The concordat signed recently by the Italian government and the Vatican has to be considered a truly historic document. The agreement officially ends the status of Roman Catholicism as the established state religion of Italy.
The document vividly underscores the far-reaching social and political changes that have taken place within Italian society during the past half century. Although most Italians consider themselves Roman Catholics, in fact, Italy has become increasingly secularized in recent years. Divorce, for example, has been legalized, as well as has a limited form of abortion - in both cases laws that a few decades back would have been viewed as politically inconceivable in Italy.
Under the new agreement, Rome loses its status as a ''sacred city'' and religious education in state schools now is optional.
According to Albert Menendez, director of research for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, 33 or so nations around the globe continue to have established state religions. They include nations recognizing Protestant religions (Lutheranism in Scandinavian nations, and the Church of England in Britain), for example, to nations recognizing Roman Catholicism (primarily in Central and South America). A few nations recognize Buddhism and Hinduism. Israel, says Mr. Menendez, is considered a marginal case, since the nation considers itself both a secular and a Jewish state. Most nations with an established religion are Islamic, including Iran, Pakistan, and Algeria.
The agreement in Italy warrants the closest possible study by those nations still having an established state church and those nations, such as the United States, which are seeking at this late date to establish diplomatic ties with the Roman Catholic church.