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October 01, 2005

ITALY: THE CHURCH RE-ENTERS POLITICS, DIVIDING THE LEFT -- a DIRELAND Letter from Rome

The following is the latest report from DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris.  A longtime ex-pat journalist who has lived in Italy for decades, Judy -- who was the Wall Street Journal's Italy correspondent for ten years -- delivers just for DIRELAND readers a dissection of what's been going on in the runup to Italy's coming elections (additional comments by Norman Birnbaum follow Judy's LETTER FROM ROME):

Robert Browning's stately home stood on a hillside in Asolo (lower right), a town in the fat-cat Italian Northeast roughly an hour's drive from Venice -- and so languidly elegant that only theAsolo_castle_1 richest and most knowledgeable can find it on a map or spell it. Here the poet ogled a passing silk weaver named Pippa, and then penned a giddy ode ending:

                    God¹s in His Heaven,
                    All¹s right with the world.

Look out the window anywhere in Italy, and so it would seem. The cafes are thronged, the skies are sunny, and inflation and the bureaucrats are no worse than usual. God, however, is not in his heaven; he is definitely back -- and in the political arena. As if an invisible hurricane had swept through Italy, all around lie the ruins of secular politics. What¹s raising the storm is the fact of evil-twin elections, slated for next Spring.

Twin #1 is a national general election to determine a new Parliament and hence who, among a dozen parties, will run the new show. No one can win 50% of the vote, and so the trick will be to cobble together a coalition able to obtain the vote of confidence needed to install a new premier and cabinet.

But that is only part of the story. In Twin #2, a two-thirds majority of the new Ciampi_ii Parliament will elect a president to succeed the respected octegenarian Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (left), who has valiantly tried to keep a brake on Premier Silvio Berlusconi for the past six years of the seven-year presidential term. In short, the voters elect a Parliament, and then the Parliament elects the president of the nation, whose principal power is the right to dissolve Parliament. This coincidence of the calendar renders the elections six months hence far more important than any in years.

Behind the maneuverings (which include a brutal and so far unsuccessful right-wing effort to rewrite the election laws), there has been one obvious, if self-appointed, candidate to replace Ciampi: Premier Berlusconi himself (right). It is interesting that, Berlusconi_worried despite his strangle-hold on the media from TV to movies and publishing, billionaire Berlusconi¹s popularity is sagging, and his rightist coalition is running scared for the first time since he entered politics. A poll released September 26 by the respected SWG research institute showed Berlusconi's Forza Italia party with just 17.5 % of the vote -- the party's lowest score since it swept to power in 2001 with a 29.4 % share.

At the moment the principal Berlusconi allies in the Casa della Libertà (House of Casa_della_liberta Freedoms) coalition are three strange bedfellows: the racist Bossi_1and anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League), which is led by the demagogic orator Umberto Bossi (left), and has been often criticised, in Italy and abroad, for being too similar to a neo-fascist party, having also organised a paramilitary group of "green shirts"; the South-based Alleanza Nazionale (built on the ruins of the old neo-Fini fascist Italian Social Movement), and headed by one-time neofascist  youth leader and current Berlusconi Vice-Premier, Gianfranco Fini (right); and a Catholic wing led by Christian Democrat Pierferdinando Casini and Rocco_buttiglione_ii_1Rocco Buttiglione (left), the man whom the European Commission rejected last October as its Justice Commissioner for his reactionary views on gays and women, and who is now Berlusconi's Minister of Culture.

The polls confirm that Premier Berlusconi¹s personal image impovements (hair transplants and face-lifts and Olive_tree_logo pancake makeup), and his skin-of-his-teeth removalsUnione  from criminal procedures haven't helped him, according to the SWG poll, which gives a large popularity lead to the uncharismatic Romano Prodi (below right) --  the centrist leader of the progressiveRomano_prodi_1 (well, sort of progressive) opposition coalition, previously known as the Olive Tree coalition but rebaptised L'Unione for the 2006 elections.  This poll gives Prodi a substantial 14 point lead over Berlusconi, 54% to 40% -- which ought to mean that Italy¹s perennially splintered left will make a Cinderella come-back and knock out the Berlusconi coalition. But the road to a left-center victory has proved exceedingly bumpy so far. Here's why:

For four decades after the end of WWII, the Catholic Church wielded power in Italy Andreotti_1 through the Christian Democrats, so thorougly discredited by corruption scandals that the party was dissolved in 1993 after its last Premier, Giulio Andreotti (left), was found by a court to have extensive Mafia ties. But now, following 15 years of enforced slumber, the Roman Catholic Church has made the decision to relaunch the Church in Italy as a political force -- and all signs are that it will work. And even as the front-running Prodi campaigns up and down the Italian peninsula from a proletarian yellow bus, the Vatican -- with a vintage1950 political ideology and strategy -- has moved into higher gear too.

Other events that should be getting attention are being stifled by the press: the Italian-version of an Enron trial, that of giant Carlo_tanzi food multi-national Parmalat's founder, Calisto Tanzi (left), and 15 other Parmalat execs, started Wednesday in Milan, as tiny articles on inside pages testified. Similarly neglected was the serious wrestling match which pits the Governor of the Bank of Italy Antonio Fazio (right) Antonio_fazio -- who was caught playing dirty pool and is under investigation for abuse of office by Rome prosecutors, but is backed by the secretive and powerful, Vatican-favored Opus Dei cult -- against those in Italian and international banking who are demanding he resign.

Instead, day after day, the big headlines are going to the Church -- for example, to a debate over whether Cardinal_ruini high school and university students in Siena had a right to boo the Cardinal Primate of Italy, the austere Cardinal Ruini (left), for saying that he opposes "de facto marital unions," meaning unwed heterosexuals as well as gay couples. In this September 23 incident, 40 students ousted from the hall where Riuni was speaking then congregated outside, waving placards like, "Free love in a free State," and "We are all homosexuals."

Ruini subsequently announced that he has not only the right, but an obligation to speak out on issues which concern the Church. Then Ruini went further, suggesting that a proposed law permitting legal recognition of civil unions between unmarried heterosexual couples and gay couples would be unconstitutional. Momentarily, at least, the fact that a cardinal spoke on the constitutionality of proposed Italian legislation put the cat among the pigeons. Curiously, what is now emerging is a groundswell of growing support for the Church and, tacitly, for what his opponents call Ruini¹s meddling.

The left is divided over whether it sides with Ruini, or with the concept of a secular Prodi_priest state. L'Unione's leader Prodi -- a former Christian Democrat -- is a devout Catholic who schizophrenically supported both the proposed law and Ruini. ("I am an adult Catholic," Prodi says) This ambiguity gave conservative anti-clericals a chance to portray Prodi as an opportunist sucking up to the Vatican (a recent front-page cartoon -- above left --in the magazine Panorama by the all too witty and discerning Forattini, the cartoonist of choice of the Italian left, showed Prodi dressed as a priest).

The flames of internecine controversy over whether the left should be secular were further fanned when PieroPds_italy_logo_1  Fassino (right), leader of the PDS --  or Party of Piero_fassino_1the Democratic Left (the renamed Communist party, and the largest party in the opposition coalition) -- declared, "I am a believer." At this, Fassino's PDS began to quarrel about whether he would have done better to avoid such unhappy turns of phrase. And Rifondazione_comunista_logo Fassino's god-bothering declaration was quickly followed by one from Bertinotti_1 Fausto Bertinotti (left), the head of the more radical Rifondazione Comunista (originally a split from the "reformist" ex-Communists of the PDS) in which Bertinotti declared, ""If you had asked me if I was a non-believer when I was 20, or even when I was 30, I would have replied without hesitation 'yes.' But today, while not being a believer, I would avoid such a definite reply ... I have attended religious ceremonies, not without a sense of shared emotion."

To this inventory of Catholic controversies dominating the Italian press must be added the Vatican's decision to conduct a witchhunt of U.S. seminaries to insure that no gays are present and purge them if they are.

Pier_ferdinando_casini The Church's current politician of choice in Italy is the Catholic Pier Ferdinando Casini (left) -- president of the Chamber of Deputies -- whose personal popularity rating of 6% is on the rise. He already bests the rating for the engaging (and more secular) rightist Gianfranco Fini, whose popularity has plummeted from about 10% of the electorate to only 5%.

Meantime, the Jurassic left continues to do what it has been doing ever since Bettino Craxi destroyed the Socialist party, which is to make itself irrelevant. Much of the Italian left almost perversely elects to ignore the fact of evolution, including not only of Italy¹s role in Europe and the rest of the world, but any chance of its own evolution Judy_hareris_6 toward a united, secular front against the Church's aggressive re-entry into Italian politics. -- by Judy Harris (right) from Rome

Read Judy Harris's previous LETTERS FROM ROME for DIRELAND: July 22 -- Judges On Strike Against Berlusconi; June 13 -- Italy's Referendum a Fiasco; June 11 -- Italy's Referendum: It's Really About Abortion

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON ITALIAN POLITICS FROM NORMAN BIRNBAUM: After the above was published, I received an e-mailed comment Norman_birnbaum_10on it from my old friend and frequent DIRELAND contributor Norman Birnbaum (left), the distinguished scholar whose last book is After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism In The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press), and whose last contribution written specially for DIRELAND, on "Germany's Political Crisis" (July 15), was so prescient in predicting the result of the recent German election. Here -- with a couple of explanatory, bracketed notes and links added by me -- is Norman's e-mail in full:

Dear Doug,

Good letter from Judy, never met her but we must share friends in Italy. However, there are dimensions to the matter she does not mention, which make the situation more complex than a question of the re-entry of the Church into politics. It never left it, for one thing. There were strong Catholic elements in the "House of Liberty" (Berlusconi made good use of Cold War rhetoric in  post-old War Italy, and indeed won the support of  Amato the Italo-Amerian community, whose spokesmen actually saw in figures like [Giuliano] Amato [at left, Socialist Premier twice, 1992-93, 2000-2001] and Prodi persons who would prepare for the Sovietization of Italy, long after the USSR was gone.

However, in the old Republic, the Communists had close ties to many elements of theBerlihnguer_1  DC [Democrazia Cristiana, or Christian Democrats] and [Enrico] Berlinguer himself [the Communist's leader from 1972-1984, at right] and his chief of staff, Tonino Tato (whose wife Giulia Tedesca was for a while President of the post-Communist party) were Catholic, Tato was an old resistance friend of Andreotti.

It was Andreotti himself as Foreign Minister who told me that he thought it his Dc_italy_poster responsibility in the coalition with Sociaists, Liberals, Reublicans, Social Democrats (these last an especially corrupt and small groupo in Italy) to represent the interests and views of the Communists who were in half opposition. What united DC and PCI [Italian Communist Party] was more than memory of their times together in the resistance but the consonance of Catholic social doctrine and western Marxism on the rejection of market capitalism as immoral and socially inefficient. [DIRELAND Note: However, it should be remembered that Pope Pius XII had excommunicated the Communists after World War II.]

Pci_logo That enabled the PCI to break into Catholic voting groups (especially women) but did of course limit the PCI's capacity to deal with issues like abortion, and the party was not even in the forefront of the struggle for a rational divorcfe law (Italy did not have one until circa 1971 and it was the secular parties, some of them market parties, which led the struggle.)

Another tie between the DC and PCI was the opposition of the Vatican II segments of the Church to American hegemony, a Catholic Europeanism which accounted for the diplomatic and political activities of Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, the Vatican's emissary to the Soviet bloc and to the secular world, and of the Vatican's chief Togliatti_1 diplomat, Cardinal Casaroli. Much of this goes back to Togiliattii's [Palmiro Togliatti, at right, Communist founder and leader from 1927-1964] thoughts on the permanence of Catholicism in Italian culture, and that in turn -- as well as sober reflection on what Nixon and Kissinger did in Chile -- led Berlinguer to the doctrine of the "Historical Compromise" [betwen the PCI and the DC], a more or Aldo_moro less indefinite co-existence with political and social Catholicism. That, supported by [Aldo] Moro [at left, an important DC leader and twice Premier, 1963-68 and 1974-76], also led to the latter's death--about which both the Vatican and those around the late [Socialist leader Bettino] Craxi could speak volumes, but do not.

We also have to take into account the large role played by Catholic trade unionists in CSIL, the Catholic union grouping, and in ACLI (Catholic Association of Italian Workers), whose former President was for a while the General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. When I last spent a long period in Italy, admittedly some time ago (1998), I noticed the utter dessication of the local organizations of the post-Communists, and that there was lots of neighbourhood activity (on helping immigrants, on urban issues) by Catholics of the base.

Ratzinger_4 Pope John Paul II left Italy not entirely to his Italian deputies and  colleagues in the College of Cardinals, and, in backing Ruini, Ratzinger (right) is simply following what his predecessor did. To be sure, he, Ratzinger, could not get away with it in a more Protestant and secular nation like Germany......But do recall that there was a serious bloc of votes at the Conclave which was being held for Marttini, the former Cardinal of Milan, a very modern and liberal Catholic. The Vatican's official positions on gender issues and homosexuality, on the Church's supposed right to set the terms of moral conduct, are repugant--but its positions on global  poverty, the environment, the arms race, are often ones we share.

I suppose that's what motivates Fassino (the leader of the post-Communists and a protégé of the Berlinguer generation) to ally with Catholics on the socio-economic issues  and work for a new Aggiorniamento, oropening, on the cultural questions. I do not envy him and the Italian left in having to deal with this contradiction, but it has shaped much of Italian public life and personal lives since the Enlightenment, which as Americans, we know does not come into power easily.

Of course, one has to ask: how many Catholics are left in Italy, using the term to describe persons who not only go to Church but consider that they should live by the precepts set down by it, and are generally immersed in a Cathoic milieu? The number is not large, certainly far less than a majority of the population--so the aggressivity and political organization of the Church increases as its capacity to rely on instinctive cultural agreement diminishes. That is a parallel with American Fundamentalism. Incidentally, when Buttiglione visited the US some years ago, he was my guest for a talk at Georgetown, spoke interestingly on DeMaistre, who of course thought that human history since the twelfth century has been a record of decline, to the astonishment of my colleagues and the obvious pleasure of a guest--Mr. Justice Scalia....Regards, Norman

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Posted by: aka | Dec 24, 2006 8:16:10 AM

Birnbaum's got it exactly right: the Church's political activity becomes more pronounced as its actual influence and support declines. And Catholicism has definitely declined in Italy; as one of my closest Italian friends said after a visit to NYC last year, "The churches in Italy are empty compared to here." Italians will not be steamrolled by the Vatican, as Harris seems to believe. "The ruin of secular politics" -- please. The dichotomy Birnbaum mentions re left-wing repugnance towards Vatican stances on sexuality but agreement on issues regarding war and poverty definitely holds for Italian society in general. John Paul II's opposition to the US invasion of Iraq and his denunciations of capitalist exploitation resonated with Italians. And as Birnbaum also acknowledges, while hierarchs can be reactionary, at the grassroots level clergy often have played progressive roles. The recent Italian film Il Meglio Gioventu provides a powerful example of this, in the section concerning the 1992 assassination of prosecutor Giovanni Falcone by the Sicilian mafia. In one sequence, the widow of one of Falcone’s guards who was killed with him implores the Archbishop of Palermo to unequivocally denounce the Mafia from the pulpit. (Here the director, Marco Tullio Giordana, used actual footage of this event.) The archbishop refuses to do so, maintaining his intransigence in the face of the widow’s increasingly plaintive pleas. In the next sequence, we see an activist priest helping organize poor palermitani to oppose the mafia. The second scene reflects reality as much as the preceding one. Just a couple of years ago in Catania, the major city in eastern Sicily, another activist priest led members of his congregation in squatting on Mafia-owned land that the municipal government was supposed to turn into a park, but instead left unused.

I sometimes think that people from Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American political cultures fail to understand the role of religion in Latin Catholic countries like Italy. As Gramsci noted, religion can be the repository of humanistic, progressive values. In Italy, this is more often manifested at the grassroots level, and particularly in the left-leaning base communities. But it can and does occur even in the institutional church and the Vatican, as per Wojityla’s opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq. But when he or any other pope attempts to enforce a reactionary, "traditional" morality, Italians tune him out. This is, after all, a country where a porno star, Moana Pozzi, was a national celebrity and was practically made a secular saint after her death. When I was in Italy this past summer, a cardinal was asked whether the defeat of the referendum to overturn the limits on artificial insemination meant the Church would next take on divorce and abortion. His reply was that "we only take on battles we know we can win." However, the fact that the church got what it wanted on “fecondazione” may lead to overreach, in the belief it has more support than it does. (The artificial insemination referendum probably was a unique case.) The Church definitely will push its agenda, but as this remark indicates, they're aware of the limits to their influence. As an atheist and a gay man, and being of Italian background, I regard the Vatican as a political antagonist, and along with many, many Italians, I oppose many of its interventions in public life. But as Birnbaum says, the Vatican always has injected itself into politics. Its ability to shape Italian politics, however, is nothing like it was in past decades. In fact, now that there is no one political party that the Vatican can uphold as “Christian and Democratic,” as it used to say about the old Democrazia cristiana (Dc), the Church is seeking allies wherever it can find them. It’s dismaying that some on the Center-Left are making faith-based noises but that doesn’t mean a clerical coup d’etat is in the making. For a good historical overview of Catholic politics in modern Italy, I recommend the British anthropologist Jeff Pratt's essay “Catholic Culture,” in the anthology, "Italian Cultural Studies" (Oxford University Press).

Posted by: George De Stefano | Oct 3, 2005 9:45:25 PM

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