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The State is laic February 7, 2009

Posted by dorigo in history, personal, politics, religion.
Tags: , , , , ,

The other day, while waiting for my turn to operate the automatic coffee machine in the basement of the physics department, I read a small newspaper clip hung by somebody on the bulletin board in front of the machine. It was a comment by Michele Serra, who sarcastically thanked an italian archbishop of the catholic church, for clarifying in an interview that the Church’s rules, to a christian, come before the ones of the State. In other words, Serra clarified, catholics should not follow laws, in case those collide with the predicaments of the Church. So catholic physicians, for instance, are justified if they do not prescribe the “day after” pill against pregnancy: the State demands them to do it, but Christ comes first.

We of course have very clear and present in our minds how religious fundamentalism is dangerous to the civil world, thanks to recent terrorist actions in the US, in Spain, and elsewhere in the world. It still surprises, however, to read it clearly from the words spelt by a high mushroom in the catholic hierarchy.

And today, I was reading a book on the young catholics in Italy after WWII, their organization (GIAC, the catholic action movement), and their attempts to make sense of the conflicting needs of being a good catholic and a good citizen. My father was a member of this movement in the years immediately following 1948, when Italy was a young democracy and the relationship of State and Church needed to be rethought and rewritten (he became an atheist a decade or two later, after observing for a while the fundamentalism of catholics from a vantage point).

The book, by Francesco Piva, is titled “La gioventu’ cattolica in cammino… Memoria e storia del gruppo dirigente (1946-1954)“, ed. Franco Angeli 2003. I thus found a very interesting quote by Umberto Eco, who was to become a famous italian novelist and professor of Semiotic, and back then was a member of the GIAC along with my father. On page 205 Piva clarifies things in this revealing quote:

Eco insiste sul fatto che l’educazione cattolica era tutta concentrata sul sesto comandamento perche’ era impregnata di antistatalismo e non aveva alcuna sensibilità verso i doveri sociali: “Non dimentichiamoci che l’educazione cattolica che si riceveva era: il contrabbando e l’evasione fiscale non sono peccato, perché sono contro la legge dello Stato che è contingente, non sono contro la legge divina. (…) Il problema era che uno non commettesse atti impuri: se poi fregava lo Stato…

Here is a tentative translation:

Eco insists on the fact that the catholic education was thoroughly concentrated on the sixth commandment, because it was filled with anti-statalism and it did not show any sensitivity towards social duties: “Don’t let’s forget that the catholic education that one was given was: smuggling and fiscal elusion are not a sin, because they are against the law of the State which is accidental, they are not against the divine law. (…). The problem was avoiding committing impure acts: if one then fucked the State…

Enlightening. It transpires that the archbishop mentioned by Serra in his article is not a white fly: they all have this belief deeply implanted in their roots. That, to me, is a clear reason for any politician, right or left, believer or atheist, to reject any ingerence in political decisions from the Vatican. This is another State trying to influence the law making in ours!


1. wrf3 - February 7, 2009

Of course the duty of a Christian is to Christ first and the state second. The Bible is full of examples of disobedience to the state: the Exodus of Israel from Egypt; the refusal of Shadrach, Messhach, and Abednego to worship Nebuchadnezzar; the refusal of Daniel to pray only to Nebuchadnezzar; the refusal of the disciples to stop preaching the Gospel; …

To equate this with terrorism is equivocation most foul. If the shoe were on the other foot, you’d be screaming for “freedom of conscience!” It is, after all, why professors have tenure, right? So they can be free to dissent and follow research where it may lead?

The real terrorist is the one who uses arms, or the threat thereof, to force people to conform their conscience to state approved norms.

dorigo - February 8, 2009

Dear wtf,

I never said I equate fundamentalist catholics to terrorists. I just argue that the Vatican should be treated like a foreign state, as it is, and not allowed any ingerence in italian lawmaking.


2. Alf - February 8, 2009

It is interesting that we seem to be asking the same questions over and over for the last 2000 years. Essentially, the jews were trying to accuse Christ of being a terrorist and an underminer of the state, to which his answer was the one should give to Ceasar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God…
I don’t think things are as simple as you’re making them sound –
so let’s deform your question a bit… If the government (which you adore) passes a law which you disagree with, will you follow it?
Even more generally: should one have his own moral judgement and understanding of right and wrong? Or should he stick entirely to the formal, legislative side of all questions and expect the state to regulate everything ? This sounds a bit orwellian (or pc, or soviet)…

dorigo - February 9, 2009

Alf, of course I follow laws I do not subscribe to! Who are you taking me for ? And do you subscribe to all the laws of your country ? Get real, there are hundreds of them.


3. Chris' Wills - February 8, 2009

Surely the Vatican State only has influence in Italy in so far as many citizens of Italy are Catholics and the Vatican state is run by the Pope of the catholic church.

No different in fact from any other group of Italians who are members of a club, or perhaps more closely similar to communists who took their orders from the ussr in days gone by.

On the disobeying state law in favour of your beliefs, isn’t this what any person is entitled to do? In fact one might suppose that we should follow our conscience rather than the dictats of the state, especially given that the state and those who run it are often corrupt.

Are people wrong to oppose what they see as wrong or does the fact that something is legal ipso facto make it good.

After all, there wouldn’t be an Italy if some revolutionaries hadn’t forced it upon the then idependent kingdoms that Italy was composed of.

dorigo - February 9, 2009

Chris, are you kidding me ? Entitled to disobey state law in favor of your believs ??? You are not democratic if you say that. A democratic person follows the laws even if he or she does not like them!


4. wrf3 - February 8, 2009

Dorigo wrote, “I never said I equate fundamentalist catholics to terrorists.”

Then what was the point of this, which is an exact quote: “We of course have very clear and present in our minds how religious fundamentalism is dangerous to the civil world, thanks to recent terrorist actions in the US, in Spain, and elsewhere in the world. It still surprises, however, to read it clearly from the words spelt by a high mushroom in the catholic hierarchy.”

The “it” in “to read it clearly” has to refer to the antecedent, “religious fundamentalism” which, in your mind, is “dangerous to the civil world” because of “terrorist attacks”. “It” is then further associated with “a high mushroom in the catholic hierarchy.”

If I’ve parsed this incorrectly, or this wasn’t what you really meant to write, then please set us all straight.

Your wish that “the Vatican should be treated like a foreign state, as it is, and not allowed any ingerence [interference?] in italian lawmaking” is also suspect. Are you hinting that Roman Catholic Italians shouldn’t be allowed to participate in the political process? Because that’s the only way the Vatican can exert influence. After all, how many armored divisions does the Pope have, anyway?

dorigo - February 9, 2009

wrf, I think you are deliberately playing the dumb guy. Italian citizens have every right to participate in the democratic life of their country. However, they should not use their religious ranking as a means of making their voice stronger and sending defamatory accusations around (“homicide”, etc.).
And fundamentalism is fundamentalism, i.e., a despicable, obtuse way of thinking, that leads people to err and become terrorists, or to err and try to impose their religion on a laic state.


5. Daniel de França MTd2 - February 9, 2009

“A democratic person follows the laws even if he or she does not like them!”

You mean, a republican person. I don’t think it is correct to follow every silly law. A small example is that If I did that, I’d never have the income to read as many technical books and lots of articles as I do. A big example it is that none of the civilian rights would be conquered by obeying every law. I would never, ever, obey a law that would tell me that I should only let only black people sit in the back of the bus.

6. Chris' Wills - February 10, 2009

T, no I’m not kidding you.

If I believe a law is wrong I am duty bound (International court of justice, Neremburg trials back me on this) to disobey an immoral law and preferably should oppose its imposition.

I may be punished for doing so but international law says that obeying the law of the land is not an excuse if that law is immoral or unethical.

An example, if the law says that all left handed, heterosexual, italian, physicists should be shot at dawn would you oppose such a law and if it was enacted would you not fight against its application (I’ve no idea if you are left, right or ambidextrous).

Just because something is legal doesn’t make it good, such belief leads to dictatorship.

7. dorigo - February 10, 2009


stupid example Nuremberg (and not too smart one the one about black men in the bus Daniel). I am talking about a grown up democracy. But I think it is useless to argue with you, you just don’t get it.

8. Daniel de França MTd2 - February 10, 2009

What is a grown up democracy?

dorigo - February 11, 2009

A grown up democracy is NOT one which contains racial discrimination laws, as an example. This of course is a very narrow point of view, but is just an example. A democracy, if it works, makes laws that citizens should follow, and if they do not want them, they change them democratically. In Italy, which is not the best example of a grown-up democracy but still is close, Italians presented >500k signatures and changed a horrible law which forbade divorce. This was in 1974.


9. Daniel de França MTd2 - February 11, 2009

I don’t see what that has anything to do with not following a law that you think is unfair. Divorce is a right granted by the state, this is not a thing that a citizen would not be able to follow. Anyway, I can’t read your mind, I can’t guess what you find reasonable, so I gave you 2 examples, one exagerated and one small example.

Regarding the small one, I gladly do not follow it, because I think that it is immoral for my person not to be blocked from reading anything just because I can’t afford them, or because otherwise to do the same thing, I would have to pay so much that my private life would be seriously handicapped.

10. Chris' Wills - February 11, 2009

Why is it a silly example?
Following laws blindly is silly, one should consider if it is just or not; the only measure is personal belief anything else is an imposition.

Now I realise that in a democracy things can change peacefully, but your example actually highlights my point.

The law said one thing and people reacted against it, should they have just kowtowed?

There are lots of laws I don’t like, but there are many I do so on balance in my present society I don’t make a fuss. But such an attitude isn’t always conducive to improving society.

No matter, I’m obviouslly too stupid to understand your rational.

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