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The Catholic Church and Italian Politics

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Message Carlo Ungaro

(The author of this submission is a retired senior Italian diplomatic officer)


Rome, Italy, February 2 2011

Much has been written about the tragicomic aspects of the current Italian political crisis. As so often happens, Italian politics have become embroiled in   a combination of Greek Tragedy and   Comic Opera: Shakespeare rewritten by Feydeau.

Last December, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived a Parliamentary   "no confidence" motion by the scantiest of margins. As a result, his position has remained shaky, and the Italian situation appears unhealthy or, at the very least incongruous and likely to keep the country adrift on a sea of inaction where strong measures would be needed .

Few, however, have shifted the focus of their analysis on the   role played by the Roman Catholic Church, embodied by the Italian   Episcopal Conference (CEI), whose interference in Italian political life has become increasingly pervasive and forceful, filling, as it were, a preoccupying political and institutional void.

  An overall evaluation of the Italian political situation, which, in spite of appearances, is actually neither amusing nor immune from the risk of resurgent neo-fascist nostalgia, has to take into account the extent of the   permanent and mainly negative influence that the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican and the Holy See (three very distinct realities) exert on the Italian political, cultural and social scene. The origins of this phenomenon have deep historical roots, but the effects are readily   visible, as is the realisation that, with the present Pontificate, the   Church's interference has been steadily growing..

Long before   becoming Pope, Joseph Ratzinger   had repeatedly   preached against   "relativism", viewed as a dangerous deviation from the absolute truths contained in the Teachings of the Church. He has continued   on that theme also after his election as Supreme Pontiff, and it would be safe to say that "anti-relativism" constitutes one of his   most cherished doctrinal points.

It could therefore appear ironic that   he, of all people, should now reign at the head of one of the world's most politically pragmatic organisations. Symbols of this pragmatism abound and are evident all over Rome: The Church, for example, has always been and still is adamantly opposed to homosexuality, and yet two self confessed homosexuals, who, while in Rome, led   scandalously open love lives, are very ostentatiously buried within   Saint Peter's Basilica. I refer, of course, to Queen Christina of Sweden (1689) and Charles Edward,   the last   heir to the Stuart throne, known also as "Bonnie Prince Charlie" or "The Young Pretender", who died in 1788.

This spirit of pragmatism was put to   extremely good use in the first years of the Fascist regime in Italy, in the early 1920's.   In the space of   about six years, Benito Mussolini, an anti-Catholic, blaspheming womanizer, and an avowed atheist, was transformed into "the man sent to us by Divine Providence" and   proceeded to "normalise" the relations between the Church and the Italian state, which had been very strained   at least since 1861,   by signing the "Lateran Pacts", or the "Concordat", in February 1929.

What was shown then, and is now being repeated   with chilling analogy, was the masterful way in which Catholic Church   manipulates political life in Italy more than it does in other Catholic countries. The technique used then,   and still used today is of disarming simplicity and is limited to meting out reprimands and rewards with the aim of bringing the erring Government to heel.

It could therefore be argued that   Silvio Berlusconi, with his   growingly erratic behaviour, has actually played into the hands of the Catholic Hierarchy, who, with a sagacious use of the many   Catholic media outlets, have alternated sharp words of criticism with warm praise for   the Government's readiness to toe the line in matters of interest to the Catholic Church, gaining, in a moment of drastic financial cutbacks, substantial subsidies for "private" (i.e. Catholic) schools..

There is, however, a growing perception that a large part of the Catholic electorate has been profoundly shocked by the latest information   on the Prime Minister's   activities, and that this sense of disquiet has filtered up, through the Parishes, to the Bishop's Conference and,   finally, to the Holy See and the Pope himself. As a result, the Supreme Pontiff and leading personalities in the Church have come up with formal statements -" couched, of course, in extremely cautious and indirect terms -" critical of the   lack of moral sensibility on the part of "those elected to high government office". It was interesting, almost amusing, to not the haste with which the Prime Minister's political party assured the public that those words "are not addressed to us."

For   many years the Roman Catholic Hierarchy has been outspoken in its support for right-wing governments in Italy, particularly those   formed by Berlusconi,   and, therefore, bland as they were, the words spoken by   high ranking prelates have to be taken into consideration.   In spite of this unquestionable support, there is a strong possibility that,   in the future, the Church may abandon   Berlusconi and   prefer   sustaining   a prominent Catholic political figure. On the other hand, the Church may use the occasion to increase the pressure on the Prime Minister thus bringing the Italian Government   even closer to   the   approved Catholic ideology.

The question remains as to why Italian political leaders should be so sensitive to the pressures of the Church, considering that the Italian population is not   particularly devout in its adherence to Catholicism.

This is   a very interesting   issue which would deserve closer scrutiny, but the paradox remains in the sense that the "immoral" behaviour of the Prime Minister and the subsequent Catholic reaction could end up   further reducing Italy's status as a secular state.

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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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