The debate was unleashed Sept. 18 by Minister of Education Letizia Moratti, who said the crucifix is "a heritage that cannot be given up in our country." Christianity has been decisive in the formation of Italian culture, the official noted.
The member of Silvio Berlusconi's government believes that, according to the law in force, the crucifix may be exhibited in classrooms without violating the separation of church and state.
A draft law, promoted by the Northern League party, goes even further, proposing the imposition of crucifixes in all schools, as a factor of unity in the country.
That proposal has drawn strong criticisms from Muslims and Jews, as well as political figures who warn of a violation of the principle of church-state separation.
Cardinal Roberto Tucci, president of the administrative council of Vatican Radio, spoke out on the issue.
"The exhibition of the crucifix is not offensive to anyone who has a minimum of cultural openness," the cardinal told Vatican Radio. "As the Holy Father emphasized in the Angelus on Sept. 15, it is true that the crucifix is the principal symbol of Christianity. But it already forms an integral part of Western culture: This is recognized by many people who are not even believers, or at least who are not practicing Christians."
According to the cardinal, "the majority who recognize themselves in some measure in the crucifix is much greater than that part of the Italian population that adheres to the Church; and this majority has the right to be respected."
He acknowledged, however, that some people, especially Muslims, have a different view of the crucifix. "There must be an explanation of what the crucifix is, what this sign expresses on which our culture is built," he said.
"It is the sign of God who has compassion on us, who accepts human weakness, who opens us to all, to one another and, therefore, creates the relation of fraternity," the cardinal stressed.
Cardinal Tucci does not agree with those who say the crucifix should be in the classrooms as a symbol of Western identity against Muslim fundamentalism, thus promoting the westernization of Islamic immigrants.
"The crucifix is not acceptable as a symbol of opposition," he said. "However, we have the right to defend ourselves from those who ridicule this symbol. It is not right, it is unacceptable to scorn and ridicule what is sacred for Christians."
Referring to the draft law introduced in the Chamber of Deputies by the Northern League, which calls for the presence of the crucifix in public institutions in Italy, Cardinal Tucci expressed his perplexity about the initiative. He said he thinks that it would be better if "local communities decided according to a widely practiced modus vivendi."
"Naturally, it is also necessary for the Church to fulfill its educational function among Catholic communities, families and young people, so that in schools and in different situations in society, young people and families, will value the desire they still have of recognizing themselves in the crucifix and of seeing it, not as something that divides, but as something that is to be respected by all and that, in a certain sense, can unify," Cardinal Tucci concluded.