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The unification of Italy (1860-70) caused a serious crisis in the relations between the Catholic Church and the new State. The liberal governments of Cavour and his successors began a process of secularisation of institutions and public life, for example the introduction of obligatory civil marriage, 1865; restriction of Catholic religious education in State schools, 1877; reform of the penal laws for the protection of religion, 1889; State control of the welfare and charitable institutions, 1890. 

These changes were opposed by the Church hierarchy, which was further concerned by measures aiming to diminish the economic power of the Church, especially by way of abolishing certain Church entities and confiscating their property, between 1866 and 1867. The fact that the unification of Italy was attained by destroying the secular power of the Popes, through the capture of Rome in September 1870, gave particular strength to the hostility felt by many Catholics towards the Kingdom of Italy which was accused of trying to rob the Pope and the Church of their remaining liberty. 

The predominantly moderate policy of the Italian Government, particularly after the promulgation of the Law of Guarantees (legge delle Guarentigie) in 1871, gradually reduced the tension in the Church-State relations, which were further improved by the more flexible attitudes of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) and of Giovanni Giolitti, who led Italian politics in the first fifteen years of the 20th century. However, the outbreak of World War I prevented this rapprochement having any concrete effects. 

Following the war, the Fascist party, which was in power from 1922 until the end of the Second World War, initiated a policy of conciliation towards the Catholic Church culminating in the signing of the Lateran Treaties in 1929. These resolved the “Roman question” (the conflict between the Pope and the Italian State about sovereignty on Rome) by creating the Vatican State. The Treaties also restored some of the Church’s privileges ˗ in matrimonial and economic matters and in the field of religious education in State schools ˗ which it had lost during the liberal period.

The promulgation of the Republican Constitution in 1948 formed the basis for the revision of those provisions of the Lateran Concordat which were least compatible with the principles of freedom and equality in religious matters enshrined in the Constitution. However, for a number of national and international reasons, the reform of Italian ecclesiastical law could not be initiated until the 1980s, after a significant process of secularisation (the most important results of which ˗ in the field of legislation ˗ were the introduction of divorce in 1970 and the legalisation of abortion in 1978) had profoundly changed Italian society.

Silvio Ferrari

Ferrari, S. (2005). State and Church in Italy. In G. Robbers (Ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 209-210.


Italy is a traditionally Catholic country. For historical, cultural and geopolitical reasons (in particular the presence in Italy of the governing body of the Catholic Church, the Holy See), the Catholic Church exerts a significant influence on the life of the country, even if the number of its members is gradually decreasing. The existence of a concordat between the Holy See and Italy gives the Catholic Church a particularly favorable legal status.

All other religious groups are minorities. They can be divided into three major categories. A first group consists of minorities that are not recognized as religious organizations: for example, Scientology and the Sikh communities. They are governed by the law that applies to civil law associations - such as nonprofit organizations - and, in general, enjoy fewer rights than the other religious minorities.

A second group is represented by the minorities that are recognized under the law on "admitted cults" of 1929: this is the case of the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy.

From the point of view of their legal status, they are in an intermediate position, but cannot teach their religion in public schools or make use of the system of public financing of religious communities

Finally, the third group includes the religious organizations that have successfully established an agreement with the Italian state. This group includes all the other minorities considered in this research. Their members enjoy the widest range of rights, including the right to abstain from work on their religious holidays and the right to deduct the donations made to their community from the taxes they pay.

Philosophical and non-denominational organizations are not considered to be religious minorities and therefore are regulated through the rules governing civil law associations.

In Italy there is no law on religious freedom and the law on religious minorities (the so-called law on "admitted cults") dates back to 1929. For this reason, the legal status of the first and second group of religious minorities is weak; on the other hand, the minorities that have succeeded in establishing an agreement with the state enjoy a legal position that in some ways can be approached to that of the majority religious organization, the Catholic Church.

The position of Muslim communities is today at the center of the debate on religious minorities in Italy. These communities, despite having a significant number of members, have not been able to obtain an agreement with the state, and experience significant difficulties in opening houses of worship.

Silvio Ferrari




Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill).

General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Italy in Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

Legislative acts on the legal status of the main religious organizations are available (in Italian) on the Ministry of the Interior’s official webpage, at https://www.interno.gov.it.

A report on the Italian legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in Department Reports and Publications - United States Department of State.

For an analysis of the State-religion legal system see

M. Ventura, Religion and Law in Italy, Alphen aan den Rijn: Wolters Kluwer, 2013.

An analysis of the way religion and religious diversity are governed in Italy is provided at http://grease.eui.eu and more widely by Tina Magazzini, The Italian case: 'baptised laicità' and a changing demographic, in A. Triandafyllidou, & T. Magazzini (Eds.), Routledge Handbook on the Governance of Religious Diversity, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020.

See also

Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri – Ufficio del Segretario generale (Ufficio Studi e Rapporti Istituzionali), L’esercizio della libertà religiosa in Italia, Roma: Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri – Dipartimento per l’informazione e l’editoria, 2013 (available, in Italian, at http://presidenza.governo.it

The legal and social condition of religious minorities in Italy is discussed by R. Mazzola, The Legal Status of Old and New Religious Minorities in the EU - Italian Situation, Granada: Comares, 2021, available at https://www.churchstate.eu.



1 promotion of rights
0 respect of international standards
-1 restriction of rights
1 low equality
0 equal treatment of RBMs
0 no gap between religious majority and minorities
-1 high gap between religious majority and minorities


(source: World Religion Database, 2021)