Religion in Italy: History and Statistics

St. Peter'S Square
St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, in the center of Rome.

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Roman Catholicism is, unsurprisingly, the dominant religion in Italy, and the Holy See is located in the center of the country. The Italian constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which includes the right to publicly and privately worship and profess faith as long as the doctrine does not conflict with public morality.

Key Takeaways: Religion in Italy

  • Catholicism is the dominant religion in Italy, making up 74% of the population.
  • The Catholic Church is headquartered in Vatican City, in the heart of Rome. 
  • Non-Catholic Christian groups, which make up 9.3% of the population, include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, Latter Day Saints, and Protestants. 
  • Islam was present in Italy during the Middle Ages, though it disappeared until the 20th century; Islam is not currently recognized as an official religion, though 3.7% of Italians are Muslim.
  • An increasing number of Italians identify as atheist or agnostic. They are protected by the constitution, though not from Italy’s law against blasphemy. 
  • Other religions in Italy include Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, the latter of which predates Christianity in Italy. 

The Catholic Church maintains a special relationship with the Italian government, as listed in the constitution, though the government maintains that the entities are separate. Religious organizations must establish a documented relationship with the Italian government in order to be officially recognized and receive economic and social benefits. Despite the continuous effort, Islam, the third largest religion in the country, has been unable to achieve recognition. 

History of Religion in Italy 

Christianity has been present in Italy for at least 2000 years, predated by forms of animism and polytheism similar to that of Greece. Ancient Roman gods include Juniper, Minerva, Venus, Diana, Mercury, and Mars. The Roman Republic—and later the Roman Empire—left the question of spirituality in the hands of the people and maintained religious tolerance, so long as they accepted the birthright divinity of the Emperor.

After the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostles Peter and Paul—who were later sainted by the Church—traveled across the Roman Empire spreading the Christian doctrine. Though both Peter and Paul were executed, Christianity became permanently intertwined with Rome. In 313, Christianity became a legal religious practice, and in 380 CE, it became the state religion.

During the early Middle Ages, the Arabs conquered Mediterranean territories across northern Europe, Spain, and into Sicily and southern Italy. After 1300, the Islamic community all but disappeared in Italy until immigration in the 20th century.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of his local parish, igniting the Protestant Reformation and permanently changing the face of Christianity across Europe. Though the continent was in turmoil, Italy remained the European stronghold of Catholicism.

The Catholic Church and the Italian government wrestled for control of governance for centuries, ending with the territory unification that occurred between 1848 – 1871. In 1929, Prime Minister Benito Mussolini signed sovereignty of Vatican City to the Holy See, solidifying the separation between church and state in Italy. Though the constitution of Italy guarantees the right of religious freedom, a majority of Italians are Catholics and the government still maintains a special relationship with the Holy See.

Roman Catholicism

Approximately 74% of Italians identify as Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church is headquartered in the State of Vatican City, a nation-state located in the center of Rome. The pope is the head of Vatican City and the Bishop of Rome, highlighting the special relationship between the Catholic Church and the Holy See.

The current head of the Catholic Church is the Argentinian-born Pope Francis who takes his papal namesake from St. Francis of Assisi, one of the two patron saints of Italy. The other patron saint is Catherine of Siena. Pope Francis ascended to the papacy after the controversial resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, following a series of sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic clergy and an inability to connect with the congregation. Pope Francis is known for his liberal values relative to previous popes, as well as his focus on humility, social welfare, and interfaith conversations.

According to the legal framework of the Constitution of Italy, the Catholic Church and the Italian government are separate entities. The relationship between the Church and the government is regulated by treaties that grant the Church social and financial benefits. These benefits are accessible to other religious groups in exchange for government monitoring, from which the Catholic Church is exempt.

Non-Catholic Christianity

The population of non-Catholic Christians in Italy is about 9.3%. The largest denominations are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Eastern Orthodoxy, while smaller groups include Evangelicals, Protestants, and Latter Day Saints.

Though a majority of the country identifies as Christian, Italy, along with Spain, has increasingly become known as a graveyard for Protestant missionaries, as numbers of Evangelical Christians have dwindled to less than 0.3%. More Protestant churches close annually in Italy than any other religiously affiliated group.

Islam

Islam held a significant presence in Italy over five centuries, during which time it dramatically impacted the artistic and economic development of the country. After their removal in the early 1300s, Muslim communities all but disappeared in Italy until immigration brought a revival of Islam in Italy beginning in the 20th century.

Approximately 3.7% of Italians identify as Muslim. Many are immigrants from Albania and Morocco, though Muslim immigrants to Italy also come from all over Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. Muslims in Italy are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Despite significant effort, Islam is not an officially recognized religion in Italy, and several notable politicians have made controversial statements in opposition to Islam. Only a handful of mosques are recognized by the Italian government as religious spaces, though well over 800 unofficial mosques, known as garage mosques, are currently operating in Italy.

Talks between Islamic leaders and the Italian government to formally recognize the religion are ongoing.

Non-Religious Population

Though Italy is a majority Christian country, irreligion in the form of atheism and agnosticism is not uncommon. Approximately 12% of the population identifies as irreligious, and this number increases annually.

Atheism was first formally documented in Italy in the 1500s, as a result of the Renaissance movement. Modern Italian atheists are most active in campaigns to promote secularism in government.

The Italian Constitution protects the freedom of religion, but it also contains a clause making blasphemy against any religion punishable by a fine. Though typically not enforced, an Italian photographer was sentenced in 2019 to pay a €4.000 fine for remarks made against the Catholic Church.

Other Religions in Italy

Less than 1% of Italians identify as another religion. These other religions generally include Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Sikhism.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism grew significantly in Italy during the 20th century, and they both gained recognition status by the Italian government in 2012.

The number of Jews in Italy hovers around 30,000, but Judaism predates Christianity in the region. Over two millennia, Jews faced serious persecution and discrimination, including deportation to concentration camps during World War II.

Sources

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Italy. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019.
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Italy. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.
  • Gianpiero Vincenzo, Ahmad. “The History of Islam in Italy.” The Other Muslims , Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 55–70.
  • Gilmour, David. The Pursuit of Italy: History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples. Penguin Books, 2012.
  • Hunter, Michael Cyril William., and David Wootton, editors. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Clarendon Press, 2003.