We return today to the “secular” or non-religious character of modern Rome in order to see more clearly how much the Rome of the People has changed from the Rome of the Popes.

Show Notes

Today’s subject is the secularism of Modern Rome. Guidebooks do not identify “secularism” as something to be seen in Rome, as if it were like a particular work of art or architecture, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà or the Pantheon, and they usually don’t even mention it at all, but I find it one of the most important subjects to mull over when visiting or thinking about Rome. I say this even while encouraging you to wonder whether it even exists.

The Vittoriano, a monument to Modern Italy, not to the Christian God

I suggested in podcasts published long ago that there are important signs of secularism in such modern monuments as those dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, Garibaldi, Cavour, Mazzini, and Giordano Bruno. (If you are looking for them, these podcasts have the names of these modern heroes in their titles.) Modern secularism is also visible in the life of the city as experienced by all tourists.

By saying modern Rome has become “secular” I mean its life is now largely bound up with the concerns of this world rather than of heaven or hell, and that it shares this characteristic with the other major cities of the modern West. Moral concerns have not vanished, of course, but they are now understood to involve our relations with one another, not with a transcendent God who loads us with duties and threatens us with punishments.

Instead of taking their bearings by God’s reported demands, Rome’s post-papal governments focus on such concerns as uniting the nation, promoting education, or encouraging economic growth, but these goals are not in themselves religious or believed to need religion to establish their importance. It is part of the modern secular world view to think that even the most important political functions are best carried out if church and state are kept separate. Or, going further, it is common now to hear that religious convictions are often harmful to the modern secular functions of government, such as the protection of individual rights. In this view, religion should not only be kept out of government but weakened as well.

The changed place of religion in western political life was especially clear in the case of Rome. Before 1870, the pope ruled the Papal States, which included Rome. On September 20th of that year, he lost his political power and became a king without a country. This dramatic if long-expected change had enormous consequences for policies affecting individual liberties, the spending of tax dollars, the curricula in schools, the management and ownership of hundreds of convents and monasteries, and much more. Rome then took a giant step toward secularization, especially in its political life. We saw this in the modern monuments I mentioned just above.

It is more difficult to say whether the exclusion of religious organizations from official government positions has also had the effect of weakening religion in the society at large. When the pope lost his political power, did he also lose a good measure of his spiritual influence? Or, perhaps, might his position as a spiritual leader even have improved? I incline to the former of these opposed views: the exclusion of religious authorities from political positions, unprecedented in medieval Rome, seems to me to have been intended to weaken the influence of religion throughout the entire society, and I think it has had this effect. I am thinking of such evidence as Garibaldi’s statement, which I cited when discussing the statue of Giordano Bruno many episodes ago, that he hoped the statue would help deliver the coup de grâce to, as he described them, the clowns of the Vatican. I have, however, heard bishops in the Catholic Church affirm the contrary, that once popes no longer needed to dirty their hands by wielding political and military power, they were more able to represent the spiritual aspirations of their office. So I pose it as a question for you to consider: Has the secularization of Rome’s political life led to a more general secularization of the thought and life of modern Italy?

Let me be clear that I don’t mean to say that religious attitudes no longer exist in Rome, only that they are much less dominant than they were a couple of centuries ago when the popes ruled the city. We are familiar with presidents and prime ministers who attend church services, but not with ones who defend their policies by saying they save souls from eternal damnation or increase the practice of such Christian virtues as faith, hope, and charity—not to mention chastity. So too in Italy and throughout the West: there is no public or official concern with heaven, hell, or other such subjects, and a proposal to grant one religion or another the primary responsibility for public education or marriage laws would shock all modern Western nations. This is radically different from the way things were when the Catholic Church ruled Rome and had its concerns painted onto the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and many other consecrated places throughout the city. The uglier side of this is that Jews were confined to live in a cramped Ghetto, protestants were not welcome in the city at all, and Catholic opinion was supervised by an Inquisition that was sometimes quite brutal.

The retreat of religion from public office seems to me to be accompanied by a similar retreat from our private lives, in Rome as in major cities of the West. Minor but typical evidence of this turned up in a Christmas greeting I recently received from an Italian business. It reads, “Christmas for us means love, family, and happiness.” This is a good indication of how things are: we still celebrate Christmas, but not so much as the birth of a god who became man, sent by his heavenly father to save mankind from the consequences of its sins and to make possible eternal life in heaven. It’s rather a warm holiday we enjoy celebrating with our families around a table groaning with culinary delights and lots of presents. Saint Nicholas of Bari, worker of miracles, has become Santa Claus, bringer of gifts.

A somewhat similar perception of growing secularism was well described by Henry Adams, a younger son of the family that produced two American presidents. As he put it soon after 1900, describing himself, his siblings, and much of his generation:

[I] went to church twice every Sunday; [I] was taught to read [my] Bible, and [I] learned religious poetry by heart; [I] believed in a mild deism; [I] prayed; [I] went through all the forms; but neither to [me] nor to [my] brothers or sisters was religion real. . . . The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived.

He then we on to express his amazement that this instinct could thus vanish also from “the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew.” He does not say that the forms of religion stopped, but that its content had been diluted or had even leaked away altogether. We may make an attempt to preserve part of the moral message of the ancient faith, such as the importance of trying to respect one another, but not, I think, on the grounds that we will be punished in hell for eternity if we do not. What is moral and what is not are now open to reason, which allows us to drop those aspects of the old moral teaching when they do not seem to apply to us. Alternatively, we reinterpret them. Defenders of both capitalism and Communism have argued that their systems are in full accord with Christian moral teaching.

Given the diffusion of the secular outlook over the last two or three centuries, it may be hard to think it has not always existed, but Rome has the advantage of showing us its dense population of beautiful churches, built for a city whose population was under 50,000 for much of its history. This should help us keep in mind that, for better or worse, Rome was once a city built for worshippers and pilgrims, not tourists.[1] We may wonder, did medieval Romans really believe in the official doctrines and dogmas of the Church, which are so emphasized in the art that decorates them? I think the artistic, architectural, and written evidence suggests many did, at least in crucial moments in their lives. Important differences notwithstanding, the Islamic countries of the world today are another reminder of the power religion can have in political life; and in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was so strong, there were no modern secular states on its borders to show the wonders that science, commerce, and liberal government can achieve. In this respect, religious Iran faces a greater challenge, for it must make its case against a modern alternative that is hard to ignore.

I have returned to the question of modern secularism now because I was so struck in recent episodes by the extent to which the Sistine Chapel presents a coherent view of the world that is so different from the views we tend to hear today in the modern West. There is no room on the Sistine ceiling for Darwin’s evolution of the species by natural selection, or for a simply natural Big Bang that explains the expansion of the universe. There is no room on the altar wall for the view that when we die, that’s it. We simply lose consciousness, and our bodies break down into their various chemical components, and our friends and family are left to themselves to grieve or, perhaps, to sigh in relief. And on the Chapel’s side walls, the common opinion today that we are each entitled to live as we please, so long as we don’t hurt others, is silenced in favor of the view that we have duties assigned by God and explained by Moses and Christ. It should, of course, be no great surprise that the Chapel is so unified around crucial Christian teachings that are different from what we hear today, 500 years later; and to many or even most Western visitors, they will even seem weird, naïve, or simply wrong. The Chapel is not only a great and vast series of beautiful frescoes, a triumph of Michelangelo’s genius: it is also a testament to a mostly bygone but once powerful vision of the world we live in. Considering it can help us understand our uniqueness.

If satisfied that modern Rome deserves to be called “secular,” we are still left with such wonderful questions as “Why?” and “So What?” What caused this change, and why does it matter? These are book-length questions, but a short sketch will help keep us thinking.

The God Delusion (cover), by Richard Dawkins

One of the causes of modern secularism is the stream of powerful western authors who started centuries ago to attack the biblical religions as irrational and harmful in their effects, and who wrote in part to weaken or eliminate religion’s hold on us. I mean authors such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Bayle, and Voltaire. More recently, Marx and Freud leveled their varied attacks against Christianity or religion in general. I am tempted to add Nietzsche to my list, but he is a special and complicated case. Even in this young millennium, the so-called “New Atheists” led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, felt compelled to press the case against religion. I certainly don’t mean to say they all made the same arguments or that the last trio followed the question to the same depth as their greater predecessors, but they all—like the French Enlightenment in general—called the Biblical God and His morality into question.

Why did they do so, and what changes did they bring? The default answer, I think, includes such points as these: the secularism promoted by modern philosophy has eliminated religious wars from the West. It has reduced the power of superstitions, and it has ended inquisitions and prosecutions for such thought-crimes as heresy. It has removed the stigma from commerce and thus transformed the desire for wealth into an engine of productivity. It has empowered this engine by making science a practical endeavor with the goal not merely of understanding the world but also of transforming it. Thus have enormous numbers been lifted out of poverty and countless diseases been cured or alleviated. Life has become both more secure and more comfortable.

More science, more wealth, longer lives, more comforts and pleasures, more individual liberty—all these are among the principal fruits of modern secularism, and most of us are deeply attached to them. Today, when we say someone seeks “a better life,” we understand this to mean a life that has more pleasures, more comforts, and more liberty. Nevertheless, none of the consecrated art of Christian Rome, including that of the Sistine Chapel, shows any concern for such secular “blessings” as these. Christian art celebrates the Christian virtues, of course, and the heavenly reward they bring. All this suggests a sort of “clash of civilizations” between the Christian Rome of the Middle Ages and today’s secular West.

As you know from prior episodes, I think there was also an earlier clash when, fifteen hundred years earlier, Rome changed from being the capital of a pagan empire to being the capital city of western Christianity. Christian intellectuals then defended the superiority of their faith and its transcendent morality to the wild stories of the pagan gods and the corrupt virtue of such pagan leaders as Romulus, who killed his brother out of ambition and orchestrated the Rape of the Sabine Women.

The more recent clash overthrew the Christian world view that had been victorious in the earlier one: Christian Rome had had its day, as its beautiful churches still show, a day that lasted fifteen hundred years. But now, I think, at least in the West, there is no going back. Modern science and liberalism have won the most recent war; and although I do not think western history has found a resting place and come to an end, I see no reason to think that the next round of world-shaking struggles will bring back the rule of the popes or a dominant Christian world view. In thinking of the present and future in the West, I’m more struck by the influence of postmodernism than of the premodernism represented by the Catholic Church of centuries past. These are grand and murky matters, and if you think otherwise, I invite you to shoot me a note at

In the face of such important questions, raised in my case by thinking about Rome’s secular monuments, such as the statue of Giordano Bruno and the Vittoriano, and her religious ones, like the apse mosaics of several of Rome’s medieval churches, I’m going to take another sabbatical break from my podcasting, in the hope that at some time in the future I can provide us both with some better answers. Here is how I pose the question I’m putting to myself.

As indicated above, the modern world has brought us many advantages, ones that have not only made my own life more comfortable and longer but that have also brought me more time to read and study. I would not have had these advantages if I had lived in either ancient pagan Rome or Medieval Christian Rome. But this conviction does not quite settle the question of whether the great gains of the modern revolution have come at a price: Has anything of value from Christian Rome been lost? Was there anything in the Rome of the Popes—anything at all—that might show something missing from the Rome of the People? If so, it would make a study of Rome vital also for our self-understanding.

Alas, I can’t answer this question to my own satisfaction, and I don’t think I’ll be able to contribute anything useful to it in just a week or two. After all, I come to the question with judgments formed in the modern period, so a degree of bias cannot be ruled out. Hence it’s time for me to take another break so I can do the work needed to keep this podcast worth listening to. In the meantime, consider going back and listening to some prior pods, which I’ve listed neatly on the Get Ready for Rome website. And, if so inclined, shoot me a note. I’d like to hear how you address the complicated questions I’ve posed. In the meantime, stay alert for the resumption of this podcast series. I tell myself I’m doing it for my own education, but it’s very nice to know there are many others of you out there.

[1] The number of churches in Rome becomes even more striking if we remember that the city’s population was tiny for centuries. It was only fifty or sixty thousand during the Renaissance, about the size of the student populations of the larger state universities today, and it fell to about fifteen thousand during the Sack of Rome, between the times Michelangelo did the ceiling and the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

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