But religion also plays a large part in keeping these gender roles strictly defined. Italian-Americans being considered an ethnic sub-group means that we must take into account various cultural factors in assessing them, and the fact that Italian-Americans are almost uniformly Roman Catholic in religious affiliation is probably at the top of that list. The church's headquarters at the Vatican in Rome gives Catholicism an authoritarian structure. Catholicism has led to a solid patriarchal structure, which is only now just being dismantled, and it adds to the oppressively traditional sense of gender roles still held by some Italians (mostly men). Catholicism also has its relations to Italian-American attitudes towards healthcare, as Italian-American Catholicism relies very heavily on the "cult of the saints." This means that there is a recognized saint who specializes in each different disease: so there is Saint Peregrine for cancer, Saint Dymphna for mental illness, and Saint Girard for pregnancy. Catholicism also believes in miracle cures that can follow a pilgrimage to Catholic holy sites, such as Lourdes in France, which still attracts over five million visitors per year.
One of the most notorious aspects that Catholicism plays in the lives of Italian-Americans is the church's strict moral teaching on a number of issues relate to health care (which will also affect any larger health-care enterprise, such as a hospital, which is part of the Catholic church's own pastoral holdings). The Roman Catholic church has strong teachings on sexual morality, including a blanket ban on all forms of contraception (including condoms and the birth control pill). The Church also has a strong view of end-of-life matters, believing in the fundamental dignity of all life and therefore banning any type of euthanasia or "do not resuscitate" order -- the conservatism of the Catholic position was brought under sharp national scrutiny under President George W. Bush when the nation considered the plight of Terri Schiavo -- who was, despite the surname, not Italian-American herself, but was a Roman Catholic -- whose parents, strict Catholics, did not believe her persistent vegetative state was irreversible. Ragucci also notes that, with the Italian-American community "refinements of the definition of folk health beliefs have resulted from an emphasis on syncretism" with Catholic practice, and so Italian-Americans will mix folk beliefs about health with Catholic practice (Ragucci 42). The use of garlic or onion poultices to handle a chest infection persists to this day, and Ragucci notes the persistence of a wide range of folk practices among Italian-Americans.
In conclusion it is worth noting for health care professionals that Italian immigration largely occurred in urban areas, particularly on the east coast, although there are large Italian-American presences in virtually every major metropolitan area in the U.S. currently. An understanding of the particular pressures and features of Italian-American life -- such as the intense desire to keep all secrets and quarrels within the family structure, which makes it so difficult (in the famous television show only recently concluded) for Tony Soprano to open up directly about his emotional life with his psychiatrist Dr. Aida Melfi. Yet increased assimilation has altered many aspects of traditional Italian-American life, and certain of its negative aspects (such as the sexism which heavily favors men) are currently fading. Except for a few terms here and there, Italian-Americans do not maintain the Italian language in this country, and so are slowly assimilating to the American way of doing things. In the process, of course, Italian-Americans have gone from a despised minority considered as racially inferior to being a profound influence on the daily life of all Americans (especially now that pizza appears to have become, for better or for worse, America's national dish).
De Marco-Torgovnick, Marianna. Crossing Ocean Parkway. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Dougherty, Molly and Tripp-Reimer, Toni. "The Interface of Nursing and Anthropology" Annual Review of Anthropology, 14 (1985): 219-241.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. New York: Little Brown, 2008.
Mangione, Jerre and Morreale, Ben. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian-American Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
Ragucci, A.T. "The urban context of health beliefs and caring practices of the elderly women in an Italian-American enclave." In Transcultural Nursing Care of the Elderly: Proceedings of the Second National Transcultural Nursing Conference, ed Leininger, M. Salt Lake City: University of Utah College of Nursing, 1977: 33-51.
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