York City. And it’s where the trouble began more than 80 years ago with what is known as the Lateran Treaty.

The Treaty was devised under the Fascist government of the 1920s, and it stated that Catholicism was the sole state religion. Part of the agreement stipulated the presence of the crucifix in all Italian schools and public buildings, where they remain to this day, and “religion hour” — the teaching of the Catholic religion in all public schools. The religion teachers are handpicked by the Vatican and paid for by the state. Roll over, Thomas Jefferson.

All of this flies in the face of the Risorgimento, of course. Italy, as an autonomous nation, was founded in direct opposition to the Church. The integralist Pope Pius IX famously referred to himself as a “prisoner of the Vatican,” and no pope after him — until the agreements with Mussolini’s government — would set foot on Italian soil. In a country proud to have moved past the Fascist era (there is even a national holiday to this effect), it is perhaps anachronistic that Article 7 of the Constitution proclaims: “relations [between the Catholic Church and the State] are regulated by the Lateran Treaty.” Why not overhaul that as well, one wonders?

What we have on our hands is essentially a human rights issue. Is there a place for religion in the public sphere of a secular democracy in the 21st century? Religious apologists have remarked that we might as well tear up the Union Jack and the Finnish flag (and the Danish one, I suppose, that bastion of secularism), all of which have crosses. They’ve also suggested that the flag of the European Union has an encrypted Madonna and child among its 12 stars. Or that Europe has non-negotiable “Christian roots.” In these claims one hears the pronounced voices of reactionary bishops more than those of civil servants in a modern democracy. Yet Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini and Italian Senator Rocco Buttiglione all made them, among others. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, topping them all, said recently that the EU court could “…go to hell. We’ll never take down the crucifixes.”

Even more telling are the attempts made by some Catholics to separate the crucifix from its religious context. As the Italian Bishop’s Conference put it, “The multiple significance of the crucifix, which is not just a religious symbol but a cultural sign, has been either ignored or overlooked.” Which raises the question: what culture are they referring to?

Italian culture is, like all other cultures in all other times, a grab-bag of goodies. Of the 3,000 or so years of recorded Italian history, Christianity has decidedly marked the last 2,000. But Judaism, it is often pointed out, has a longer history on the peninsula than the offshoot sect. Should Jews then insist mezuzahs be nailed to every doorpost of every public building from Bolzano to Syracuse? They have as good a case as anyone.

Of course, no one will take my little provocation seriously. After all, there are Jewish schools that cater to the needs of religious Jews. The same should be expected of Catholics.

Public spaces are for everyone. They are not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan or Buddhist. Taking crucifixes off the walls (Buttiglione comically suggests that a plethora of symbols should go up instead — a solution even more risible than their elimination) does not condemn Catholics to atheism. This conveniently misses the point. Religious freedom includes freedom from religion as well as the freedom of religious affiliation. People in their homes may display any symbols they desire, or even a multitude of them. They may frequent any house of worship or none at all. They may read the Gospels or the speeches of Robert Ingersoll. On this, I think, we all agree.

The promotion of the crucifix from a strictly Catholic religious symbol (Protestants don’t use it) to a “universal” symbol of inclusion and suffering is dishonest sidestepping. The conflation is simply insulting. Nothing could be less universal than a religion, especially one with an unbroken tradition of obscurantism, religious warfare, persecution and anti-modern policies. Besides, nearly all Catholics in the developed world flout Catholic dogma when it contradicts their immediate personal interests — without so much as flinching before the eternal fires of hell.

What more proof do we need that the European Union is bound by the modern secular principles of human rights and not the by cross (much less the crucifix)? Why not cut the head off the bull, as they say here in Italy, and abrogate the Lateran Treaty once and for all?

Published in The American

Go to Hell! We’ll Never Take Down Our Crucifixes!

Italy’s getting scary again.

Ignazio La Russa, who has no degree in science and is therefore unworthy of having views on religion, went off his nut on Italian tv the other evening. The debate over the EU court’s judgement that crucifixes in public classrooms are a bad idea is off and running. Berlusconi has said that Italy will defy the court and the EU, and that no crosses are coming off the walls of any classrooms.

His position was backed up by the homophobic, conservative Catholic politician Rocco Buttiglione. Buttiglione’s brilliant solution to the problem of religious symbols contaminating public spaces is apparently to multiply them. The more, the merrier, he said. Just don’t take down them crosses! Perhaps my mezuzah proposal wasn’t too radical, after all.

Even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, you can grasp the meaning of what La Russa is getting at here. He calls Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a well-known mathematician and one of Italy’s only public atheists, a man without a degree (!) who “puts up and takes down crucifixes as if they were bath towels.” He then castigates the show’s host for not standing up for the dignity of the cross, telling him he is beyond absolution for his sin of silence.

Of course, he’s no Christian integralist, an afterthought he throws in as a final consolation. In case you thought maybe he got off on the wrong foot. “They (the EU?) can go to hell! Well never take down our crosses!!”