Crucifix Conundrums

Edwin C. Cook September/October 2010

In November 2009 the Catholic Church in Italy was faced with a "Crucifix Conundrum." Catholic crucifixes adorn every room of the public school system. In northern Italy, Soile Lautsi, a mother of two, filed a complaint against the Catholic practice, claiming it violated the secular intent of public schools in Italy and denied her the right to offer her sons a secular education. The European Court of Human Rights ruled in her favor and levied a fine of 5,000 euros (US$7,390) to be paid to her. The court, however, stopped short of ordering the removal of all crucifixes from the public school system.1

Catholic leaders protested vigorously against the court's ruling, as did much of the populace. The Italian government stated it will appeal the decision to the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber, whose decisions are binding.2 Their central argument was that the crucifix is merely a part of the cultural heritage of Europe and not a specifically religious symbol.

The Crucifix and Catholic Theology

The crucifix fulfills a central role in Roman Catholic theology. Catholic dogma requires it to be visibly present on the altar during the service of the Mass. "The crucifix is the principal ornament of the altar. It is placed on the altar to recall to the mind of the celebrant, and the people, that the Victim offered on the altar is the same as was offered on the Cross. For this reason the crucifix must be placed on the altar as often as Mass is celebrated (Constit., Accepimus of Benedict XIV, 16 July, 1746). The rubric of the Roman Missal (xx) prescribes that it be placed at the middle of the altar between the candlesticks, and that it be large enough to be conveniently seen by both the celebrant and the people (Cong. Sac. Rit., 17 September, 1822)."3 Depicting the figure of Christ's body crucified on the Roman instrument of torture, the cross symbolizes the perpetual nature of the Mass. Believing that the bread and wine used in the service of the Mass are converted into the body and blood of Christ through the medium of the priest, referred to as transubstantiation, each Mass continues the saving act performed by Christ at Calvary.4

The crucifix has further theological implications beyond those associated with the Mass. A processional cross is a crucifix attached to a long, wooden pole and is carried at the front of a procession. It does not vary, in essence, from a cross of jurisdiction, except that the processional cross always faces in the direction to which the processional is going and the cross of jurisdiction faces the prelate who bears it. A cross of jurisdiction is always carried in front of the pope, since he is deemed worthy of it and since it indicates the territory claimed by his office. The jurisdictional cross carried by the pope wherever he may journey, thus indicates the Vatican's claims to global sovereignty. A legate will bear a jurisdictional cross only within the territory assigned to him and an archbishop only within the bounds of his province.5

Because of differences in theological perspectives regarding soteriology (teachings about salvation), a notable distinction is evident between a Roman Catholic crucifix and a Protestant symbol of the cross. While the former depicts Christ's body and must be present at every Mass to indicate the perpetual nature of Christ's death realized through the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, the latter is merely a cross, symbolizing the completed, once-for-all nature of Christ's sacrifice. Additionally, the cross, without a figure of Christ's body attached to it, symbolizes the resurrected Savior, a theme common in many, if not most, Protestant worship practices. Understanding such differences in theology as conveyed through varying symbols of Christ's death supports the view that usage of either of the two favors a particular theological perspective.

If such differing theological views are conveyed through this crucifix-cross conundrum among Christians, how much more complex does the situation become when non-Christians are involved? Demographic statistics in Italy indicate that 90 percent of the population is Catholic (about one third practicing) and the remaining 10 percent are mature Protestant and Jewish communities with a growing Muslim community.6 From an Islamic perspective, the crucifix and cross were symbols used by (Christian) Crusaders' armies during the eleventh and twelfth centuries to indicate their faith in God to grant them victory in battle over their Muslim enemies.7 For Jewish descendants, the crucifix recalls to mind the religious institution that forced the conversion of their forefathers, referred to as "conversos," in Spain during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and in Vienna between 1550 and 1670.8

The Crucifix and European Culture

Most Italians, according to a Zenit news poll,9 are in favor of keeping crucifixes in public school rooms, arguing that they are only symbols of European culture. Defending the historical record of Christianity's European roots, crucifix proponents contend that (Roman Catholic) Christianity is woven into the fabric of European civilization. Such a position, they reason, is not based on religious bias and thus does not violate religious freedom rights of non-Christian adherents.
Indeed, Europe and its civilization owe much to Christianity. During the first centuries of their existence, Christians influenced Roman cultural norms, leading to the eventual abolition of gladiatorial and coliseum games, which pitted humans and animals in battles to the death.10 Several centuries later, if it had not been for (Roman Catholic) Christian forces, Europe would have succumbed to the Muslim onslaughts of the sixth century.11 During the Black Plague, especially the years 1348-1349, the church stood as a societal institution offering healing and hope to its dying and demoralized citizenry.12 As European efforts at expansion, and subsequent colonialism, reached a climax, Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) introduced biblical principles of morality designed to "civilize" the conquered natives of North, Central, and South America.13 Even in modern constitutional discourse, recognition is given to Christian concepts dating to the early Middle Ages that contributed to modern notions of human rights.14

The cultural-influence argument, however, overlooks several points. First, it does not take into consideration the evolving nature of civil society, especially in the light of modern democratic concepts of religious pluralism. Obviously, some citizens of Italy do not adhere to the dominant religious view, so to use the cultural-influence argument, it seems more consistent to recognize the diversity within Italian society and show respect for varying views by not using religious symbolism of a particular group. Perhaps, the dilemma facing Italian citizens using this argument is whether they wish to consider cultural influence that is enshrined in the historic past or whether to accept a cultural stance that is current and variegated.

The political structuring of society in Europe has also changed significantly over the centuries. Empires, dynasties, and monarchical rule no longer form a part of modern society that is structured on concepts of the nation-state and democratic rule. Prior to the era of modern political theory, European society was structured on a communal concept, with church and state fulfilling their respective duties. This allowed for a single, dominant religion. After the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the era of modern political theory, not only were there various religious groups to compete with the historically dominant Roman Catholic Church, but also political theory had progressed enough to allow for a variety of religious expressions to coexist in society. From a political perspective, the idea of various religious groups having equal standing in society is founded upon the concept of nonabsolutism, or indifference. That is to say, government must be indifferent to each religious group in order to establish the principle of neutrality toward all. Government must consider each religion as nonabsolute in order to be impartial toward all. Perhaps this point is at the very heart of the "Crucifix Conundrum" facing the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. Not willing to consider itself as a nonabsolute religious entity, it cannot cede territorial space to any other religion, or even to secularism. Since the church considers itself as a religious entity whose mission is to lead man to his ultimate end—namely, God—then it cannot remain isolated in the transcendental sphere, but instead must bridge the abyss to enter the political dimension.

Additionally, the role of globalization enters the debate. As time progresses modern technology and communication devices are increasingly penetrating all societies, producing an interwoven network of global proportions. Under these conditions, one culture influences another. As various religious groups come into contact with one another, viable solutions for their mutual coexistence must be explored. Not only does globalization bring religious adherents into contact, but it also presents a variety of church-state models for consideration. France has adopted a model of Laïcité, in which all religious expression in society is suppressed. The result is actually a proactive stance against religion. Italian concerns about avoiding similar conditions in their country are valid, but there are other models of church-state relations.

Globalization is also a factor: pitting concepts of Italian national sovereignty against international sovereignty. The Italian Constitutional Court denied Soile Lautsi's claim, but then the European Court of Human Rights ruled in her favor. As globalization develops, it tends to prioritize the formation of a global community at the expense of national identity and national sovereignty. Thus, one dimension of the "Crucifix Conundrum" facing Italy is this: If Italian society seeks to remain insular regarding its cultural history, then can it truly argue that it is part of the larger European community, which is becoming more democratically oriented? And, to what extent should Italy conform to the prevailing norms of the larger European society in order to remain a member of the same?

The Crucifix and Religious Freedom

Religious freedom has a variety of definitions in the modern, multireligious context of the global community. One of the underlying issues in the crucifix debate pits Roman Catholic views of religious freedom against those of the wider European community. The former view tends to argue for the freedom of the church to achieve its spiritual mission in the world. The latter view recognizes that much of Europe is drifting toward secularism, producing an attitude of religious indifference, or at least religious latitude. Such naturally opposing views inevitably result in conflict.

Whereas the former view can include a plurality of religious groups, the freedom of the church to fulfill its mission denies this societal configuration, unless the church is willing to forgo its preeminence and consider itself as one religious expression among equally valid others. This includes, at minimum, treating all religious groups as equals before the law and in the public sphere, a posture that would require the removal of the crucifix from public schools, or allowing all religious groups to post symbols of their faith in public places.

The second view, becoming more popular in European society, stresses an attitude of relativism. By viewing religion, Catholicism in particular, as merely a cultural aspect of society, it leads to disregard of religious authority and significance. It considers each individual capable of formulating and following his or her dictates of conscience. In more extreme cases, by excluding religion from public affairs, it can engender irreligious attitudes—lack of faith, and even antagonism toward all religions.

Recognizing the dangers inherent in secularism, Pope Benedict XVI wrote of Europe's need to find its soul, to rediscover its identity as a (Roman Catholic) Christian continent, while also respecting multiculturalism: "If we do not do this, we not only deny the identity of Europe, but we also deprive others of a service to which they have a right. For the cultures of the world, the absolute secularity that has been taking shape in the West is something profoundly foreign. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. And so multiculturalism itself calls us to come to our senses and to look deep within ourselves again."15

Religion versus secularism . . . a crucifix versus secular public education . . . a Crucifix Conundrum? Is there a solution? Perhaps Pope Benedict's counsel can be applied by all believers, whether Christian or not, and by looking deep within ourselves, we can strike that delicate balance between respecting the beliefs and practices of others while also maintaining the integrity of our own.

Edwin Cook writes from Waco, Texas. He has done advanced studies in church- state issues at Baylor University, Texas.

1 Retrieved on 11/11/2009 from
2Accessed on 5/12/2010 from
3 Catholic Encyclopedia Online, "Altar Crucifix," accessed on 2/10/2010 from
4 "The controversy from the ninth to the twelfth century, after which time the doctrine of Transubstantiation, which teaches that Christ is present in the Eucharist by the change of the entire substance of bread and wine into His Body and Blood, was fully indicated as Catholic dogma."—Catholic Encyclopedia Online, "Consubstantiation," accessed on 2/10/2010 from encyclopedia/view.php?id=3311.
5 Catholic Encyclopedia Online, "Processional Cross," accessed on 2/10/2010 from
6Statistics as of 2009, accessed on 2/10/2010 from
7 The "Crusaders' Cross," so named "because it was on the papal banner given to the Crusaders by Pope Urban II the First Crusade, and was a symbol of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem."—"The Jerusalem Cross,"
8 Brian Pullan, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice, 1550-1670 (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1983).
9 Antonio Gaspari, "In Difesa del Crocifisso, l'Italia s'e desta!" retrieved on 11/22/09 from
10 "Gladiatorial combats were outlawed by the Christian emperor Honorius in 407 and fights with wild beasts were banned in 523."—Accessed on 5/12/10 from italy/rome-colosseum.
11Thomas F. Madden, ed., Crusades: The Illustrated History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 120.
12R. W. Southern refers to the droves of diseased citizens who flocked the churches in hope of a miraculous cure and "what an essential part these expectations played in making life tolerable for large masses of people whose only hope lay in a sign from heaven." —Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), pp.304-309.
13From today's perspective, such Christian activity can rightly be deemed "genocide" and "forced relocation." However, Catholic philosophers such as Suárez and De las Casas argued for the rights of native peoples in the New World.
14Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law, 1150-1625 (Atlanta, Ga: Scholars' Press, 1997).
15Formerly, Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Europe, Today and Tomorrow: Addressing the Fundamental Issues (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 34.

Article Author: Edwin C. Cook

Edwin Cook has a doctorate in church-state studies from Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He writes from Waco.