Pluralismo Vivo: The Interfaith Roads of Rome

It’s not easy to find clear examples of “interreligious violence” in Rome. The closest thing Rome suffers to religious violence are distant shrieks from ISIS across the Mediterranean Sea about “bringing Rome to her knees.”

Overt religious conflict requires a more closely balanced religious demographic—and with Italy’s current Catholic-affiliating demographic topping out at 85% (not to be confused with how many Italians actually practice and believe in Catholic precepts), it’s hard to find a non-Catholic religious demographic in Italy that has enough heft to merit religious conflict.

If you ask a Roman whether there is “interreligious conflict” in Rome, as I often do, they will most likely say, “Yes and no.” The most obvious and prevalent social conflict in Rome is economic: there’s plenty of class conflict over economic disparity. But different social groups–for example, Italians, immigrants, and gypsies living near each other in Rome–tend also to represent different religions. The two largest religions imported by immigrants to Italy are Orthodox Christianity from Eastern Europe and Islam from North Africa and the Middle East. Resistance to the economic and lifestyle threat represented by immigration could be simplified as a religious conflict, because the conflicting parties are distributed along religious lines. But a closer look will reveal that the sources of conflict in Rome mostly have to do with the wealth-poverty gap, mismanagement of civic resources, and poor city administration–rather than with ideological conflict or theological differences.

So, if one were to simplify, one could say that there is a conflict between religious groups in Rome. But the “religious” part of the conflict is incidental, at best.

Sociologist Geerte Hofstede initiated a multi-country study of the dimensions of national culture and registered that Italians demonstrated higher-than-average favoring of their “in-group,” high levels of uncertainty-avoidance, and high rates of individualism. Therefore, the closest thing you get to a religious conflict in Italy is a strong cultural tendency among native Italians to favor “in group” members—fellow Italians—and to fear, ignore, or actively maintain negative stereotypes about non-Italians, or extracommunitarians, especially if they are from non-Western countries. Perhaps Geerte Hofstede’s finding of the high prevalence among Italians to avoid uncertainty can be linked to high levels of resentment and blame against immigrants, the perceived sources of economic uncertainty.

Another prevalent social conflict in Italy is between the people and the ruling/political class. High rates of political corruption and ceaseless political reforms only obfuscate civic engagement. Italians are so exhausted by their disorganized system that they tend to cope by turning inward and tightening the circle of investment in what is considered “home.” Many Italians have related to me in ethnographic interviews that home starts at the front door of their house and does not extend out into the community or common space. Chi se ne frega dei problemi fuori della casa?--Who cares about problems outside your house? The constant “state of emergency” that has plagued the Italian state since its relatively recent founding in 1870 is attributable to centuries of diverse, competitive city states that were collapsed into a single country through a very long process of domination and strife between small governments. The Italian Republic was established when secular republican troops defeated the Vatican, with all its real estate and political clout, and claimed Rome as Italy’s capital city. They evicted Pope Pius IX from the Quirinal Palace and Italy’s first king moved in.

Tensions and loaded alliances between state and religion have always been part of Italy’s story.

Despite this—and because of this—efforts among interfaith workers in Italy are vibrant today. A lot of Romans are working together to bring out the best in religions. These activists view religion as a cultural and identity affiliation that can be positively instrumentalized to bring people together and bridge social divides. Even if there is not widespread “interreligious conflict” in Rome, the phenomenon of religion remains ubiquitous in Rome on many levels. 

Prior to the Second Vatican Council in 1963-1965, interfaith dialogue did not really exist: the Church was busy with efforts at missionizing and conversion. Vatican II inspired documents such as Nostra Aetate (“Our Age”), which recognized that non-Catholic religions bore truth and light and ought to be engaged with positively. The word “mission” was redefined from its meaning of “conversion” to “dialogue,” the peaceful and non-proselytizing engagement between religious people of different claims. In the 50 years since Nostra Aetate there is a slow but steady arc of increase amongst interfaith organizations in Rome, and they represent many different priorities and participants.

Interfaith efforts can be categorized using a typology called the “dialogue canopy” presented by Eric Sharpe (2005) [see footnote A below]. These “branches” of interfaith dialogue are also represented by various interfaith organizations in Rome. Each agency presents a certain methodology that advance specific values (social, intellectual, axiological) and responds to the particular challenges of increasing Roman social diversity. For example, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue engages a theological-discursive model of dialogue at its meetings with the International Council of Christians and Jews. Tavolo Interreligioso di Roma cultivates a humanitarian/civil-society dialogue, organizing religiously diverse guest speakers to promote religious literacy in public schools, and educating hospital staff to provide holistic healing services to Catholic and non-Catholic patients alike. Sant’Egidio models a spiritual dialogue, organizing world prayer meetings modeled after the Assisi World Day of Prayer. Istituto Tevere holds informal conversations about books and films over shared meals, embodying the Human/Buberian dialogue. Confronti Magazine represents a model of creative dialogue, engaging interpersonal and academic/journalistic methods toward increasing civic interaction, civic discourse, and awareness of diversity.

In Rome, the activists of interfaith engagement try to create a little drop in the ocean, una goccia nell’oceano, encouraging Italian locals to be in contact with those who are different, to humanize them and see that different people are just people, trying to survive with their families. The idea is that if you can educate people a little bit about the scary and unfamiliar, you diffuse their tendency to turn inward, and hopefully you create more engaged citizens who aren’t blindly following the fear-mongering rhetoric of neo-fascist politicians who use the political system for money and power.

Interfaith dialogue amongst Italians aims at decreasing ignorance and raising the level of culture so that people can think more humanistically and independently (but not individualistically) about social difference and be more informed citizens. Eventually, the hope is that they will vote differently and think outside the closed circle of their own family, their own homogenous Italian circle, their own campanilismo.

As an anthropologist studying the nature and networks of interfaith engagement in Rome, I am trying to put my pen on the pulse of Rome’s “interfaith society” and the discourses/methods that are engaged amongst different organizations here to make sense of religious difference, religious violence, and people who don’t take any interest in interreligious or civic engagement.

My methodological challenge is to measure whether the interfaith objective of decreasing ignorance and raising the level of culture is ever achieved. If a goal of interfaith dialogue is to foster “mutual comprehension” amongst very different people, how can we know if mutual comprehension is achieved? What does “mutual comprehension” even mean and how can we know we’re comprehending each other? This is a subjective experience that is very hard to detect or measure. Thus my research methods are qualitative and consist of collecting narratives of encounter with social diversity and personal transformation.

I hope my findings will help shed some light on the particular challenges of doing interfaith activism in Rome, and contribute to broader anthropological reflections about human capacities for transformation, and about paradigmatic personal shifts in consciousness and civic investment.



Sharpe’s “canopy of dialogue” typology is echoed by echoed in writings by Diana Eck (1993), Leonard Swidler (2007), Mohammed Abu-Nimer (2007), and Raimon Panikkar (1978). The categories are: 1) Theological-discursive dialogue: a largely scholarly enterprise of theological expertise in public forum. 2) Human/Buberian Dialogue: encounter between unique individuals; dialogue as an interpersonal, existential need. 3) Spiritual dialogue: communal spiritual practice through worship, prayer and meditation, or shared devotions. 4) Secular dialogue: joining forces to incite change and address practical issues of common concern. Beyond Sharpe’s “dialogue canopy” I further subdivide secular dialogue into four subcategories: 1) Humanitarian / civil society dialogue: diverse groups collaboratively enhance and serve the common community. 2) Practical dialogue: diverse groups help each other with practical concerns and legal processes. 3) Academic dialogue: conversation-based much like the discursive dialogue, but takes more of a “religious studies” approach to discussing religious phenomena as opposed to a theological viewpoint and does not necessarily include voices representing overt faith claims. 4) Creative dialogue: centered around creative output such as publication, filmmaking, and various artistic collaborations.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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