Leonardo De Chirico is in an ongoing argument with the Italian government about the “intrinsic characteristics” of religious buildings.

The evangelical pastor insists that Breccia di Roma (Breach of Rome), which is located in a simple storefront about a kilometer from the Colosseum, is a church. Christians meet there regularly to pray, praise God, and listen to the preaching of the Word. The national tax authority has noted, though, that the multifunctional space, which also houses a theological library and a missions training center, does not have the vaulted ceilings, stained glass, raised altar, candles, or saint statues commonly associated with churches in the majority-Catholic country and therefore doesn’t qualify for religious tax exemptions.

“The arguments are silly and poor,” De Chirico told CT. “The pictures they showed were of impressive buildings, but we showed that Muslim prayer rooms are simple and some Catholic churches meet in shops. Synagogues look like our space. They are all tax-exempt. We are not asking for privilege. We are not asking for something that others don’t have.”

This conflict has been going on since 2016. A lower court sided with the Reformed Baptist church, but the tax authority filed an appeal. The case is now going to Italy’s Supreme Court.

But tax-exempt status is not the most serious disagreement De Chirico has with Italians about what a church is. In 2014, he wrote a pamphlet critiquing the papacy. In 2021, the Reformed pastor and theology chair of the Italian Evangelical Alliance wrote a book arguing that the “theological framework of Roman Catholicism is not faithful to the biblical gospel.”

So it frustrated him, to say the least, when Thomas Schirrmacher, the head of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), joined an ecumenical prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, in September. It seemed to him that the secretary general of the global evangelical association was embracing the spiritual leadership of Pope Francis and endorsing a vision of unity not grounded in the gospel.

“When you pray with someone in public, you are saying that the differences between our theologies are mere footnotes,” De Chirico said. “Dialogue is welcome, but there are core differences we cannot forget or ignore.”

In October, the Italian Evangelical Alliance publicly criticized Schirrmacher, saying the evangelical leader had “crossed a line.” The Spanish Evangelical Alliance issued a similar statement the following month.

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“It is not easy to defend that we, evangelicals, do not bow our heads before the pope when the secretary general of the WEA does,” the Spanish evangelical statement said. “We consider it necessary that we publicly express our resounding rejection of his participation in that event and the way in which he acted.”

For most of evangelicals’ history, the relationship with Catholics in Europe has been defined by rejection, distinction, antagonism, and harassment. Go back far enough, and that history involves martyrs, heresy trials, and public executions.

The first Evangelical Alliance, in fact, was organized in the 1800s to stand against state establishment of religion and Catholic suppression of conversions. The group mounted its first public campaign in 1851—to free two Protestants imprisoned in Italy. A couple was found guilty of impiety after clashing with authorities in Florence over the intrinsic characteristics of Christian faith.

In recent decades, however, that relationship has substantively changed. Concerns about communism during the Cold War and secularism and religious pluralization in the 21st century—along with the reforms of Vatican II—have led many European evangelicals to see the Roman Catholic Church as a friend and ally.

Italy, Spain, and other majority-Catholic countries no longer have state establishments of religion. The Catholic Church often still enjoys legal privileges, though. And it sets the norms for what officials recognize as religious, making life difficult for the evangelical minority.

WEA leadership acknowledges that evangelical-Catholic relations can be a highly sensitive issue. But the organization has also insisted that ongoing intrafaith dialogue and collaboration on issues like religious freedom have not “changed, betrayed, or compromised the WEA’s theological principles.”

In majority-Catholic countries, however, many European evangelicals still find themselves needing to distinguish points of difference—in part because they can still struggle for basic recognition. Sometimes that looks like a conflict with an official who has a very specific idea of what a church looks like. Other times, the struggle is against broad cultural assumptions about what even counts as “religion.”

In places like Ireland, “evangelicals aren’t even in the picture,” said Bob Wilson, a church planter in Dublin supported by Communitas International. “In the past, when everyone went to church, everyone went to the Roman Catholic Church. Now, when nobody goes to church, nobody goes to any church.”

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Ireland has been officially secular since a 1972 amendment to its constitution passed with overwhelming support.

But the Roman Catholic Church’s influence over the culture is quite pronounced. Social expectations and norms—from what a family looks like to what a minister looks like—are set by the Catholic church.

That can make life difficult for evangelicals, especially church planters, pastors, and missionaries. Wilson sometimes struggles to convince people he is really a minister.

A few years ago, he recalls, he ended up in a pub in Dublin trying to explain what it meant to be a church planter. He remembers really hoping he could create a safe space in the pub to talk about Jesus.

It didn’t go as he’d hoped.

Politely, a man tilted a pint of beer in Wilson’s direction and said, “You know, the average person in Ireland would think you are out of your f—ing mind.”

Not everyone has responded like that, though. Wilson has been encouraged to see some disaffected Catholics find their way to the church and discover a different way to have faith in Christ. But it’s slow going.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Wilson said, “and that’s just something you have to do one person at a time.”

Felipe Lobo Arranz, an evangelical Lutheran pastor, said it’s similar in Spain. According to demographic data, the country is two-thirds Catholic. But the reality is that many of them are lapsed. They don’t take their Catholicism seriously, he said, though it still informs their strong opinions about what Christianity should look like.

Arranz finds ways to use that, though. He often finds himself appealing to the ideals of disaffected and disillusioned Spaniards in his evangelistic work in the coastal city of Alicante.

“This is a country that knows when something is good and true,” he said. “The Spanish admire the humble: people who do good and relate to others as true friends.”

As a missionary, Arranz spends most of his time talking with others over “good food and good drink.” He forms relationships, gets involved in people’s lives, and sees people slowly open up to discussions about the gospel.

“After a long time, you are welcomed into the Spanish sancta sanctorum to talk about the divine,” he said, “but it’s necessary to heat the furnace of true friendship for a long time to get there.”

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That’s how it goes in Italy, too. Though De Chirico has found himself embattled in the courts and thinks it’s important to publicly critique Catholic theology, that’s not his main work as an evangelical pastor.

He preaches to and cares for his congregation of about 60 as he has since 2009—and as he did for 12 years before that in the northern city of Ferrara. He connects with local people—priests, professors at the nearby Catholic seminaries, international students, and people who live in Rome.

The church also serves as a training center for pastors and church planters and as a kind of hub for evangelicals across the country.

“There’s no physical threat, no fierce opposition in the sense of shutting down churches or anything,” De Chirico said. “It’s just making our lives difficult.”

And while ministry is harder than it has to be, evangelicals in majority-Catholic countries just have to be faithful to their calling, he said.

“In a minority context like Italy it’s always step by step, or piano, piano, as we say.”

Ken Chitwood is a scholar of global religion who lives and works in Germany.

[ This article is also available in español Português, and Français. ]

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