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Focus on Issues Implications of the New Concordat

February 22, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The new Concordat just agreed to by the Italian State and the Roman Catholic Church will have wide implications for the Italian Jewish community, including control of its ancient cultural and historical heritage in Rome.

The Concordat, signed Saturday by Premier Bettino Craxi, leader of the Socialist Party, and Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican Secretary of State, establishes a clear demarcation between the temporal and religious powers of the Church and advances religious pluralism in Italy. It is by and large a revision and up-dating of the 1929 Concordat signed between the Church and Mussolini regime which formalized Roman Catholicism as the State religion.

Under the new Concordat, this is no longer the case. Catholic religious instruction is no longer compulsory in Italian public schools.

The revised relationship between Church and State will effect the so-called “mini-concordats” between the State and non-Catholic faiths which are also up for revision. Italian Protestants–mostly Waldensian and Methodist — will sign revised agreements with the government next week. The Union of Italian Jewish Communities is lagging behind.

No date has been set for a definitive revision, mainly because an existing draft still contains several points of controversy within the Jewish community itself. But the Concordat between the Catholic Church and the State contains several articles which will doubtlessly serve as guidelines for Jewish requests for revisions.


Roman Catholicism is no longer “the sole religion of the Italian State” nor are other religions merely “permitted.” In principle, all religions now have equan rights. Primary and secondary public school classes in “the Catholic religion” are no longer “compulsory”, we with students of other faiths or ideologies being allowed “exemption” from religious instruction.

The teaching of “the Catholic religion” is still object guaranteed by the government, but as an elective subject. By the same taken, a revised agreement with the Jewish community could provide governmental “in guarantees for the teaching of “the Jewish religion” in public schools, at the request of students and parents. Students of theology remain deferred from military service, as are university students generally. The clergy may perform civil service in place of military service or be exempt; or clergy may serve as chaplains with the armed forces. It follows that the same rights and privileges (some already granted) will be valid for Jewish schools, rabbinical seminarians and the Jewish “clergy” when the final revision is drafted.


Of special interest to the Jewish community is the Concordat’s provision that the cultural and historical patrimony of the Church will be protected and guarded by special joint State-Church commissions. The Jewish historical and archaeological patrimony in Italy is large and rich. It is in a sad state of decay at present for lack of funds. But the moment may be at hand for Italian Jewry to request State help, based on the Catholic precedent.

The catacombs are a special aspect of this issue. The new Concordat states that the Vatican accepts full responsibility for the administration of the Christian catacombs, including permission to excavate, while at the same time it gives up all claims to “other” catacombs, meaning the Jewish catacombs.

The Jewish community wants jurisdiction over them. The Villa Torlonia and Villa Randonini are two of the most important in Rome. Only the latter is presently open to visitors. Since no arrangements have been made for its custody, the entrance to the Villa Torlonia, an ancient staircase, has been buried for several years “to protect the catacombs from vandalism.”


Henryk Geller, a Jewish scholar and historian who is an expert on the catacombs, was contacted by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He has been involved with the catacomb issue for years and is a founder of the World Jewish Congress’ Heritage Committee, set up to solve this and similar problems.

He told the JTA, “The study of the Jewish catacombs evidently touches on problems of ancient Jewish-Christian relations and could shed new light on the self-understanding and historical knowledge of both religions.” Precious and numerous items from archaeological excavations brought to light in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were once on view in the Lateran Museum of the Vatican, which no longer exists.

Only a few pieces are presently on display in the Capitoline and Vatican museums. Why are the others not on exhibition? Geller asks. The Jewish catacombs and the treasures still buried in them will return to Jewish jurisdiction if Italian Jewry so decides. But financial means must be found for their upkeep and this would require a definitive agreement with the Italian State.

Another question implicitly raised by the new Concordat relates to the financial basis for the functioning of Jewish communities throughout Italy. The 1929 agreement between Italian Jewry and Mussolini provided for self-taxation backed, in times of extreme duress, by the Italian State. The State may also be called upon for legal enforcement. An Italian Jewish immigrant from Libya recently challenged this law and a decision by the Supreme Court is pending.

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