Alessandro Ferrari is Professor of Ecclesiastical Law at the University of Insubria in Como, Italy. He visited IU Bloomington in March 2023, hosted by the Center for Religion and the Human, the Department of Religious Studies, the Center for Constitutional Democracy, and the Institute for European Studies. He gave several seminars and workshops as well as working individually with faculty and students. Professor Winni Sullivan has visited and lectured in Como about US law about religion.
Sullivan: Professor Ferrari, we in the US are not familiar with the academic field of ecclesiastical law. Can you explain what ecclesiastical law is?
Ferrari: Well, actually, this is a recurring question in Italy as well. At the beginning of the course—which for law students is compulsory in the second year—Italian students ask: what am I doing in an ecclesiastical law course? In the class they learn that ecclesiastical law is not the law of the Church (the law of the church is taught in a different course of Canon Law and Comparative Law of Religions) but that it is the law of the state—and supranational organizations—in matters of religion. Then, as the course develops, students learn that religion underlies all legal systems, that one cannot understand democracy and the constitution without knowing the role that religion—and religious denominations—play in society and politics, that possessing secular legal knowledge should not exempt one from knowing that religious legal systems also exist, with their own dynamics and with which state and supranational legal systems must deal. In short, to know religious rights and the legislation of nation-states and supranational legal systems (e.g., the European Union) in religious matters is important for understanding the complexity of all law and legal systems.
As for the specific term “ecclesiastical law,” in lieu of a more generic Law and Religion, in Italy it is meant to remind us how European modernity has conceived of religions primarily through an institutionalist lens, formatting them into ecclesiastical institutions, according to their relations with the state, and making the dividing line between orthodoxy and dissidence, between church and non-church religions civilly relevant, by giving it a secular-temporal meaning as well.
Sullivan: Who are your students? What kind of jobs are available for those who specialize in ecclesiastical law?
Ferrari: Ecclesiastical Law is not conceived in Italian Law Schools as a directly professional subject. Certainly, in the Italian legal system it is possible that a lawyer will sooner or later come across a matrimonial case where aspects of canon and ecclesiastical law are involved (Italy recognizes under certain conditions the civil efficacy of canonical judgments of matrimonial nullity) or that he or she will have to deal with one of the many ecclesiastical bodies that deal with matters ranging from charity to education to tourism. But apart from these technical aspects, which although in the Italian context are of some importance, the choice to have as a compulsory part of the curriculum of studies in the second year (out of five) Ecclesiastical Law lies in the need to provide students in their very first years with a general foundation before plunging into the narrow specialization that awaits them in the following three-year course. Thus, in the first two years students are required to take Roman Law, History of Law, Philosophy of Law, International law, and Ecclesiastical Law, as well as beginning the more professionalizing subjects that await them in later years. Ecclesiastical law is an excellent training ground. Through ecclesiastical law, other rights can be considered: constitutional, private, criminal, commercial ...; as well as comparative legal studies (between secular and religious models of law with a global, not just Italocentric, outlook); history (Ecclesiastical Law provides a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of law in the long run); politics (Ecclesiastical Law helps understand the tensions that sometimes divide legislators, judges, and society); and, of course, sociology.
Sullivan: Can you describe your own research, particularly the book you have been working on while in Bloomington?
Ferrari: My research is primarily concerned with the legal management of religious pluralism in Europe: how the “European model” of religious freedom has reacted to more recent transformations (especially those following the so-called fall of the Berlin Wall and the awareness of the permanent presence of Muslim communities) and, in particular how the right of religious freedom emerging from post-World War II constitutionalism and consolidated in national constitutions but also in supranational texts (starting with those of the EU and the Council of Europe) is changing under the challenge of creating a consensual and peaceful management of religious and value pluralism. I am engaged now in a book that—in the context of the somewhat hysterical reaction that Europe has had to the presence of Islam—would like to try to explain how what we are facing today is, on the one hand, the expression of the resistance, which has become pathological today, of the approach of European modernity to the religion(s), on the one hand, and, on the other, the reflection of the relations between Europe and the Muslim world that have developed since, again, precisely the modern age and, in particular, the colonial era. I follow the legal regulation of the Muslim headscarf on both sides of the Mediterranean, starting from the period immediately following the French Revolution to the present day. Following the law of the veil allows one to follow the interaction of three important “actors” in the so-called right of religious freedom: individuals, the state, and the churches. These are “actors” that European modernity has, in a sense hypostatized and accompanied with a rhetorical narrative that has often concealed the real normative arrangements that were being created between them. This narrative has had a strongly negative effect in the relationship between Europe and the so-called “Muslim world,” a weight for which we are, in a sense, paying the consequences today.
Sullivan: Could you say something about how being in Bloomington has changed your perspective on the field of religion and law?
Ferrari: My knowledge of Bloomington and its religious studies scholarship did not begin this month. For a long time, Prof. Sullivan’s work has been internationally fundamental in placing the legal study of religion(s) in a framework capable of better understanding how religion underlies the institutions of the contemporary world. Discussions with the doctoral students who attended my seminar was a very important enrichment for me because of the openness to new perspectives that such a discussion allows. In particular, I believe that the Center for Religion and the Human reflects well in its very title the need for this new perspective from which to look at religious phenomena, which are too often stiffened within narrow categories that have little grip on reality. I think its work, and that of the American Religion journal, help to understand the pervasiveness, the transformative and transforming capacity of religious phenomena through an approach that is both diachronic and interdisciplinary. After all the interdisciplinarity of religious studies is fundamental for the legal scholar who wants to avoid locking themselves into categories that could be misleading if not linked to an adequate hermeneutical contextualization.
I also particularly appreciated the hospitality of the Center for Constitutional Democracy. Being able to have a work room allowed me an ongoing and very fruitful dialogue with some of the doctoral students at that Center. I also owe a special thanks to the staff of the Law School library, who were a great help to me in being able to access the texts I needed. Finally, I must say that I particularly enjoyed the beautiful campus, its natural beauty, which is truly inspiring.