CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


The God of Small Things? Spirituality and Catholicism in Italy

by Stefania Palmisano stefania.palmisano@unito.it and Simone Martino simone.martino@unito.it
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino. © Palmisano - Martino 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author.

In this talk we would like to present the main findings on spirituality in Italy resulting from The Italian Religion and Spirituality Project, a survey led in 2007 by a research team at the University of Turin, consisting of Franco Garelli (director), Roberto Scalon, Simone Martino and myself. The novelty of The Italian Religion and Spirituality Project, in comparison with past surveys, is that this study has investigated more thoroughly for the first time in Italy, both at the theoretical and the empirical levels, the distinction between religion and spirituality, particularly considering the meanings attached by Italians to the latter term.

To begin with, let’s talk about the meanings of the concept of spirituality in the international debate, then analyse the forms in which this phenomenon is expressed in Italy. Since the ‘80s, sociological literature has paid increasing attention to the “revolution of the subject”. Taylor writes that the “subjectivist turning-point of modern culture” has profoundly transformed contemporary society. Western man is less and less willing to live his own life in terms of objective roles and of obligations, and demands more and more to decide freely the aims of his own existence in tune with his own deepest self. The consequences of this turning-point may be seen in disparate fields of associative life such as the educational system (with its emphasis on learning rather than teaching), the market (with customer satisfaction as its guiding principle), health and body care (with its wealth of wellness and fitness practices) and so on.

The shift of the baricentre from institutions to the individual has also affected the sacred sphere. According to Heelas and Woodhead, if the West is experimenting with the first steps towards a “spiritual revolution”, set off by the decline in traditional forms of belief in favour of alternative ways of relating to the sacred, it is because in individuals’ perception, the idea that the main source of meaning is the uniqueness of one’s own subjectivity has gained ground, pushing into second place belonging to institutions which impose pre-conceived and pre-constituted order from outside. If religion sacralizes the cultural model based on conformity with an external authority, spirituality sacralizes the experience of one’s deepest self felt as unique and unrepeatable.

The distinction between religion and spirituality upon which Heelas and Woodhead base their analysis is not, however, taken for granted in the sociology of religion. On the contrary, it is at the heart of a lively controversy between those who claim that spirituality is nothing but a dimension of religion and those who insist that it is something completely different. For those who must needs have the opportunity of separating the two concepts, contemporary spirituality – defined as “alternative”, “non-institutional”, “non-church”, “feminine” or New Age spirituality – seems to have broken free from the moorings of traditional religions. It emerges less as an element of religion than as a new kind of religion designed to cultivate one’s deepest self. To this end, it feeds on experiences and practices (often inspired by oriental traditions) which favour introspection, interior listening, the discovery of authenticity, harmonizing body, mind and soul (for this reason we also hear about “body-mind-soul” or “holistic” spirituality).

Although far from the Italian reality, the situation described for the Anglo-Saxon world illustrates a tendency which is little by little taking hold in our country too. However, it is only recently that the Italian debate has begun to include spirituality. Even if many elements which today are considered “spirituality” have been discussed since the ‘80s in terms of “personal religiousness”, it is with Garelli and Giordan that the category of spirituality has explicitly entered Italian sociology’s research agenda. The first empirical datum was supplied by Garelli who observed, in the light of the results of the survey Pluralismo Morale e Religioso degli Italiani (Moral and Religious Pluralism among Italians), 1998: “…the tendency to consider oneself a religiously oriented person is more widespread among Italians than interpreting one’s own life in spiritual terms”.

More than a decade has passed since that revelation. What has changed? Longitudinal comparison shows that spiritual values imbue the existence of Italians more than in the past. If, at the end of the 1990s, the proportion of Italians who considered themselves very or fairly religious far exceeded those who claimed to be very or fairly spiritual (78% vs 68%), by 2007 the gap between the two groups had almost disappeared: the percentage of those who perceive themselves as being of medium-high religiousness is almost identical to those who see their lives as being informed by medium-high spirituality (73%–74%). At the same time, the proportion of people who do not consider themselves as religious individuals grew between 1998 (21%) and 2007 (25%); while the percentage of those who declared that they do not conduct a spiritual life declined in the same period from 28% to 23%.

But what are, according to Italians, the fields dedicated to the cultivation of values of the spirit? A common feeling predominates among the interviewees that spiritual life may be cultivated regardless of official institutions. Eight out of ten say they agree with the statement that “anybody can have a spiritual life, independently of one’s relationship with an organized religion”. But not only has spirituality become detached from traditional institutions of faith: almost half of the sample is of the opinion that it is possible to have a spiritual life without believing in God. This opinion is shared even by churchgoers, confirming that a large number of Italians, whether or not connected with the Catholic Church, recognize at least the theoretical plausibility of spiritual paths beyond the strongholds of Catholicism and even beyond the transcendent God of the Christian tradition. This point is of even greater interest when one considers that various indicators demonstrate that neither truth nor salvation are any longer considered the exclusive prerogative of Catholicism. Three out of four disagree with the affirmation that there is only one true religion; two out of three believe that everybody can be saved whether religious or not and independently of which religion one belongs to; and one out of two shares the idea that there should be one religion, based on few beliefs, uniting Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and people of other faiths.

The analysis suggests that in our country two types of spirituality should be distinguished: let’s call one “intra-religious” or “Catholic” and the other “extra-religious”. While the former is connected with the Catholic Church and a transcendent conception of the sacred, the latter stands on its own feet, free from the moorings of Christianity. Before even reading the answers to the questionnaire, the fact that extra-religious spirituality is beginning to interest Italian society may be inferred by the transformations assailing many social institutions. For example:

- The workplace. High-technology and information technology firms, as well as old-economy companies and public bodies, have introduced yoga, meditation and autogenes training sessions for their employees. Some of these have opened Zen rooms conceived as chill-out zones where personnel can relax, meditate or enjoy the silence while looking for inspiration. Companies have sprung up to supply shiatsu, antistress and cleansing massages in the workplace. To these may be added cultural associations inspired by oriental traditions, aimed at spreading a corporate culture which is more aware and respectful of workers, the environment and social development (with seminars which have titles like “Feng Shui at Work”, “Zen in the Office” and “The Soul of Management”);

- The health service. Any classification of alternative medicine shows that many practices used for therapeutic purposes (meditation, homeopathy, Ayurveda, qigong, reiki) make up the holistic milieu’s offering, which is to say, the set of activities collected in literature under the heading of Body/Mind/Spirit, which share the promise of helping practicants connect with their deeper selves. Not least, meditation, stress therapy with counselling and yoga are now starting to be introduced into Italian schools;

- “Wellness”. According to the latest report on the thermal system, the overwhelming majority of centres responded to the demand for overall wellbeing by adding all kinds of holistic treatment (Ayurveda, shiatsu, hot stones, reiki etc.) and gentle therapeutic practices (yoga, t’ai chi ch’uan, Pilates, etc.) to what they are offering. Some plants have emphasized the spiritual dimension with precise architectural choices or interior design typical of oriental resorts or suggested by feng shui (statues of the Buddha, incense, bells, crystal, salt lamps, fountains with nymphs and goldfish, Zen gardens etc.).

To study extra-religious spirituality, we also investigated the milieu, a special place – according to a lot of empirical studies – for the cultivation of Mind/Body/Spirit spirituality. The interviewees were asked whether, in the years immediately preceding the interview they had taken part in group activities dedicated to the East or the New Age. 4% said they had taken part in seminars concerning the New Age or new religious movements, 6% that they had joined meditation, yoga or Zen groups, and 9% that they had attended meetings dedicated to oriental spirituality. Compared to the data collected in 1994, the most significant increase is in participation in meditation, yoga and Zen groups.

This involvement, however, does not prove that Italians have chosen the spirituality alternative. Doing yoga does not necessarily mean looking for spiritual fulfillment or accepting the spiritual teachings transmitted by the discipline. So in order to distinguish the participants motivated by spiritual growth, the interviewees were asked to state their reason for taking part in those activities. Even though it is primarily cultural interest (49%) which causes interviewees to venture into this field, the search for a spiritual path should not be underestimated as a motive since it is chosen by 30%. Other reasons cited are: curiosity and the desire to try new experiences (27%); the wish to meet people with similar interests (12%); psycho-physical wellbeing (10%); looking for support in periods of crisis (9%); amusement (8%). We also asked ourselves what kind of spiritual research active individuals undertake in the holistic milieu. The answer is complicated by the fact that it is not possible to draw a clear line between churchgoers and those who are part of the holistic milieu. Nevertheless the data show that this latter meets above all the tastes of those looking for spiritual teachings which are different from those offered by Catholic institutions. This is evidenced by the fact that two-thirds of those who are part of the holistic milieu don’t go to Mass (or go only a couple of times a year); almost half do not believe in God, do not care or believe in a superior being other than God; more than two-thirds believe that spiritual life is possible without God.

Following are the two principal results of our survey. The first is that, compared with the past, Italians are more involved in the holistic milieu and more interested in trying out what it has to offer. But the difference is hardly noticeable and the increase, which seems to reflect the demand for extra-religious spirituality, does not seem to be a prelude to a spiritual revolution. On the contrary – and this is the second result– Italians’ spirituality correlates highly with religiousness, which is to say that it emerges as intra-religious or Catholic spirituality. The typology which we have constructed (Table 2) on the basis of the answers supplied by the sample to questions on self-definition as “religious person” or “spiritual person” shows that many Italians define themselves as “religious and spiritual” (46.2%); quite a few say they are “neither religious nor spiritual” (32.6%); and few see themselves as “only religious” (11%) or “only spiritual” (10.2%).

This last group is a new phenomenon within Italian Catholicism. Although the tendency is not very widespread in the population, it deserves attention insofar as it includes not only spiritual seekers, who are undertaking an extra-religious quest, but also those who say they are Catholic, identifying themselves as only spiritual. It is probable that they reject the label “religious” because they interpret faith as being autonomous of the Church’s teachings, or because for them religion evokes images of conflict or violence, or yet again because they consider the term to be dogmatic, institutional or simply anachronistic.

To understand these four groups more in depth, an analysis of their social/personal data, cultural and environmental profile is useful. To synthesize:

- Age: As they grow, so does their tendency to combine religiousness with spirituality. The proportion of those declaring themselves “religious and spiritual” increases from 35.1% of 16-25 year olds to 61.7% of 66-74 year olds the “only spiritual” category, on the other hand, belongs to the young, since it represents 12.9% of 16-25 year olds, more than double compared to the elderly (5.2%). Thus the lower the age, the greater the number who tend to recognize the presence of spiritual pressure in their own lives without identifying with official patterns of expression of religious feeling. All the same, among young Italians the “only spiritual” tendency does not translate into the typical “spiritual nomads’” aptitude for combining beliefs and practices from different religions. Many indicators point to the thesis that spirituality is understood more as a horizon of possibility than as a practical option. The greater affinity of the young generations to the “only spiritual” label may be attributed to their looser bond with traditionalism. As Smith and Lindquist Denton (2005) claim, speaking of American adolescents, among the “spiritual but not religious” there are many who use this category not so much to distance themselves from organized religions as to underline the importance of a faith which is full of meaning on a personal level but which they continue to practice within the context of organized religion.

- Geographical area. The most interesting datum concerns Southern Italy. As is well known, here religiousness closer to Church tradition predominates. The analysis confirms this tendency, showing not only that in the South there are more “religious and spiritual” (54.7 of the population as against a national average of 46.2%) but also that the proportion of those who profess extra-religious spirituality practically halves. While in the North 10.1% of people define themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, the figure for the South is 6%;

- Educational level. The number of people who consider themselves “only spiritual” increases with academic qualifications, rising from 4.8% of those who have finished primary school to 19.9% of those who have a university degree or equivalent. Moreover, among people of the same age, those with more education are more likely to consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” than those with less. Nevertheless, returning to our typology, most Italians combine religiousness with spirituality. How, then, do they cultivate spirituality within Catholicism? Statistical analysis reveals two main tendencies: the first can be gathered from the data on religious experience relative to the strong growth, in the last decade, of people who have had direct contact with the sacred. If in 1994 53% revealed their feeling that God was watching over their lives, the figure today is 67%. At the same time, the proportion of those who feel the presence of the Devil or evil has increased from 15% in 1994 to 35% today. A similar trend can be observed in all the other items in the survey related to experience. This scenario portrays an important change in Italians’ religion, almost an incursion of the ultramundane into their daily lives. In Italian literature the explanation of this phenomenon is often linked to the spread of the charismatic Catholic and the rediscovery of popular religion. With regard to English-speaking countries, the phenomenon is usually traced back to theories of “re-enchantment” of the world. The fact that the change described has, in Italy, a Catholic label can be inferred because, as distinct from other European countries, the spread of direct experiences of the supernatural is not accompanied by a corresponding increase in involvement in the world of the paranormal. It is not by chance that those Catholics who define themselves as “spiritual and religious” are the most inclined to recognize the presence of the sacred in daily life, identifying the tangible signs by which it manifests itself, this is why experiences not mediated by the divine are such a important form of expression today of Catholic spirituality.

Also the study of religious practices throws light on the two specific ways in which the Catholic faithful experience spirituality. First, by selective use of practices like pilgrimages, monastic retreats, reading etc, which more than others allow the cultivation of a personal relationship with God and the enhancement of the most intimate and subjective aspects of that relationship. In the year preceding the interviews, 15.6% had taken part in a pilgrimage and 6.9% had spent time in a monastery; the percentages almost double if we consider only the Catholics who are “religious and spiritual”. Second, in the contemporary reinterpretation of some ancient and traditional practices. The best example is prayer, a very widespread practice in Italy (35% of Catholics said they prayed at least once a day). These data show how closely prayer is linked to the religious dimension of Catholicism because Catholics who combine religion and spirituality pray more than those who are only “spiritual”. And even if the latter pray, they do so for different reasons from the others. While the “only religious” and “neither spiritual nor religious” Catholics pray because of tradition and a sense of duty, those “both religious and spiritual” pray “to feel close to God” (63.8%), and the “only spiritual” to clarify things for themselves and reflect on their own lives.

The analysis carried out so far raises more questions than it answers, illustrating how much more work needs to be done to explore the relationship between spirituality and Catholicism in Italy. The time is ripe for Italian sociology of religion to insert the category of spirituality in its agenda. Thus it can make an important contribution to a debate which – even if in Italy it is only at the beginning – on the international level is established and growing.