The Economist: la pesante influenza del vaticano nella politica italiana

Ce n’è per tutti: da bagnasco a Ruini a Ferarra all’udeur… intanto da noi si fa a gara per servirli questi pagliacci

AS ITALY’S bishops concluded their general assembly on May 25th, some may have reflected on an irony in their situation. In a secular age, and 13 years after the collapse of the Christian Democratic party that used to represent their interests in politics, the church wields more direct influence in Italy than at any time in 40 years.

Over the past three years, church leaders and their parliamentary allies have fought three big battles and lost none. In 2004 a cross-party group of lawmakers drastically restricted the scope of a law on fertility treatment. A year later, the head of the church in Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, deftly foiled a bid to broaden the law in a referendum (he asked the faithful to abstain, robbing the vote of its quorum). And in February, when a former prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, now a life senator and ever the church’s political man, nudged Romano Prodi’s centre-left government close to defeat, the coalition dropped as a priority its plan to extend legal rights to unwed couples, including gays.

Under Cardinal Ruini’s successor, Angelo Bagnasco, Italy’s prelates are preparing for a fight against a law to allow living wills, which set out how people wish to be treated if they can no longer communicate with doctors themselves. At the general assembly, Archbishop Bagnasco’s deputy, Giuseppe Betori, claimed that such wills represented “a dangerous slide towards something like euthanasia”.

Vatican officials say Pope Benedict is determined to stop Italy following Spain under the Zapatero government, which legalised gay marriage and made other social reforms at odds with Catholic teaching. The pope sees Italy as uniquely emblematic of Roman Catholicism and thus ideal ground for an attack against the creeping secularisation of Europe. Italy’s contorted politics may make this easier.

The Prodi government’s hold on power is feeble (and became feebler this week after it took a drubbing in local elections, especially in the north). It depends on unelected life senators for its majority in the upper house and so is vulnerable to even a small rebellion on its own side. This includes a tiny Christian Democratic party, the UDEUR, and a band of traditional Roman Catholics in the otherwise liberal Democracy and Freedom party, who are known to the media as the “Theo-Dems”. Were they to vote against the government on any measure distasteful to the bishops, they could join the centre-right opposition in bringing it down.

That may seem odd. After all, Silvio Berlusconi, the opposition leader, is eminently secular. Before entering politics, his friendships were mostly with Socialists, not Christian Democrats. He is divorced and had three children by his present wife before their (civil) marriage. Only one of the four parties in the coalition government that he led until last year was particularly Catholic: the Union of Christian Democrats.

But, argues Stefano Ceccanti, a law professor who helped to draft the law on unmarried couples, “the centre-right is very weak ideologically and it finds unity in agreeing with the church”. Italian conservatives shrink from free-market liberalism. The creeds that gave them their ideological underpinnings—fascism and Christian Democracy—have been discredited. Championing Catholic causes now helps both to woo Catholic voters and to divide Mr Prodi’s heterogeneous coalition, which stretches from the Theo-Dems to Trotskyists. Conservatives, including non-believers, also consider a church led by Pope Benedict to be a stout bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.

On other issues, too, there is an overlap between the views of the centre-right and those of the church. Ezio Mauro, editor of the daily La Repubblica, has accused Cardinal Ruini of pulling the church to the right. Indeed, the bishops’ most passionate defender in recent months has been another daily newspaper editor, Giuliano Ferrara of Il Foglio, a former Berlusconi minister who is an atheist. “Without being a Catholic”, he says, “I think many Catholic things.”

How far can the bishops go to impose Catholic views on society? Church leaders often behave as if Italy were still as homogeneously Catholic as in the days when every Italian home had a crucifix above the marital bed and a black-and-white television from which Pius XII would occasionally bestow a restrained wave. After church groups rallied several hundred thousand people to a family day in Rome on May 12th, Archbishop Bagnasco declared smugly that it was “society expressing itself in an unequivocal way”.

Yet today’s Italy has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, thanks to near-universal defiance of Vatican teaching on contraception. A quarter of young cohabiting couples are unmarried. Church sociologists insist that the share of Italians attending mass at least once a month remains steady at 50%, but a study publicised in February suggests that the true figure is lower (23% in the patriarchate of Venice, where the research was conducted).

“The whole of society is not Roman Catholic,” says Marcello Vigli, a lay activist and veteran of the Christian Social movement. “So you cannot impose by law what the hierarchy considers to be right. Otherwise, you start to become a confessional society.” To Giuliano Ferrara of Il Foglio, such a view is pure hypocrisy. “If the church has a right to say what it thinks, it also has a right to be on the political scene. What it does not have is a right to coerce.” Many Italians would agree. But some argue that it does, in practice, coerce. In March Archbishop Bagnasco’s office in effect told those politicians who consider themselves Catholic to vote against granting legal rights to unmarried couples.

His supporters retort that he was merely reminding lawmakers of church teaching; and that, in any case, the bishops’ position coincided with the dominant social view (47-45% against the bill, said a poll in another daily, Corriere della Sera). But Archbishop Bagnasco’s warning caused deep resentment among supporters of the measure, all the more so after he appeared to bracket them with apologists for paedophilia and incest.

Soon after that remark, threatening graffiti appeared on the door of his cathedral in Genoa. He then received an envelope containing a bullet and the symbol of the Red Brigades’ terror group. He has now been given an armed police guard. Addressing the bishops’ assembly, Pope Benedict said that “the Catholic faith and the church’s presence remain the great unifying factor of this beloved nation”. Of late, it has not always seemed that way.

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