Though Catholicism is undoubtedly the largest Christian sect in Italy, the country is also home to a considerable minority of non-Catholic Christian sects. Read our guide for more facts and information…
Roman Catholics form the largest Christian sect in Italy. While about 88 percent of the population belong to the Roman Catholic Church, only about a third of them are considered active in terms of religious practice. Several non-Catholic sects have sprung up over the centuries, though there is at least one Catholic Church in every town or village and over 95 percent of Catholics are baptized.
Groups of Non-Catholic Christian Sects
Non-Catholic sects in Italy include Protestants and orthodox communities. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Evangelical believers, Baptists, Anglicans and Mormons form the Protestant sects. There are over 700,000 Eastern Orthodox believers, 550,000 evangelical communities and 235,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Waldensian Evangelical Church is the oldest non-Catholic church representing the pre-Lutheran Protestant community in Italy.
The Protestant population is concentrated in the northern regions that border Switzerland and France. Methodists, Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists are fewer in number, but can be identified in the northern districts. The Evangelists, who have sprung up in recent years, are mainly from the Lombardy area near Switzerland. The proximity of Italy to Greece has resulted in a number of Greek Orthodox settlements in Sicily.
The Spread of Non-Catholic Christian Doctrines In Italy
Missionary work and immigration led to spread of various denominations of Christianity in Italy. The twentieth century witnessed a rapid growth in the number of Protestants, such as Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. In the 21st century, African immigrants increased the size of Anglican and Baptist churches in Italy. At the same time, immigrants from Eastern Europe increased the size of Eastern Orthodox groups.
Protestantism, a major grouping of Christianity, denies the authority of the Pope and upholds the Reformation doctrines, such as supremacy of the Bible, justification by faith and priesthood of believers. The protestant movement that began in Germany in the 1500’s rose against the Roman Catholic doctrines. Protestantism has about 33,000 denominations around the world. There are about 725,000 Protestants in Italy. The most prominent protestant denominations in Italy are discussed below.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals
Evangelicalism dates back to the 1600’s, but it took shape in the following century after the Methodists and Pietists evolved. It stresses on individual piety rather than rituals and respects biblical authority. It requires a person to be ‘born again’ and gives importance to sharing the gospel.
Pentecostalism is considered as a revival movement, which stresses the need for a personal experience of God by getting baptized with the Holy Spirit. It also recognizes the supremacy of the scriptures and the need to accept Christ as personal savior. A believer is said to be empowered with spiritual gifts including divine healing, reflecting the power of the early church during the Apostolic Age.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals together make up 550,000 of Italy’s Protestant sect. ‘Assemblies of God’ (AG), the largest Pentecostal denomination, attributes its international fellowship to worldwide missionary work. Adherents of AG are independent, but share common beliefs and historical roots. The members of Italy’s AG Church total to about 400,000.
Waldensian refers to a Christian movement, which began in France in the 1170s, and it originated due to the divisions in the Catholic Church. It encouraged Catholics to return to the Gospel, just as Jesus and his disciples did in the New Testament. Though it was a reform movement in the Catholic Church, it was persecuted after being called heretical in 1215. As the Protestant Reformation arose, church leaders, along with Swiss and German Calvinists, decided to connect with the Reformed Church. They embraced Calvinist tenets, due to which the church became the Italian arm of Reformed churches. However, with the rise of Catholic persecution in the 1600’s, Waldensians were dispersed and eventually joined other Protestant denominations. The Waldensian Evangelical Church is the earliest non-Catholic entity in Italy. There are about 50,000 Waldnesians in Italy.
Methodism originated from the evangelistic renewal movement led by John Wesley. The Methodist Church is popular for its widespread missionary work and welfare activities to spread the Gospel and serve people. Italy has 7,000 Methodists.
The Seventh-day Adventists distinguish themselves from other denominations by observing Saturday as the Sabbath. About 25,000 Christians of Italy belong to this sect. They believe in the Second Coming or Advent of Christ and adhere to a conservative lifestyle. Their church is among the largest of Adventist groups, which originated in the 1800’s following the Millerite movement. The movement emerged after William Miler predicted the day of Christ’s second coming based on the book of Daniel.
The history of the Baptist Church dates back to the 1600’s, when Jon Smyth established the first Baptist Church in Amsterdam. Baptists emphasize on baptizing professing believers and oppose infant baptism. Their doctrine requires believers to take immersion baptism and not affusion or sprinkling. About 20,000 Christians in Italy are Baptists.
‘Brethren’ refers to Protestant Christian groups that do not have common historical roots. The early churches that come under the Brethren Movement include Moravian, Paulician, Bogomil and Anabaptist. About 20,000 Italians belong to this group.
Anglicanism includes churches connected to the Church of England, and most Anglican Churches belong to the international Anglican Communion. Considered to be a branch of Western Christianity, this sect became independent from the Roman pontiff during the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. Later theologies of the Anglicans were in between the doctrines of Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants. Anglican Christians in Italy number to 15,000.
Lutheranism is based on Martin Luther’s theology, which brought about the Protestant Reformation. This German reformer’s writings, which spread the concept of Reformation around the world, promoted the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ. Lutherans have a high regard for the Eucharist. Italy has a small Lutheran population numbering to just 8,000.
Eastern Orthodox Communities
Eastern Orthodox refers to the Orthodox Catholic Church, which has adherents from the eastern and southeastern parts of Europe. Self-governing bodies control geographically distinct churches, which are unified by doctrines. Though Greek and Romanian Orthodox communities have a prominent presence in Italy, others such as Ukrainian, Siberian, Russian and Moldovan Orthodox communities together make up about 270,000 adherents.
Greek Orthodox Communities
Italy has about 180,000 people belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church, which was confined to Greek borders before the Balkan Wars of the early 1900’s.
Romanian Orthodox Communities
The Romanian Orthodox Church uses a Romance language and is spiritually united with Eastern Orthodox churches. Italy has about 500,000 Christians belonging to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Other Non-Catholic Christian Sects
Jehovah’s Witnesses form about 0.85 percent of the Christian population in Italy. They have distinct beliefs based on their own interpretations of the scriptures and they have their own Bible version. The name Jehovah’s Witness originated in 1931after they disentangled from the Bible Student Movement established by Charles Taze Russell in the 1800’s.
The Mormon Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) claims to restore the church founded by Christ. With its head quarters in Utah, the church has more than 55,000 missionaries around the world. Italy’s LDS Church has 25,000 members.