Catholicism is just one brand of Christianity among many in Italy as it is in the United States. Jews in Italy can be traced to the 2nd century BCE. Muslims date back to the 9th century. It is absurd to think only Catholics migrated to the United States or that other religious affiliations are inferior to Catholicism in defining Italian American identity. Italian American organizations include members of diverse faiths and even diverse heritage. Beyond ethnicity, Catholic schools have long served non-Catholic students. Estimates nation-wide are 20-25% with urban schools serving much higher rates; some as high as 75% of students.
As an example, the mission statement for the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) says, “Together, we unite members within communities and unite communities across states to celebrate, preserve and promote the Italian heritage.” With its motto, “Liberia, Unita, Dovere” (Liberty, Unity, Duty) one might assume ISDA seeks kinship, common ground and inclusion. Yet, the organization’s president, Basil Russo, has taken it upon himself to redefine not only what it means to share in an Italian American community, but who is Italian American. This diminishes our community and eliminates anyone who does not meet his definition.
Mr. Russo as the current president for the Presidents of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations (COPOMAIO) put together a group of self-appointed leaders to visit Italy promoting economic, cultural and religious activities. Given the religious diversity in the Italian American community, one might suppose the delegation’s aim was to foster a greater sense of ecumenism, but this is not what Mr. Russo wants at all. His statement about Catholicism asserts a rather perverse view of religion within the Italian Diaspora in America. Mr. Russo writes,
“Our Catholic faith is such an intricate and essential part of our heritage that it, more than anything else, defines our Italian American identity. It deserves newfound focus and attention” (italics added, see ISDA News).
How is it possible that anyone who has studied the Italian Diaspora would make such a statement? Catholicism has never been a criterion for claiming an Italian heritage. This statement from someone in such a position conveys an exclusionary attitude going against the basic tenets of Catholicism itself.
One must assume Mr. Russo is unaware that not only is it the case that many Italian Americans are not Catholic, but, “Catholic affiliation among Italian American adults has fallen from 89% in 1972 to 56% in 2010 . . . Note as this drop has occurred the overall Catholic affiliation percentage for U.S. adults has remained unchanged at 25%—where it has been for decades. (See 1964 the research blog of the Georgetown University for one set of data on this topic.)
Additionally, one must assume Mr. Russo is unaware of how Italian immigrants were treated by the Catholic Church in America. This is odd given the statement that his
“. . . primary motivation [for involvement in Italian American causes] is to pay respect and honor to the memory of my parents and grandparents who are no longer with me”
(see ISDA, About the President). Is he unaware of how the Irish-dominated bureaucracy of the Church would have openly expressed its hostility toward and discriminated against, his grandparents? The relationship between the Church and Italian immigrants is too complex for discussion here, but suffice it to say that there was no love lost between those Irish prelates and their Italian flock. Italian immigrant practices around saints, shrines and charms to ward off the “evil eye” were considered pagan in nature and openly castigated. Given their treatment in Italy and then in America encouraged by the Church, Italian immigrants distrusted priests.
In my 20+ years researching ethnic identity, religion, while mentioned, is not an aspect that, “more than anything else, defines our Italian American identity.” Family is by far the most important dimension for individuals. Further, it seems to be the case that a strict adherence to Catholic tenets creates a barrier to various types of achievement, especially higher education.
I must also include a disclaimer. When my father asked that I marry in church, I had to seek permission from an “expert” on the Code of Canon Law and Marriage at The Tribunal for the Diocese of Brooklyn because my future husband was divorced. That effort led to my excommunication. A letter stating this was sent not to me, but to my husband. In the follow up conversation the monsignor warned that my husband was putting my immortal soul in jeopardy. I took the risk. It is understandable then that a Catholicism which guarantees forgiveness yet excludes membership for canonic reasons does not define my Italian American identity nor the identity of countless other Italian Americans. If this means I will not be invited to Mr. Russo’s Italian table any time soon, so be it, but excluding non-Catholics from claiming their Italian heritage is not acceptable. Italian American organization and their leadership must be clear that there is no religious litmus test and promoting such an idea is abhorrent.
(For further reading on this critical issue see, A. J. Tamburri, Observations on Why Promotors of Italian American Culture Need to Know More)