The traditional sight of an Italian couple stepping out of a church under a shower of confetti while being blessed by a priest is becoming ever rarer, with the number of civil ceremonies overtaking church weddings for the first time in the country’s history.
Last year, 50.1% of weddings were conducted in town halls, registry offices or other civil locations, while 49.9% took place in churches, according to ISTAT, Italy’s national statistics agency.
Back in 1970, civil ceremonies made up just 2.3% of all marriages in Italy. They have leapt in popularity, with couples getting married in castles, on the beach and in unique locations such as a centuries-old house in Verona that purportedly has links to Romeo and Juliet.
The historic shift represents the increasing secularisation of Italy, a once staunchly Catholic country where these days less than a quarter of the adult population regularly attends Mass.
Despite the drop in church attendance, nearly 75% of Italians still identify themselves as being Catholic, according to a 2017 study by the polling agency Ipsos MORI.
The change is also a reflection of the increasing number of divorces and second marriages in Italy – divorcees who want to remarry cannot do so in church and have no choice but to choose a civil ceremony.
“The meaning of marriage has changed. In the past, it was religion that sanctioned all the rites of passage of people’s lives, from baptism to marriage, which marked the entry into adult life,” said Caterina Tabasso, a psychoanalyst from the Italian Association of Psychologists.
“But these days, marriage has become a more private and personal affair, where there is more freedom. Given that young people leave home at a later age, they feel less constrained by family pressures. Marriage has become something that should more closely represent the couple. That explains the choice of many to choose a friend as the celebrant,” she told La Repubblica newspaper.
There remains, however, a wide gulf between the secular, industrialised north of Italy and the economically struggling south, where the sway of the Catholic Church is stronger.
In the north, civil ceremonies make up 64% of all marriages, whereas in the south the figure is just 30%.
“The further north you go, the more secular Italy becomes. Faith has always been traditionally stronger in the south,” said Edward Pentin, a Vatican expert and the author of a book on a Vatican synod which examined contentious issues such as divorce, remarriage and same-sex relationships.
“This is another thing to add to the litany of problems that the Church is facing in the face of secularism. But faith is still steeped in the culture – it is there, even if people are not going to church as much.”
The Istat report reveals a country that is changing radically from its pious, conservative, homogenous past.
There are more marriages between Italians and foreigners, a growing number of same sex civil unions and an increase in the number of children born to parents who are not married.
Last year there were 2,800 same sex civil unions, with two-thirds of them between men.
The proportion of marriages involving an Italian marrying a foreigner has risen from 15% a decade ago to more than 17%, reflecting the country’s increasingly multi-cultural society.
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Couples are getting married at a later age, in large part due to economic uncertainty and the difficulty of finding a steady job – many Italians live at home with their parents until their thirties.
The average age of Italian grooms is now 33.7, while for first-time brides it is 31.5.
Italians’ faith in the institution of marriage remains strong – there was a 2.3% increase in the number of marriages celebrated in 2018 compared to the year before.