May 31, 2005

Special to Direland: LETTER FROM ROME...Pope Meets with 1st Gay Italian Governor, and Meddles in Politics

Pope_cartoon_ii The Independent yesterday reported that the new Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, met with the recently-elected, openly gay governor of the region of Puglia. And an old DIRELAND friend, in a Letter from Rome, adds her perspective on some things The Independent missed.

The man some of us refer to as The Rat was, the British daily reminds us, "known as Pope John Paul II's 'enforcer of the faith', and took the opportunity of the trip to the province of Puglia to underline the commitment to bringing all followers of Christ together which has been a dominant theme of his papacy since his election last month. His message was given added significance by the fact that the recently elected governor of Puglia, Nichi Vendola (photo right)Nichi_vendola , describes himself as gay, Catholic and communist and cohabits with his gay partner.

"The Pope was welcomed to the city by Mr Vendola, Bari's most controversial new contribution to the Italian political landscape. As well as his outspoken views on homosexuality and communism, the new leader of Puglia is the first such eminence to sport an earring. Governor Vendola said that the pontiff's visit to the capital of his province was 'a cause of joy for me and for all the people of Puglia. We will welcome Benedict XVI with all the solemnity and joy that this important event merits'.

"But on the eve of the Pope's visit, Mr Vendola had made clear his differences with the Pope's hard-line views on homosexuality. In a newspaper interview, he said: 'Recognition of civil unions does not represent any threat to the institution of marriage and the family. There is a reality of loving co-operation which asks to be granted the dimension of a citizen's right.'

"As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope declared homosexuality to be 'a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil', and worked hard to suppress Catholic gay organisations. This included prohibiting priests and nuns from doing pastoral work with gay men and lesbians."

My old friend Judy Harris -- an American ex-pat and sometime journalist who for decades has lived in Italy (where she married a prominent Senator from the Radical Party), e-mailed me a comment on the Ratzinger trip, viewed with her experienced eye, which I found so fascinating I reproduce it here with her kind permission (Judy will be commenting on things Italian in future for DIRELAND as the news warrants):

LETTER FROM ROME: Papal road show in the fast lane,            by Judy Harris

One day after his trip to Bari, the crime-ridden city on Southern Italy's Adriatic Coast, Pope Benedict XVI went on the record to urge voters in a forthcoming Italian referendum to show their opposition to the measures that would ease restrictions on assisted procreation. In office just six weeks, the pope urged Italians not to abstain, but simply not to vote (you work that out).

Some had wondered why he spent a mere three hours in Bari. The answer came from local Church officials who, shortly before the pope's arrival, spoke specifically about the Italian referendum. And in fact, upon his return to Rome, Pope Ratzinger added that Church opposition to the referendum does not reflect "the interests of the Catholic Church, but of those of the children to be born."

Nevertheless, some in the Church here expressed fears that the pope's words may trigger an anti-clerical backlashLanterneanticlerical  and bring about a larger, rather than smaller, turnout. In an interview in the Rome daily La Repubblica Monday a leading Italian Catholic monsignor sounded unhappy: "And we had worked so long to get the Church out of Italian politics."

This is hardly the first time. In the 1950's the Vatican protested the bare legs of female dancers visible on RAI (Italian state TV) Saturday evening pop broadcasts. Past Vatican protests have also regarded films presumed unsuitable for screening at the Venice Film Festival. From the pulpit many priests, particularly in the Italian South, campaigned openly for the now defunct Christian Democratic party.

The new pontiff's agenda is being carefully studied here, and, while he seems to have chosen his words with care, his openly asking voters not to take part in a referendum chooses to ignore the fact that the institution of the referendum in Italy in the early Seventies was hailed as a democratic advance. The pontiff's urging Italians not to participate, which could in theory create a lack of a quorum, ignores that step toward democracy, in a nation whose democratic Constitution dates only from 1947.

The results of the vote, which takes place Sunday, June 12, are not easy to predict. In 1974 divorce became legal in Italy after a  referendum; a few years later abortion too was legalized after a referendum, and made available in public facilities, at public expens (I covered this story for, among others, the New York Times). In both cases predictions of a "no" vote were skewed because those interviewed beforehand intentionally misled pollsters. Particularly the women's vote remains an incognito today, no less than three decades ago.

Among those engaged in the political battle here is Rocco Buttiglione, who was rejected from heading a European Commission, not only for his 19th-century comments on gays and women, but for his insisting that Christian values had to be added to the new European Constitution (or what remains of it after Sunday). Buttiglione is now crowing over the French debacle, which he sees as a citizens' trouncing of the sort of godless secularism that had brought down Buttiglione himself. "The left is against Europe," he said. An interviewer asked, "What of the Le Pen vote against the constitution?" That did not count for much, he said.

The predictably heated reaction from most of the Italian left had some on the right crowing. Maurizio Lupi of Premier Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, called the critics of the pope's forthright comments "the new Hitlers  (who) have come out into the open."

ALSO ON THE THEOCRACY FRONT: Don't miss Jeff Sharlet's eye-opener for Harper's magazine, "Inside America's Most Powerful MegaChurch" , just posted online. Jeff, the editor of The Revealer -- the excellent daily e-newsletter on religion and the media -- dissects Colorado's New Life Church with style. "No pastor in America holds more sway over the political direction of evangelicalism than does Pastor Ted Haggard (photo right)Ted_haggard_1 , and no church more than New Life...Haggard talks to President George W. Bush or his advisers every Monday...The press tends to regard James Dobson as the most powerful evangelical Christian in America, but Pastor Ted is at least his equal." You can read fthe rest of Jeff Sharlet's important article by clicking here.

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My article on Vendola will appear in the next issue of Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide (formerly the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review). Vendola is an interesting character. A life-long communist who grew up in the PCI (Partito comunista italiano), he came out to his parents, both party militants, and to the party, when he was a teenager. He was quite young when he arrived in Rome from Bari, but he had already earned a doctorate in philosophy and had published a book of poems. He was elected to the Parliament (Chamber of Deputies) in 1987, so he counts as a veteran, of both the Italian left and the gay movement.

I am an atheist, so his Catholicism gives me agita'. In the World Pride march in Rome in 2000, I carried a sign calling for a "stato laico" free from the toxic influence of the Vatican and its fascist allies. BUT, there are many Italians who consider themselves radical leftists (not wormy social dem types like Rutelli and Prodi)and also Catholics. They disagree with the Vatican and the institutional church on many issues, but their religious faith does inform their politics. Historically this has always been true in Italy; not all Italian Communists profess atheism, and, by the way, not all conservatives are believers.

Vendola criticizes the church, but from the standpoint of a believer, not that of a secularist. While I'd certainly prefer the latter stance, his position is a viable one, I think, and particularly in southern Italy, where religious feeling and leftism often are quite compatible. For example, Southern Italians who profess devotion to the Madonna nera (Black Madonna) often have radically egalitarian political views that are at odds with the Vatican. And some powerful critiques of the Vatican have come from left-wing Catholic base communities. I particularly liked the document circulated a few years ago by one of these groups, called "Un papato disastroso" (A Disastrous Papacy), which was one of the most scathing critiques of JP II I've read.

I'm leaving for Italy in a few weeks, and while
there I'm planning to do some interviews, with leftist activists, including gay lefties, for a book project. I am particularly looking forward to meeting with some Sicilians who have established an agricultural cooperative on land formerly owned by a mafioso.

One last thing about your correspondent. I hope she's not relying on the Partito radicale of today for analysis. The party's a spent force, a joke. Emma Bonnino (Pr senator) broke with the Left to support Berlusconi. And to refer to Bari as crime-ridden is obnoxious. Much of the South has problems with crime, organized and otherwise, due to a long history of underdevelopment and terrible public administration. But there's much more to Bari than its problems. For one thing, the national gay pride march was held there last year, and it was very successful. La Repubblica published a lovely photo of Pride marchers walking through a rain of rose petals that well-wishers showered on them from buildings along the parade route. I'm just so fucking sick and tired of foreign correspondents talking about the South only in terms of its problems, particularly crime. There's plenty of crime in the North, too, including major corporate crime. Berlusconi e' un milanese, tu sai!

Posted by: George De Stefano | May 31, 2005 5:20:15 PM

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