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When it comes to brotherly love, we’ve got a lot to learn from the Italians

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith on why so little violent crime happens in Italy

By on Friday, 19 August 2011

Mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni (Photo: PA)

Mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni (Photo: PA)

Back in September 2003, the then mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, decided to hold what was known as a notte bianca in the capital. The idea was taken from Paris, and it was one of the many initiatives at that time to make Rome a better place for those who lived there all the year round, not just tourists. Shops, bars, restaurants, museums and galleries were to stay open all night. There were to be concerts and shows. The trains and buses would run until dawn. And a great success it was. I lived in Via del Corso in those days, and I went for a little walk at about ten o’clock before going to bed. The streets were crowded, every pavement café full.

Then, at three thirty in the morning, disaster struck: the heavens opened, torrential rain fell, and the lights went out. Somewhere far to the north a tree had hit an electric cable and triggered a chain reaction, plunging the whole of Italy into darkness. About half a million people had to sleep in railway stations as the trains could not run. The traffic ground to a halt as the traffic lights failed. The white night had turned into something of a dark one. The electricity was not fully restored until the following afternoon.

When I got up that morning, it was to hear the stories of people groping their way home, being trapped in lifts or spending hours in the darkness of Termini Station, never a very inviting place at the best of times. But, as you can read here (in Italian), despite the chaos, not a single crime was committed under the cover of darkness.

Yes, you read that correctly. No arrests, no disturbances, no crimes, no disorder in the streets.

An English friend said to me: “Can you imagine what it would have been like if this had happened in England? Every shop would have had its windows broken and its contents looted. But in Italy, people just quietly go home.”

And so it is. Rome in those days often had political demonstrations, but they never turned violent. Public disorder of the type regarded as “normal” in the United Kingdom simply does not happen in Italy.

These memories of the essential peacefulness of Roman life were triggered by a tweet from the author of the Cranmer blog in response to my latest posting:

So, the Reformers are to blame for the riots and the only solution is a return to Mariolatry http://t.co/fllOW33 His Grace despairs.

In fact that is not what I said, but rather what he inferred. But is it true? I do not mean that the riots were caused by the Reformation, but is it true that Catholic countries are less prone to rioting that a country like ours? (One hesitates to characterise Britain as Protestant any more, so little traction does religion have these days.)

Italy has terrible social problems and in certain regions suffers from endemic poverty and chronic unemployment. In parts of the Italian south unemployment stands at 80%. Drug abuse is rife in cities, as is petty crime. Many cities have suffered years of neglect. Many Italians despise the state and their government, and rightly so. Yet they do not riot. Why not?

One reason may be that Italians are simply nicer people that the British, less given to violence. More importantly, though Italy has weak governmental structures, it has strong family structures. Mass fatherlessness is not an issue in Italy, at least not yet. Every Italian belongs to a family; as well as this essential community, they also belong to a variety of other communities operating at local level: friendship groups, football clubs, social clubs, churches, and political parties.

For Italians star’ insieme – being together, hanging out – is second nature. They do not seek solitude, and their language has no word for privacy. Italian commentators are worried by youth alienation, and have blamed it for some of the shocking crimes that have taken place in recent decades, such as the famous Pietro Maso case (famous, though only in Italy) and the case of the other parent murderer in Nuove Ligure (see here, again, only in Italian). Nevertheless, even if Italy is not paradise, Italian youth alienation has not had the same supposed result as it has had here.

I have two further impressions that colour my picture of Italian life. Every Italian I have met came from somewhere. Each has a town or a village; each comes with a history. They can be rather dull on the subject, in fact. But each has a clear sense of identity and this is very often expressed by strong attachment to the local speciality. Food matters, and it matters where the food comes from too.

This gastronomic and geographical rootedness is complemented by the fact that though many Italians are irreligious or even anti-clerical, few seem to be of the opinion that religion is unimportant or malign. If you want to see evidence of this, compare the way La Republicca covers religious topics with the way the Independent does: it engages with the topic.

For Italians, religion is there, in the centre of national life, and its influence is powerful. In Italy there are clergy who are figures of national importance for their social work – people like the great and good Don Benzi as well as numerous others. In Italy, religion has not been driven out of the public forum.

Again, perhaps related to this, Italians never – and I mean never – talk down their culture. Italian intellectuals as well as ordinary people seem quite content (and this may infuriate foreigners) to think that Italy is the best country in the world and the Italian way of doing things is an excellent approach to life. They are not given to cultural self-hatred. Much energy is expended in celebrating the achievements of Italian culture and history, even, and perhaps especially, by the Left. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” campaign and talk of national rebranding would be incomprehensible to Italians.

I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but, in the aftermath of this summer’s rioting, I think we could learn a lot from the Italians.

  • Annie

    Sorry, but Bliar’s ‘Cool Brittania’ (barf) was incomprehensible to English me.

    We need to big up the family in this country. And yes, that does mean supporting unmarried mothers and single parents (however unpopular that is in some quarters) as well as encouraging marriage, which is fabulous and immensely underrated.

  • Daniela Murphy Corella

    Bravo!

  • Anonymous

    Italians are still weak on Italian identity.  They do all come from somewhere and that is their principal identity.  Having now lived for many years in the South of France, I would say local identity is much more powerful here than in the North.  The village activities, the frequent vins d’honneur together with the gentle distrust of the Parisian and their laws makes a commune feel like a community of several generations even to outsiders.  The investment in culture is quite remarkable and might contribute to this.   Although the riots of the metropolis and the industrial disputes are as bad or worse than ours there has so far always been a cause albeit often a very radical rather than purely material cause.  In France, just as in the United Kingdom there is however a real danger of age generation groups acting as if distinct from the generation above and below.  This is the real danger of social networking sites which foster the creation of generation identity, morality and behaviour above all in large cities.

  • Elle

    Very interesting article. It struck me to read some time ago that GK Chesterton – who loves England so much -  speaks so highly of Italians. Your comments tie up so well with his. I also come from a country that, like Italy, is Catholic, very family centered, politically and financially messy … but – you made me realize now – will also never riot so violently. We’ve been thru worse upheavals in the past 30 years, and we have our many criminals. But rampant widespread rioting just does not happen. In fact, police here have to drive away idle watchers whenever a disturbance occurs… because most people are more curious than fearful of disasters.

  • TW

    A truly inspired observation!

  • Anonymous

    Father I’ll tell you why Italy has less problems – because Italians have learnt the value of condoms.
    They actually PLAN there families - so that all children are WANTED, and so that FATHERLESS families are much more RARE.

    They have the world’s third lowest birth-rate. (After massively crowded Japan, and Hong Kong – which is one of the most expensive places to bring up children in the world)

    Father I hope you will agree that this proves that it is vital that sex-education is taught well, and that contraception usage is encouraged amongst the general public.

  • Michael McManus

    About brotherly love , Police in Italy investigating the blackmail of at least 100 homosexual catholic priests  , lol

  • Annie

    I’m sorry, but what a load of BS.

    You don’t have to use condoms to avoid ‘unplanned’ children. Don’t have sex, as far as I know it’s it’s not compulsory. Especially if you aren’t married.

    Sex Ed? More sex ed? OMG, have you never experienced the explicit and very thorough sex ed thrust down the throats of all kids at school in this country? It’s fabulous at telling kids exactly when where and how to have sex how to use condoms and where to get your abortion, and says b*gger all about why you shouldn’t have sex.

    Not having sex as far as I know is the sure fire way to end up un-pregnant.

    And by the way, ‘unplanned’ child does not have to mean ‘unwanted’.

  • Parasum

    OTOH, there are the Mafia & the Camorra :(

    “Italian intellectuals as well as ordinary people seem quite content (and
    this may infuriate foreigners) to think that Italy is the best country
    in the world and the Italian way of doing things is an excellent
    approach to life.”

    In that at least they, & people in the US, & plenty of people in other countries, UK included, are very alike.

  • Fr Thomas Poovathinkal

    IF GOD’S WORD IS NOT APPLIED AND IN ITS LIGHT CULTURE IS NOT TESTED, EVERY CULTURE IS A LAW UNTO ITSELF AND THEREFOR PERFECT IN ITS OWN ESTIMATION AND JUDGEMENT.

    SOME CHRISTIAN CHURCH ESPECIALLY THE BIG ONES PROMOTE SUCH CULTURES.

    Fr Thomas poovathinkal