McDonald's rushed to mobilise the full weight of its PR forces this week, as thousands of Italian Catholics rallied to the crusading call of the Avvenire newspaper.

A damning full-page report by lecturer Massimo Salani, from the Pisa centre for theological studies, blamed McDonald's for promoting spiritual selfishness. Munching on a takeaway Big Mac, insisted Salani, "is not Catholic. It completely forgets the holiness of food."

He further explained that grabbing a solitary lunch under the golden arches was the antithesis of the shared Catholic experience of taking the Eucharist during Holy Communion, and that McDonald's is altogether better left to the Lutheran spiritual mentality that man can hold an individual relationship with God.

From the Catholic Bishops' Conference, Domenico Sigalini agreed to the idea that "to reduce everything to zero, to eliminate conversation for the sake of speed, is to lose a sense of the family." But while he did maintain that fastfood couldn't exactly be classified as sinful in God's eyes, the lustre was quickly fading from McDonald's' false idols.

As thousands protested, demanding what La Repubblica newspaper called "the excommunication of the hamburger," statements were rapidly released to stress that "fast food does not mean eating quickly, but being served quickly." The company added: "We serve sandwiches to cater to all religions and nationalities and we adapt to every culture in the world."

McDonald's currently operates 272 outlets throughout Italy, no mean feat considering the gourmet scepticism that met the first Roman restaurant during the mid 1980s, and plans had been announced to double that figure over the next two years. Such ambitious expansion is starting to look distinctly rocky, however, as the crowds gather to chant: "Better a day of tortellini than 100 days of hamburgers."

This religious attack is just the latest in a series of clashes between the US company and its Italian hosts in the guise of walk-out employees, environmentalists and the 100,000 left-wing activists who rallied to hear Refounded Communist leader Fausto Bertinotti led his understanding support to restaurant attackers. Last month, riot police were mobilised in 20 cities to diffuse huge demonstrations and now the Italian government has stepped in to diffuse the situation, promising to draw up a charter to govern multinational behaviour.