Stanley Fish has an interesting column, as he most always does, in the New York Times digital edition today. The piece, titled “Crucifixes and Diversity: The Odd Couple,” considers a recent ruling by a high court in Italy that heard a case to determine:

…whether an Italian law requiring the placing of crucifixes in public classrooms violates a clause of the European Convention On Human Rights that recognizes “the right of parents to ensure … education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

The ultimate decision was “no,” the Italian law does not violate the EU law, overturning a lower court’s earlier decision that it was indeed a violation. The reason for the reversal: “a Crucifix is not a religious symbol, it is a cultural symbol.”

Um…I don’t think so.

Now, as much as it might seem counterintuitive for a professed Roman Catholic religious to recoil at such a ruling, consider what is at stake here. As much as I have my own difficulties with particular legislation and occasional interpretation of the Constitution of the United States — particularly with some popular conceptions of what the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses mean or don’t mean to some citizens — I actually think the founding authors of the Bill of Rights got it right. The State should not show any partiality in what would appear to be the establishment of a specific religion. The mandatory placement of Crucifixes in public places as required by the State would be a clear violation of this principle.

But, Italy is not the United States, so that particular Constitutional matter is of no concern to the Italian or EU government leaders and its citizens. However, Fish makes some good points as to why the Italians are only kidding themselves and why what is really going on is a (if not conscious, then subconscious) prioritization of one religion over and against others under the guise of cultural heritage.

That is, unless Christianity is not a religion… which, in addition to saying Crucifixes are not a religious symbol, is what the Italian high court declared.

What? Here’s how Fish relays the court’s opinion:

The Grand Chamber majority, however, takes care of that point in a way that is truly breathtaking. On top of declaring that the crucifix is not, or is not exclusively, a Christian symbol, it explains, in the course of rehearsing the holding of the Administrative Court, that Christianity is not really a religion (this is the bizarre argument), if by religion is meant a set of doctrinal tenets that the religionist is required to believe in and hearken to. To be sure, the majority acknowledges, that is the way religion is usually understood: “The logical mechanism of exclusion of the believer is inherent in any religious conviction.” But not in Christianity, said to be the “sole exception” because at the heart of it is the idea of charity, glossed as “respect for one’s fellow human beings.”

The decision continues:

This respect or tolerance overrides any specifically religious doctrine, however central or basic. “In Christianity even the faith in an omniscient god is secondary in relation to charity” (again, who knew?); and because this is so, Christianity can not properly be understood as excluding anyone from its protection or its precincts. Therefore, the crucifix (the chain of reasoning is reaching its destination) is everyone’s symbol, says “welcome” to everyone, for it is “the universal sign of the acceptance of and respect for every human being as such.” Therefore, having crucifixes in the classroom is perfectly O.K. and should distress no one: “… beyond its religious meaning, the crucifix symbolized the principles and values which formed the foundation of democracy and western civilization, and…its presence in classrooms was justifiable on that account.”

Well, as Fish goes on to say, “What we have here is a union of bad argument and bad theology.” Amen. Christianity is certainly a religion and a Crucifix is certainly a religious symbol. It is a symbol that, in the global popular imagination, represents the religion of Christianity.

The argument made by the Italian court is a ruse and, I believe, does in fact threaten the personal (and collective) liberties of the Italian citizens. While a Crucifix has religious and cultural significance for me (for religions have their own culture, for sure), I don’t expect that it should have the same significance — under the guise of “welcome” or whatever meaning I apply to it — for others.

The argument is clearly bad here, but the theology is worse. What the court is, perhaps inadvertently, doing is reducing the living or rich religious symbol of the Crucifix to a sign. Symbols bear manifold meaning that, in some sense, make present that which they represent. Signs have applied, external meaning given to them. The Crucifix, a theological symbol that is tied to explicitly Christian faith claims is made into something entirely different by virtue of the court’s opinion. Just as a red octagon is given the meaning “Stop here” by traffic laws in the United States, the Italian court has given the Crucifix a extrinsic meaning “welcome” (or whatever), which is not theologically grounded.

Christians and non-Christians alike should be taken aback by this decision and uncomfortable with the explanation of the court. As Stanely Fish said, what we have here is a bad argument and, in my opinion, even worse theology.

Photos: Stock 2; Reuters


  1. The Italian court may be using sleight of hand — especially from the American perspective where we have separation of church and state, but it does respect Italian law – which is very clear on the subject of religious instruction in public schools. The 1984 concordat between the Vatican and the Republic of Italy states:

    “The Italian Republic, recognizing the value of religious culture and having in mind that the principles of Catholicism are a part of the historical heritage of the Italian people, shall continue to assure, within the framework of the purpose of schools, the teaching of the Catholic religion in state schools of every order and grade, excepting universities.”
    “By way of respect for the freedom of conscience and the responsibility of parents for bringing up their children, the right is granted to all parents to choose to avail themselves or not avail themselves of the aforementioned instruction. Upon enrolment, students or their parents shall exercise this right on request of the school authorities, without their choice being the source of any form of discrimination.”

    In other words, public school students do not have to attend catechism class, but religious symbols like the cross, are a statement of the premise that “the principles of Catholicism are a part of the historical heritage of the Italian people.”

    So, given that premise, which is the Italians to decide, the judgment of the court follows. Actually, prior to the 1984 condordat, the Roman Catholic Church was the official state religion of Italy.

    Dominic Monti

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, Dan. Thanks for posting on this. The declaration that the cross is “just” a cultural symbol, not a religious one, is occasion for mourning and reflection, not celebration of a supposed legal victory!

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