In the rest of Europe, this mix of church and state is often regarded skeptically. But, paradoxically, Italy has in many ways less religious zeal than the United States, where the lines between church and state are much more sharply drawn, but where personal religious conviction can be stronger.
Another part of this, church officials and conservatives say, is the long history with the church as a fallible institution, stripped over the centuries of much of its mystery. "We have the pope," said Giuliano Ferrara, one of Italy's leading conservative commentators. "You know history. You can understand this process."
And so, like urban architects who struggle to make Rome a modern city without destroying the ancient, Italians maneuver deftly around their heritage - granting both church and state a more equal share than do many other countries, and with greater equanimity.
"Everybody thinks that the pope is the only moral figure in my country as far as war and social justice go," said Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party, who spearheaded the campaign to legalize abortion in the 1970's. "But on personal behavior, meaning sex, meaning divorce, meaning motherhood and pregnancy, people frankly do not care."