The crisis in Italy: the Vatican and the end of the Berlusconi era

Silvio Berlusconi's position in Italy seems weaker then ever. The Vatican however has renewed its dogmatic stance towards Italian politics and will step into the vacuum, increasing its influence and demanding a price for its blessing of the party that will take over from Berlusconi
Carlo Ungaro
15 August 2011

Dramatic developments in the world of finance have finally forced Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of his self-imposed silence. In one of his rare appearances in Parliament a few days ago, he delivered a speech which was generally deemed disappointing, laying the blame for the crisis on everyone’s doorstep but his own.

Whatever the  immediate political developments in Italy, it is safe to assume that the end of the Berlusconi era is upon us, and many questions need to be raised about Italy’s political future.

One of these certainly concerns the  Roman Catholic Church, especially in view of the fundamental conflict between pragmatism and dogmatism which  has always  characterized its attitude particularly, though not exclusively, in relation to the Italian political scene.

The evils of “relativism” constitute one of the mainstays of  the current Pope’s ideological makeup, and he has been repeating his warnings on the subject since well before his election.There is, indeed, a growing tendency within the Church to return to a more dogmatic attitude, especially  in its approach to politics, in reaction to what some consider the “aberration” of the Vatican II Council.


Opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, 1962

The question has deep roots and subtle implications not least because it continues to be raised, from the highest possible Ecclesiastical authorities, in apparent contrast to the principles of tolerance and Ecumenism enunciated about half a century ago by the  Vatican II Council and never explicitly disavowed by the Church.

In the genuine enthusiasm raised by the Council, a basic principle, ever present in the history of religions and ideologies, seemed to have been forgotten, viz. that an indication of tolerance more often represents a sign of organisational and ideological weakness and not necessarily of moral strength. This consideration keeps re-emerging as the Church   backslides into older, essentially dogmatic and more familiar patterns of thought and behaviour, while outwardly paying lip service to concepts, such as tolerance and ecumenism, which, in fact, are alien to its fundamental tenets.

In the context of the Catholic Church’s perennial invasive presence in the Italian political spectrum, this dualism  poses interesting questions about the policies which have allowed  “the Vatican”, as it is often superficially and somewhat erroneously  called,  to keep a virtually uninterrupted grip on Italian affairs  since the early years of the Holy Roman Empire.

The matter acquires even greater significance in view of the manifest fragility of the Italian political system. A political and institutional void is coming into being, and the more responsible elements of Italian civil society appear to be in desperate search  for alternatives.This has created the type of situation which most ideally suits the Holy See’s political tactics.

The debacle suffered by both Government and Opposition parties in last May’s electoral results (local elections and referenda) has only deepened the sense of malaise, and induced large sectors of the Opposition, as well as  formerly unreliable allies to prefer giving grudging support to the government rather than face the incognita of general elections. In this state of confusion – certainly not helped by the constant threat of financial upheaval – it is  very interesting to observe how the Church is  modifying its stance from a highly pragmatic, or 'relativistic' approach, to one of greater dogmatic severity, especially concerning the  errant private life of the Prime Minister. Until now, in exchange for  considerable benefits, the Church had adopted a remarkably benevolent, paternal 'boys will be boys' attitude, with just occasional, almost playful slaps on the wrists.

This stance is  visibly changing, partly because the Catholic  rank and file  had  started questioning  it, and partly because of the visible  hostility shown to Berlusconi’s Government by the electorate – including Catholic voters – in the recent electoral results. All the main political parties, right, centre and left, have lost touch with  their electorate, but it is unclear to whose advantage. Into this kind of chaos the Church is stepping with  much greater assurance than any political party can muster, and the first to feel the sting, of course, has been the governing majority.


Berlusconi at the beatification of pope John Paul II in May 2011, Carmine Flamminio / Demotix. All rights reserved

The Church, for example, through the extremely influential “Italian Bishops Conference” or CEI, has already expressed deep reservations about the bulk of the drastic and greatly unpopular economic and financial measures taken or planned by the Government to overcome the current crisis

These appear to be merely warning shots, for the state of confusion is remarkable even by Italian standards, and it is difficult to  foresee what's just around the corner. The main political parties, especially those in the governing majority, are torn by internal dissent, and their leaders (Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi, founder of the “Northern League”) appear to be losing their charismatic hold on the party faithful. The Northern League  could well be the key to future developments, because the very vociferous base would like to abandon Berlusconi to his fate, while the leadership feels that a Government crisis, at this stage, would only benefit the Opposition, particularly the Left.

There is a possibility that, perhaps after the summer vacations, the façade  will crack, leaving little alternative except for early elections, unless a 'technical Government' can be formed to reach the end of the legislature and allow the  political parties to nurse their wounds.

Should early elections be called, there will be a scramble to obtain approval, however indirect, from the Church authorities (particularly the CEI), and it is safe to assume that words of approval or support will carry a price, thus ensuring an even more invasive role of the Church in Italy’s future.

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