“Religious Liberty in Italy,” by Howard V. Yergin
June 9, 1947

Except under the Allied Military Government of the past two years there never has been religious liberty in Italy. The martyrdom of early Christians by the dominant pagan religion of the peninsula is a tragic and glorious chapter in the story of the Christian church. Less well known, but equally tragic is the story of the persecutions through long centuries following 313, of dissenters by the dominant Christian organization. In 1173, when Peter Valdo of Lyons was converted and gathered about him an increasing number of those who were dissatisfied with the doctrines and the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, began the definite struggle between Evangelical faith and official religion, which continues even in our day.

With the rise of this organized dissent the antagonism of the ecclesiastical authorities could not fail to manifest itself. Valdo was forbidden to preach, first by the Cardinal of Lyons, and then by the Third Lateran Council of 1179. In 1183 he and his followers, together with other groups of non-conformist Christians, were excommunicated, and there began the incessant series of crusades against dissenters. They were imprisoned, they were exiled, they were slain. They were deprived of the most elementary rights of free men. Milton’s stern sonnet:

“Avenge, O Lord! thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,”

was written in horrified protest against the infamous Piedmontese Easter of 1655 when thousands of Waldensians were treacherously slain. Such as escaped died in prisons, or were publicly executed as warnings, or died on the icy mountain sides. As late as the nineteenth century these persistent evangelicals suffered under such restrictions as Prof. Luzzi describes in his “Struggle for Christian Truth in Italy”:

“Extraordinary taxes, demands for repayment of old debts, missions by rapacious priests, prohibition of books connected with their worship and schools, their residence in their valleys scarcely tolerated and always more or less insecure at the will of the prince; … only surreptitiously a Waldensian could succeed in exercising industry or carry on commerce outside the valleys. All public posts were forbidden them, except that of Syndic; no one could be an advocate, and if anyone succeeded in becoming a doctor he could only practice the healing art among his co-religionists. Roman Catholic Churches could be multiplied ad infinitum, but not an evangelical church could be added to those already in existence.”

It was not until February 17, 1848, a century ago next year, when Charles Albert of Savoy issued his Edict of Emancipation, that the Waldenses could even begin to live as full citizens and human beings. “The Waldensians are admitted to all the civil and political rights of our subjects, to attend schools and universities and to acquire academical degrees.”

With the final unification of Italy in 1870, the Pope was stripped of most of his temporal possessions, only the Vatican State, a few churches and several villas were left him, although these properties were recognized as outside the Kingdom of Italy and as constituting a State in themselves. A large indemnity and an annual grant were guaranteed him. The Pope however refused to recognize the new State and shut himself up as the “Prisoner of the Vatican.” Church and State continued in officially hostile relationships until 1929. The Waldenses, together with missions of evangelical churches of other lands (American Methodists, English Wesleyans, Southern Baptists, the Salvation Army, Y.M.C.A., Y.W.C.A., Pentecostals, Adventists and Plymouth Brethren) were allowed considerable exercise of religious freedom as “tolerated sects.” But officially and unofficially they were seriously hampered in the free exercise of their faith.

In 1929 the Pope and Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts and the Concordat, designed to settle forever the “Roman Question.” The Roman Apostolic and Catholic Church was for the first time legally recognized as the established church of Italy, and all religious and ecclesiastical privileges were conferred upon it. Other cults were “admitted,” but the restrictions upon them, though stated by indirection in the Pacts, bore striking resemblances to the restrictions listed by Luzzi above. The Church and the State became one. Because he deemed them “contrary to public order and decency,” Mussolini ruthlessly suppressed the Salvation Army and the Pentecostal groups; their property was confiscated by the State. The crucifix was placed in all school rooms; religious instruction was compulsory and was given by representatives of the Roman Church. No propaganda was permitted. New cults could be organized or new church buildings erected only when the “religious needs of the community warranted it.” And these “needs” were appraised, not by the cult concerned, but by the civil and ecclesiastical authorities of the area. Excommunicated or “renegade” priests could hold no position in Church or State in which he would come into contact with the public. Disturbance of a Roman Church was punished several times more severely than disturbance of an Evangelical Church or a Synagogue.

Under Allied Military Government the Lateran Pacts and Concordat, so far as they applied to non-Roman cults, became tacitly inoperative, and Evangelicals and Jews enjoyed full religious liberty as we know it in the United States; Ministers’ Councils even being permitted to broadcast religious messages in a dozen cities.

On June 2, 1946, in the face of open and powerful opposition by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Italy voted by a majority of 2,000,000 to cast off the decadent House of Savoy and become a Republic. At this election were chosen the members of the Constitutional Assembly which has been at work ever since drafting a constitution for this new Republic. The Democristiano, or Catholic party, has the largest number of delegates but not a majority; next are the Socialists, then the Communists, and then, in small numbers, representatives of nearly a score of other parties. The Communists hold the balance of power.

Following the election, the Pope at once began a campaign to have the Lateran Pacts and Concordat included in the framework of the Constitution. The Evangelical forces, united in their newly formed Federal Council of Churches of Christ of Italy, and the Jews acting with them, made able and repeated presentations to the Assembly of the need for religious liberty in a modern State. Hope was given that this might become a reality by the inclusion in the Peace Treaty between the Allies and Italy of a strong clause demanding full religious freedom. But the Pope won his point. Cynically and shrewdly the Communists threw their deciding vote in with the Democristiani, and the Pacts and the Concordat are a part of the Constitution of the Republic of Italy. True religious liberty will not exist when Allied forces are withdrawn. A small victory has been won by liberal forces recently by the exscinding from Article 14 of the Constitution of an addendum to the religious liberty clause patterned after the peace treaty. This addendum stated in effect that this grant of full liberty was made “providing its exercise be not contrary to public order and decency.” The fact remains that, even with the excision of this crippling clause, the religious liberty article, Section 14, is in direct conflict with Section 7, which incorporates the Lateran Pacts and Concordat. The effectiveness of the grant of religious liberty will depend upon the attitude of any enforcing officer.

And here the matter rests at present. Italy has refused to enter into the fellowship of modern states, remaining with Spain and Argentine in the religious attitudes and laws of the Dark Ages.

It is possible, just barely possible, that the Constitution may be revised and some of its clauses, including the most objectionable of the Pacts, be modified or eliminated. In fact there is so much dissatisfaction with many articles of the Constitution as at present written, that one writer in Italy predicts that the Constitution “will not have a long life.” Or, if Section 7, the Pacts, regains in the Constitution, it is possible that public opinion both within and without Italy may compel a more liberal interpretation than obtained in the past under Fascism, and thereby a body of liberal precedents be built up. Our brethren in Italy again salute us, and ask our understanding sympathy and support. We may not be able to do much, but we can keep before our representatives in Senate and House and in the State Department the fact that Italy has nullified a clause of the Peace Treaty, and we can press for our Government’s insistence upon fulfillment of all treaty obligations. Our Evangelical and Jewish brethren of Italy are in the front line of the struggle for tolerance and religious freedom; we cannot fail them.

Howard V. Yergin (1885 – 1951) was field-service secretary for the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA and former executive of the New York Synod from 1936–49. He earned a BA at Yale University in 1908 and a BD from Auburn Seminary in 1913. Additionally, Yergin was an immigrant fellow for the Board of Home Missions, Italy, from 1913–15; was executive secretary for American Parish from 1914–18; lectured at the Teachers College, Columbia, from 1918–24; was pastor of Church of the Covenant in New York in 1924; administered relief needs for Protestants for World Council of Churches, Italy, from 1949–51; was director at Auburn and Union Seminaries; and president of the American Waldensian Aid Society.