The Crucifix and the Nation

Earlier this month the European Court of Human Rights fined the Italian government for displaying crucifixes in its public schools. It was yet another example of oversized, secular bureaucracies pitting themselves against the most natural forms of human agreement — in this case, the nation.

The European Court of Human Rights ordered the government to pay 5,000 euros ($7,390) to Soile Lautsi, a mother of two who complained that public schools in her northern Italian town refused eight years ago to remove crucifixes from their classrooms.

Upon hearing this news, we might at first wonder over public schools in the Western world allowing crucifixes in public schools at all. America’s secularization experience has been such that even some Catholic colleges and universities have willingly removed crucifixes.

The history of the European nations is very different.

Manuela Mesco, writing for England’s The Guardian, explained that crucifixes hang in Italian classrooms thanks to a legal and political agreement. That agreement, the Lateran Treaty (Patti Lateranensi), was reached in 1929 between Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. Mesco explains that it “established a framework for the mutual recognition and cohabitation of the secular and the religious domains within the Italian state.”

Article 7 of the Italian constitution states: “The state and the church are, each one in its own domain, independent and sovereign.” Says Mesco, “The agreement, among other things, states that crucifixes must hang in every classroom and tribunal in the country.”

The word “nation” appears in Scripture some 670 times. That’s nearly as many mentions as the word “love.” Clearly, both Scripture and the Church are supportive of the nation. The nation is how God decided to order man. So who gets to decide what is in the best interests of a nation? The vibrant, living and breathing nation itself — or some neutered, atheistic bureaucracy?

Think Star Trek’s villainous collective, the Borg: You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

On one hand, we have a Christian nation that has the crucifix written into its very constitution. Italy is a nation willing to admit that it has a sacred center, that it stands for something (namely God). On the other hand, a genderless bureaucratic entity seeks to disassemble the natural forms of agreement that Christians have built and continue to foster over two millennia: Marriage is between one man and one woman, and the nation as a form of territorial union deserves loyalty as it protects its citizens.

Unfortunately, much of the debate over Italy’s dilemma has centered on the crucifix as a “symbol.” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called it “a symbol of Christianity.” The Italian Bishops’ Conference described it as “a cultural sign.”

The crucifix, of course, is far more than one symbol among many. The likeness of Christ hanging dead on a cross keeps fresh in our minds the single most pivotal event in human history. People may argue over who Jesus was, but they cannot deny the historical event that actually took place and the degree to which it has changed the world. It’s an event so real that time itself has been cleaved by it. Our calendars are ordered by it.

Those who want to expunge the crucifix are running from reality. They’re saying, “Take it away. I cannot look at it anymore.” Perhaps they want to forget.

“The crucifix creates discrimination,” says Massimo Albertin, husband of Lautsi, as if “discriminate” is always and everywhere a bad word. In fact, to discriminate means to mark or distinguish. Does the crucifix discriminate? Of course it does.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the most heinous act of discrimination humanity has ever witnessed. An innocent man was singled out, tortured and sent to die the death of a criminal. Christ crucified, St. Paul reminds us, was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The crucifix distinguishes truth from falsehood. Yet, for that court, it’s apparently an obscenity that must be taken completely out of sight. Now that is profanity.

If anything good has come from the decision, it has been a rare display of fraternal agreement among unlikely allies. Italian politicians, Churchmen, local authorities, government ministers and Catholic citizens have responded strongly. They see the defense of the crucifix as a defense of their very nation.

“Nobody, much less a European court that is steeped in ideology, will be allowed to strip our identity away,” said Mariastella Gelmini, Italy’s minister of education. “It is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built.”

“The court has decided that crucifixes offend the sensibilities of non-Christians,” said Luca Zaia, Italy’s minister of agriculture. “It’s the court that is offending the sentiments of the European peoples who have their origin in Christianity.”

They’re in good company. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honor to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it.”

Perhaps the defense of the crucifix can be the rallying sacred point to help the Italian nation say, “We’re Italy!”

The strong reaction elicited by the court’s decision is reminiscent of another historical event that the European Union may want to forget. When the Nazi party began removing crucifixes from Bavarian schools in 1937, Catholic Bavarians raised their voices in protest. By 1941 they had taken to the streets. That summer a crowd of more than 500 confronted their mayor after Mass. They obtained the keys to the school and restored the crucifixes to their place of prominence.

In Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945, historian Ian Kershaw notes that civil disobedience against the Nazis in Bavaria hit its peak during this period.

The European Court of Human Rights has to understand the reality that crucifixes aren’t only found in the architecture of Italy’s cities, but also in the architecture of their life events. Crucifixes are there when Italians are born, married, cared for and laid to rest.

And where there’s a crucifix, there’s blood.

The forming of a nation is a tremendous act of communion and love. It’s also an agreement that has often come at a terrible price. Whether on the soccer field or the battlefield, men have fought. Sometimes the stakes are no higher than bragging rights. Other times, territory and worship of God are on the line.

The court suggests that traditional national loyalties are somehow suspect. Yet it’s these same traditional loyalties that have protected Europe from the tyranny of totalitarian rule — not only Nazism but also fascism and communism.

Despite the fantasy world these judges live in, sitting in the sanitized halls of that European court, there is an Italian nation. Much blood has been shed to establish, sustain and defend it. It’s a nation whose God is the Lord (see Psalm 33:12).

May it be ever thus.

Tim Drake, the Register’s

senior writer, is based

in St. Joseph, Minnesota.