"Divorce Italian style": Marriage, Church and state in the making of modern Italy, 1860--1903

Date of Completion

January 2001


History, Church|History, European|Sociology, Social Structure and Development




Debates over the divorce question in Italy during the 1970s are familiar to historians of modern Europe, but less is known about the attempts to introduce divorce legislation between Italian unification in 1860 and World War I. This study, based on government and Church records, as well as newspapers and contemporary literature, examines the development of Italian marriage law under the liberals after 1860, focusing on the intense debates that surrounded eight proposals for a divorce law between 1878 and 1903. The study of the divorce issue highlights the struggle to secularize Italian society, and also underlines the limits and ambiguities of Italian liberalism. ^ When the Italian government made marriage a secular institution in 1865, it chose not to proceed to the logical conclusion of introducing divorce. At the time, the absence of a divorce law was not out of step with neighboring countries. However, by the 1870s and 1880s, when divorce legislation had become the norm elsewhere, an influential coterie of politicians took up the issue, attempting to continue along the secular, liberal path that had been opened by the achievement of unity. In response, the lay organizations of the Church seized upon divorce as the epitome of all that was iniquitous about liberalism, and mustered extraordinary mass resistance. As a result, the divorce question became a battleground for opposing world views. ^ By the early twentieth century, Italy's liberal politicians were struggling with new social forces and ideological rivalries. The resulting instability exposed the weakness of Italy's political status quo and increased the willingness of liberals to accept support from the Church. The price of the Church's tacit support was the suppression of overtly secular projects, and divorce was the prime exemplar. The definitive failure of divorce reform after 1903 was therefore a significant turning point that signaled the establishment of a new modus vivendi between the Italian state and the Church. This relationship was later formalized by the Lateran Pacts of 1929 and continued through the hegemony of the Christian Democrats until the 1970s, when divorce was finally introduced. ^