As popes go, John Paul II is certainly one of the best there’s ever been: he is truly upright and deeply religious, and he has tried to use his position to be a force for good in the world. I respect that, even though I’m not Catholic and don’t agree with everything he says.

But in Italy (as I often joke) we don’t have television, we have Pope-o-vision. Every day the news wires and TV report what the Pope is doing, or what he has to say about the global crisis or disaster of the day. But what he says is usually so predictable! Of course he’s going to pray for peace between the warring factions, for international understanding, for aid to the afflicted, etc. While kind and worthy, this is hardly news: he’s the Pope – what else would we expect him to say?

Occasionally he does come out with something surprising. For example: In Italy, many couples split up without officially filing for divorce (because it’s a huge, expensive hassle), and often the ex-partners end up living and even having children with someone new. The Pope declared that it was all right for these de facto new couples to take communion – as long as they weren’t actually having sex.

The Italian media’s obsession with the Pope is baffling, because so few Italians today are devoutly practicing Catholics. Evidence: The vast majority of Italians are nominally Catholic, and the Church does not believe in “unnatural” forms of birth control, yet Italy has one of the world’s lowest birthrates. (Followed closely by that other very Catholic country, Spain.)

Italy’s shift to secularity is recent. Divorce became legal only in 1970, in a parliamentary decision which the Vatican attempted to overturn by a national referendum in 1974. To the shock of the Church, 60% of the Italian people voted in favor of keeping divorce legal. Similarly, and even more strikingly, a 1978 law making abortion legal was brought to referendum in 1981, and again the Church and its political friends failed: the right to abortion was sustained by 68% of Italians. Since then, abortion has never been a serious political issue in Italy.

Returning to my original topic: My irreverence towards the Church (and indeed all religious institutions) is partly my own, but I’ve also absorbed it from the Italians, many of whom, in spite of their media’s obsessions, don’t take Catholicism as an institution very seriously. They’ve had a ringside seat on the Vatican’s activities for most of 2000 years, and they know how little the Church-with-a-capital-C has had to do with religion for much of that time.

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