Sunday, January 09, 2005

La Religione Diffusa

WorldWide Religious News

Paul Ginsborg, a prominent historian of Italy, described the overall atmosphere, in Italian, as "la religione diffusa." The religion of everyone or, in his loose translation, "It's in the air."...Crucifixes may hang in public schools, but without the heavy political overtones that come with displays of, say, the Ten Commandments in public places in America..."Everybody thinks that the pope is the only moral figure in my country as far as war and social justice go," said Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party, who spearheaded the campaign to legalize abortion in the 1970's. "But on personal behavior, meaning sex, meaning divorce, meaning motherhood and pregnancy, people frankly do not care.

For the past decade or so I've been following Culture Wars in the US and the debate about homosexuality in the Episcopal Church in particular which, so far, has culminated in the Eames Report. I even published a paper on this myself.

Liberals in the Episcopal Church feel that it is terribly important for the Church as an institution to affirm, officially, that homosexual activity is morally ok. I don't really understand why. Episcopalians have never paid any attention to the Church's official views on "personal behavior" and no one else has every really paid any attention to the Episcopal Church. The whole program has the Quixotic air of a campaign to get the Roman Catholic Church to reverse its position on birth control. Apart from a few eccentric enthusiasts for "natural family planning" no Catholic takes it seriously. Lay Catholics don't take it seriously and know that priests don't take it seriously; priests know that lay Catholics don't take it seriously and know that lay Catholics know that they don't take it seriously either. Everyone knows that the Vatican will keep making noises about it, and other matters of "personal behavior," because it's part of the routine--but everyone knows that no one takes it seriously and that objecting to it is just silly.

Episcopalians, though, are Protestants--indeed, the "P" in "WASP." (If you don't believe it or were told in Confirmation Class that the Reformation in England never really happened see The Stripping of the Altars) Protestants believe that everything in religion should be taken seriously and that anything that isn't is sheer hypocracy or superstition.

In the Episcopal Church, as it had become, it just wouldn't do to view the official doctrines about homosexuality as silly stuff that no one took seriously, like the RC Church's official position on contraception. People who didn't buy it felt that they had to see to it that it was officially repudiated. It wouldn't do to simply to ignore the official position on sexual conduct as one of those silly things that no one took seriously and that everyone knew no one took seriously--if it was wrong it had to be expunged and officially repudiated, whatever the cost.

This seemed to me preposterous. Tony Soprano and his associates never felt that they needed clergy approval for operating protection rackets and whacking people in order to be Catholic. All religions have lots of doctrines and rules on the books. Some, like rules against killing are sensible and most people are on board with them; others, like prohibitions on artificial contraception are completely silly and virtually no one takes them seriously. No one has to take the official doctrines and rules, whether sensible or silly, seriously to belong to a religion: you go through the motions, buy what you like, take what you want and do as you please. That is la religione diffusa.

The Episcopal Church's crusade to recognize homosexuality as officially ok was arrogant, pointless and, like the recent campaign for gay marriage, largely counterproductive. Among coastal elites--the Episcopal Church's (admittedly shrinking) "base"--homosexuality wasn't an issue and, within the Church, the traditional prohibition was not taken any more seriously than the official ban on pre-marital sex or the official ban on "artificial" birth control in the Catholic Church. There's no patching it up now that the issue is out on the table. It won't collapse the Anglican Church: it will simply erode it a little bit faster than the normal course of events would have done, cost more money and make people angrier.

What would have happened if 40 years ago the Episcopal Church had simply continued with business as usual--cranking out Elizabethan liturgy and maintaining phony gothic churches as settings for fancy weddings? What if it hadn't done folk masses in the '60s or liturgical revision in the '70s, ordained women or blessed same sex unions? It would certainly have declined because, much as it eats me, the Episcopal Church could never be a vehicle of the religione diffusa that I envied in the Mediterranean Folk Catholicism I knew as a child or the medieval fantasy of Chaucer's Merry England I entertained as an undergraduate. Great Pan is dead, the semi-pagan folk Christianity I admired is on the way out and the religion of self-conscious conviction and intentional commitment is on the rise. And the US represents the world-wide norm--outside of Italy apparently--where religion is taken seriously or not at all, which, unfortunately, for me means not at all.


Eddie said...

A wonderful post, but it seems somewhat anti-enlightenment. Have you abandoned the project?

H. E. said...

Why "anti-Enlightenment"? Not debating--just curious.

Eddie said...

It seems anti-enlightenment to me to prefer muddling along to institutions that function according to principles that are clearly articulated and adhered to.

I agree that the Protestants are generally misguided by this instinct to cut out everything that doesn't seem serious and to make everything else so serious that further schisms are inevitable. Theologically they think of themselves as undogmatic, but the practice is usually quite different. Given my own background in the Protestant world, it took me a long time to see just how peculiar this way of thinking is.

H. E. said...

Interesting. Now that I think of it, the Reformation broadly construed was a precursor to the Enlightenment and subsequently an impediment.

First it made popular religion an intellectual enterprise by emphasizing the Word--the laity were supposed to read Scripture for themselves, listen to sermons, understand what was going on and take it seriously. Since the Church monopolized education, this was the only entre into literacy and intellectual life the laity could get.

But then other avenues opened up, ordinary people gained access to secular learning. The Church's intellectual enterprise competed with the secular intellectual enterprise and lost out.

As late as the 18th century people demanded sermons and wanted them long. Popular preachers used and hour glass to time themselves and when they were through people demanded another turn of the glass. Books were expensive, mass media were barely on the scene, and sermons were the only popular vehicle for intellectual stimulation. Now people can get more and better reading the Sunday papers or watching TV.

You'd think that la religione diffusa would have a market amongst the intelligencia precisely because it doesn't compete intellectually with the enlightenment project (since it isn't an intellectual enterprise at all). But I think it won't because Christianity, particularly in the US, is so associated with dogmatism, with that intellectual version of religion, that it's poisoned for most educated people. Folks think they can dabble in "Eastern religions" and New Age products but don't believe that they can have any dealings with Christianity unless they take every jot and tittle seriously and buy into the whole package.