Italians get cross about the Cross

20th August 2010 at 01:00
A row looms over an EU ban on crucifixes in schools.

Not since a Japanese department store reportedly nailed Santa to a cross has there been such a furore over displaying the crucifix. Last month the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that displays of crucifixes in school classrooms should be barred in Italy, even though they have long been commonplace in public spaces here.

Now many Italians hope an appeal against the decision, currently under consideration, will overturn that ruling.

Will their prayers be answered? Short of a surprise act of divine intervention, it seems unlikely.

Strasbourg will issue its final decree within the next month, and should the ban stand conservative Italy - which still makes up a great swathe of the country - will once more explode in indignation.

However, as with Brussels' battles with pounds and ounces, it is unclear if the court will demand a complete stamping-out of the cross in schools. Nor is it clear that the Italians would go as far as to leave the Council of Europe, as some here have threatened to do.

Besides, Italy is notorious for getting around rules and regulations. "Fatta la legge, trovato l'inganno," as they say here - every law has a loophole.

But it is still a serious business for the Vatican. When the post-war constitution separated church and state, Catholicism ceased to be Italy's state religion. Yet the church still effectively ruled schools until as late as 1984.

Given the deep roots of Catholicism here, it is perhaps no surprise that many schools still continue the practice of adorning each classroom wall with those gruesome reminders of the low point in the Jesus Christ fable.

As one brought up in the Irish Catholic tradition, I will not be sorry about this banishment. Crucifixes, along with the ubiquitous portrait of Jesus undergoing a type of graphic-arts-enhanced open-heart surgery, only served to instil foreboding and unease in my young breast.

It is difficult to gauge what effect these portrayals of suffering and death by torture has on those from the non-Christian backgrounds. It must be equivalent to a Christian visiting a Tibetan school only to be confronted by a nicely wrought image of an impaled Buddha. Mystifying, and horrifying.

Clearly much of Italy does not see it this way. And the great and the good, probably looking to squeeze political capital out of such outrageous foreign meddling, have been lining up to denounce the judgment.

"This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values," said Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini. Christian teachings such as shunning wealth, perhaps? The cross seems to have done little to encourage the PM to give away his vast fortune, and Europe's highest-paid politicos are yet to take a vow of poverty.

Perhaps Italy's schools could replace the cross with some of the wiser utterances of Jesus of Nazareth and kick its addiction to the cult of the dead at the same time. "You cannot serve God and wealth," would do nicely, but somehow that might not sit so well in Rome.

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