Refashioning the Sacred: Italy, 1947-2005

Trevor Kilgore

Trevor Kilgore

by Trevor John Kilgore, University of Michigan

My research challenges traditional understandings of the Second Vatican Council and the “Long Sixties” and redefines the relationship between religion and the processes of modernity and secularization. It does so by examining the ways in which the quotidian practices of lay Catholics generated alternative imaginings of faithful living and reconceptualized sacred and non-sacred places in post-WWII Italian society.

As part of the postwar reconstruction effort, initiatives by the Italian government, the institutional Church, and lay organizations created communitarian movements that shaped the lived experience of Vatican II, the events of “1968,” and the political, cultural, and social debates of the later twentieth century. This study of the poetics and politics of place focuses on three case studies in central and northern Italy: the independent community of Nomadelfia for orphans guided by the principles of direct democracy and fraternity, the Florentine satellite-city of Isolotto, and the first Focolare international little town (“Mariapolis”) in Loppiano, Tuscany. An examination of the lived history of these communities demonstrates the potent role of place in the construction of religious associations and the ways in which symbolic meanings of place are created and deployed by various actors in different contexts. It also emphasizes the fluid nature of boundaries separating sacred and non-sacred places by tracing the connections between the political character of place and issues of religion, class, and gender. Finally, it highlights the social, political, and religious innovations of lay Catholics in the years preceding Vatican II.

A focus on how lay Catholics experienced the Second Vatican Council reveals their important role, and the significance of their earlier history, in impacting the course of the Council and its subsequent interpretation. In the decades preceding Vatican II, the archdiocese of Florence was one of the foremost ecclesiastical and political laboratories in Italy and the Catholic world. Innovative clergy partnered with lay Catholics to contest hierarchical structures of power within a fluid and developing society. In some parishes, the repositioning of church altars and the introduction of Italian translations for certain prayers and readings were met with a mixture of enthusiasm, concern, and resistance. During the Council, teachers, engineers, parish priests, laborers, and housewives frequently conveyed their desires for a more engaged Church in the lives of workers and youth, an expanded role for the laity in the management of parishes, and an open dialogue with non-believing Italians. Lay Catholics also applied their different experiences of the Council to local political and social crises that resonated nationally, including the mass dismissal of factory workers in January 1963 and an ongoing dispute regarding Catholic conscientious objectors. The actions of Florentine Catholics demonstrate that the Council was only the culmination of a longer process of religious renewal and contestation.

In the late 1960s, the lived experience of Vatican II served for many Italian Catholics as a powerful endorsement for their political, religious, and social activity. My research demonstrates the significance of Catholics’ participation in, and influence on, protest movements against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights in the United States, dialogue with both traditional Marxist and New Left individuals and organizations, and the occupation of churches, universities, and piazzas to draw attention to the economic inequity and hierarchical structure of Italian society. Although their actions were local, lay Catholics envisaged themselves as part of a global network that provided for the multi-directional flow of ideological and theological influences with other protesters, both Catholic and non-Catholic, in Latin America, Western Europe, and the United States. I argue that this lay Catholic activity was just as revolutionary as the wave of student protests and general workers’ strikes that swept through Italy, Europe, and the rest of the world, and thus deserves a more prominent place in the historical record of the “Long Sixties” and “1968.”

Most scholarly accounts of the Second Vatican Council and the “Long Sixties” end with the optimism of early reform efforts being overtaken by a creeping conservatism in both the institutional Catholic Church and general society in the 1970s. This temporal restriction, however, limits our understanding of the continuing impact of this innovative and tumultuous period on contemporary religion and society. By analyzing Italian society up to 2005, I argue that the legacy of ordinary lay Catholics’ alternative imaginings of faithful living and reconceptualizations of sacred and non-sacred places remained a potent force. In the 1970s and 1980s, many lay Catholics advocated for the passage of legislation permitting divorce and abortion in Italian society and the revision of the Concordat between the Holy See and Italian government. In later decades, these Catholics’ struggle for greater environmental safeguards and immigrant rights stimulated debates within broader Italian society and the institutional Church. Thus, a detailed study of the lived experience of Italian lay Catholics during the immediate Council period and its aftermath complicates the narrative that Vatican II and 1968 finalized a lengthy process of secularization in the modern world. Instead, the events of the 1960s catalyzed pre-existing currents of renewal that continued to influence religious, social, cultural, and political debates in the late twentieth century. This sustained activity and influence demonstrates the porous nature of the boundaries between religiously inspired and secular radical movements, which are too often depicted as distinct entities by scholars interested in describing religious change in Catholic Europe. Finally, my research suggests that the secularization master narrative should be replaced with a more inclusive conception of the role of religion in contemporary society, one that looks beyond traditional markers of religious activity and traces the diffusion and social significance of religious principles in unconventional settings and among diverse communities.

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