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Italy's Present Situation Will Favor the Roman Catholic Church

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Message Carlo Ungaro

Italy's current struggle to overcome a crisis of proportions unprecedented in the post-war decades has stimulated considerable comment in the international media. Few have noted, however, that the principal beneficiary of the current social and political turmoil could well turn out to be the Roman Catholic Church -- a force ever-present in the Italian political scene with an influence that is destined to grow.

Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has played a relevant, often violently divisive, role in the destinies of the Italian Peninsula. This role, relatively subdued in the first years of Italy's independence and even during the Fascist regime, emerged with renewed vigor in the post-war years, taking full advantage of apprehensions aroused by communist takeovers in many central European countries. As a result, Catholic political figures dominated the Italian scene for well over two decades after the end of the War.

The dramatic demise of what has been inaccurately coined Italy's "First Republic" took place in the 1990s, as the end of the Cold War coincided with the upheaval caused by a growing number of investigations of corruption on the part of the leading political parties. The Catholic-oriented "Christian Democratic" party, which had participated in all the post-war governments (leading most of them), was exposed, and, as a result, imploded and ceased to exist, causing an authentic "Diaspora" of its leading figures towards either ignominious retirement or the many newly formed political groups.

This ensured the political survival of many Catholic leaders; but it also weakened the presence of the Roman Catholic Church, which no longer had a single and reliable interlocutor in the Italian Parliament or Government.

In reality, however, even before that, ever since the mid-1970s, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy had already been waning and had suffered setbacks unimaginable only a few years earlier -- particularly the resounding defeats in popular referenda on the controversial issues of divorce and abortion. Since then, the Roman Catholic Church has had to struggle hard -- with the help of much of the Italian political establishment and public radio and television outlets -- to regain the position of moral and political supremacy, to which it feels entitled.

Recent events have unexpectedly reversed the negative trend and appear set to pave the way for the Vatican's resurgence as a leading player on the Italian political scene.

In mid-autumn of 2011, the economic and financial situation in Italy appeared to be reeling out of control, and signs of incipient political unrest led many to fear the country was heading for disaster. Professor Mario Monti, a respected and well-known individual with no political affiliation, was then asked to form a "technical" government, composed exclusively of non-elected, or apolitical, persons.

Attention has since been focused on Italy's unusual situation, and on Prof. Monti's numerous accomplishments and occasional setbacks, while the growing symptoms of the strong, steadily waxing resurgence of the Roman Catholic Church as a political actor has gone virtually unnoticed.

It is worth mentioning that, with the appearance and electoral triumph of the populist Silvio Berlusconi in 1994, the Roman Catholic Church had found itself in a dilemma and had reluctantly opted to support Berlusconi -- in spite of his rather sketchy claims to Catholic orthodoxy -- in exchange for a growing number of legislative and monetary benefits. This rather cynical attitude (a form of "real-politick" not new to the Vatican), in the long run, risked alienating the support of grassroots Catholics, who grew restless at the apparent acquiescence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Bishops Conference at behavior patterns which appeared to grow ever more blatant and unacceptable over the course of time.

In May 2011, Mr. Berlusconi's party, along with practically all the other mainstream political parties, suffered unexpected and undeniable debacles -- both in local elections (Milan and Naples) and in the massive turnout of the Italian electorate at referenda, which the government had openly opposed. The disaster suffered by Berlusconi quite evidently persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to modify its position. It's interesting how the lack of support from the Roman Catholic Church ultimately brought about Berlusconi's downfall, with key members of his party abandoning ship and drifting towards the political center. Meanwhile, the persistent popular approval of the staunchly Catholic Prof. Monti seemed to indicate the way forward while opening the way for a centrist gathering of political leaders whose positions are close to those preferred by the Roman Catholic Church and the Bishops' Conference.

There is currently a lot of confusion and uncertainty in Italy, particularly among the established political parties, which now seem to have reached an all-time low (under 10 percent) in the approval rating by the country's electorate. This condition, somewhat astounding in the land which coined the expression "Partitocrazia," has induced leading Catholic political figures --both on the right and the left -- to converge towards the center, thus ensuring a more dynamic, integrated and efficient presence of the Roman Catholic Church on the political scene.

In spite of the apparent calm and seemingly hapless bluster of the discredited political parties, Italy's traditional volatility still endures, and it is therefore difficult clearly to envisage future trends. It is improbable, however, that either Prof. Monti or most of his government colleagues will be tempted to undertake a political career, even though present polls would encourage them in this prospect. It therefore seems that in 2013, or perhaps earlier, the Italian electorate will be called upon to choose among the existing political parties and politicians. A new, openly "Christian" formation could well upset the balance and bring the Roman Catholic Church back to the center of Italian political life.

Surprisingly, this process, which until recently seemed a relatively distant prospect, has already begun -- even before the rather crucial local elections scheduled for May. The leading, and highly influential, Catholic dominated centrist party -- the U.D.C., which is led by the darkly handsome political opportunist, Ferdinando Casini -- one of the few capable politicians left in Italy, has announced its dissolution and an imminent change of name. A considerable group of Catholic Parliamentarians belonging to Berlusconi's majority party have already publicly shown interest, while the other, minor, centrist groups seem to have been caught off balance and face little alternative to joining the new formation.

This development, coupled with the existential crisis which has greatly weakened the xenophobic, and at times racist, Northern League has enhanced the political parties' self confidence. There are growing and persistent rumors of early elections, with October set as a possible date. Whenever the next elections are held -- they will be mandatory in the spring of 2013 -- this new formation will surely play a leading role, finally returning the Roman Catholic Church to the position of principal player on the Italian political scene.

In the broader, international context, this will mean that Italy would even further distance itself from the growing secular attitudes of most other European Union countries, while much of the social progress, limited and slow as it may have been, achieved in the past decades will be the object of open attempts at abolition or, at least, revision. The prospect of having a woman as the next Head of State would also drift further into the future since both of the two leading prospective female candidates are vehemently opposed by the Catholic hierarchy.

Grim as this prospect may appear, it would certainly be a development preferable to the opportunity which the existing political void could give to unscrupulous populist movements, aiming to prey upon voters' insecurity and anger.

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).
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