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Losing faith: why Italians are spurning the Church

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Vatican scandals are driving Italian Catholics away. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
10:39 CET+01:00
It may still have a reputation as a pious country, but a record number of Italian Catholics are thought to have defected from the Church in 2015.

At least that's according to the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Italian Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish in order to get the process going. 

A record 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015.

This beat the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church.

But while the high volume doesn't necessarily mean that all those who downloaded the forms went through with giving up on their faith, last year's figure also represents an increase of more than 15,000 downloads on 2014, despite Pope Francis' enduring popularity.

In the months after the election of the charismatic pontiff in February 2013, Catholics around the world were feeling inspired by his seemingly more open and tolerant approach, leading to an increase in church congregations.

But his appeal has since been tainted by a series of scandals, especially those that emerged in 2015.

“Last year's record numbers are due to multiple factors," Adele Orioli, a spokesperson for URR, told The Local.

"Firstly, we have the latest Vatileaks scandal and the Vatican's subsequent treatment of the journalists involved.

"Secondly, the Church was hit by fresh paedophile scandals in 2015. And finally, there was the Vatican's vocal opposition to Italy's civil unions bill. All of these have probably led to a higher number of Italian Catholics feeling alienated from the faith.”

The URR forms are mainly being downloaded by young Italians who have lost patience with the Church, or are maybe angry at being initiated into the religion before they were old enough to have their say, Orioli added.

While Elena Coda, a 27-year-old student from Sardinia, hasn't applied to officially leave the Church, she told The Local that "as a non-believer, it is something I could see myself doing".  

“I used to be religious but stopped believing, not because of anything the Church did. It was more that my personal circumstances changed and now I really only believe in what I can see."

Others say that while they would be reluctant to completely renounce their faith, Vatican politics contributes to their religious apathy.

"“I'm baptized and I do believe in God," Vincenzo Cascone, a 25-year-old student from Naples, told The Local.

"I wouldn't leave the Church, even though I don't go very often at all, but it has lost a lot of appeal. There have been too many scandals and I think that when it comes to issues like civil unions they just need to evolve.”"

Each generation in Italy is slightly less religious than the one before: a trend which is confirmed by several sets of data.

Parish records reveal a decrease in the number of children being baptized, while figures from Istat, the national statistics office, in late 2014 revealed that only one out of four people now attends Church at least once a week.

Attendance at papal events in Rome has also declined since the end of 2013, with the Holy Year, of Jubilee of Mercy, getting off to a slow start in December despite the millions of pilgrims anticipated.

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Meanwhile, a 2010 study showed that less than a quarter of baptized Italians are actively practicing their faith.

But is it just the younger generation renouncing God?

"I am Catholic but only really go to mass on special occasions," said Andrea, a 50-year-old barman in Rome.

"If I wanted to leave the Church I would have already done it, but with young people today it's a different story."

Church scandals involving paedophilia and corruption began to receive widespread media attention from the 1980s onwards, and Andrea says he even sees a difference in his two teenage children - who have grown up to be more critical of the Catholicism.

"There has been a lot of bad press about the Church and young people today are much more cynical. My children have been baptized and were confirmed, but still have no interest in the Church whatsoever."

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