The Second Coming, WSJ

April 10, 2008


For over four decades following World War II, the Christian Democrats governed Italy with the backing of the Catholic Church, which embraced them as the defenders of traditional values against Western Europe’s largest Communist party. During this period, Italy’s politics and society were dominated by the split between the two “churches”: Catholicism and Communism.

That changed with the end of the Cold War. The majority of Communists quickly refashioned themselves as modern social democrats. Around the same time, an explosion of corruption scandals brought about the collapse of the Christian Democrats. This left Catholic voters and politicians scattered in an array of smaller parties ranging from right to center-left. And Italy’s church lost its political megaphone.

Only in recent years has the church regained its political initiative and voice, particularly on such controversial issues as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of resisting what he calls the “dictatorship of relativism.”

It is the very complexity of Italy’s political scene that makes the coming parliamentary elections an instructive case study of faith and public life in an ever more secular Europe. Compared with the recent Spanish vote, where the Catholic bishops basically threw their lot behind the conservative Popular Party, Italy’s elections on Sunday and Monday will be religiously more ambiguous. Italian bishops have emphatically declined to endorse any party or coalition, and neither of the two major candidates comes even close to fulfilling their ideal.

Former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni effectively jettisoned the hard-left elements of the incumbent coalition under Prime Minister Romano Prodi in order to form his new center-left Democratic Party, which includes such prominent Catholic politicians as Francesco Rutelli and Paola Binetti.

But Mr. Veltroni dismayed Catholics by allying himself with the libertarian Radicals, a small yet vocal party that backs civil unions (including for same-sex partners), abortion and euthanasia. The pope has pronounced Catholic opposition to such policies as “nonnegotiable.”

The church has no interest in abandoning the center-left, however, for reasons of both principle and strategy.

Catholic teaching on economic issues, foreign policy and more recently the environment has much in common with the agenda of the secular left. The Vatican’s categorical opposition to the Iraq war put it at odds with the previous center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi. And Benedict himself has written that “in many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine.”

True, recent poll numbers suggest that a plurality of practicing Catholics, who make up one-third of the electorate, will give their votes to Mr. Berlusconi. But if so, it won’t be on the basis of specifically Catholic values. Though the former prime minister recently offered some lip service to the antiabortion cause, he does not even pretend to make it a priority in his campaign.

Italy today does not have a bloc of “values voters” of the sort that helped give George W. Bush his victory over John Kerry in 2004. Religiously observant Italians tell pollsters that the economy is their top concern in this election. Their support for Mr. Berlusconi suggests that they think a third stint as head of government is what the billionaire media mogul needs to make his country prosperous.

A generational factor may be at work, too. Disproportionately elderly (45% are over 65), the devout may be especially receptive to the 71-year-old Berlusconi and his habit of invoking ideological battles from the past. He recently denounced the post-Communist Mr. Veltroni as a “recycled Stalinist.”

The Union of Christian and Center Democrats, the main rump of the old Christian Democrats, are practically alone in bidding for votes along explicitly Catholic lines. The UDC’s leader, Pier Ferdinando Casini, a coalition partner in the last Berlusconi government, has chosen to run separately this time, perhaps in hope of becoming a kingmaker. But few in the church seem to expect or want a return of the faithful under a single partisan umbrella.

Ironically, the party most vocal in supporting the Vatican’s concerns for the sanctity of life is led by a former Communist and self-described “theist” who does not belong to any church.

Giuliano Ferrara, editor of the small-circulation but influential newspaper Il Foglio, started his explicitly antiabortion electoral list as an off-shoot of his campaign for a world-wide abortion “moratorium.” Though he is not expected to win many votes, months of continuous coverage in his paper have raised awareness of the issue to perhaps the highest levels since the 1981 referendum that confirmed the legalization of abortion.

Church leaders have kept their distance from Mr. Ferrara’s campaign, perhaps because they fear that a forthright push for prohibition could backfire, helping mobilize pro-abortion votes as it did in 1981.

Yet Mr. Ferrara’s initiative is an example of the kind of alliance between Christians and sympathetic nonbelievers that Benedict argues is necessary for the spiritual revival of Europe and the West.

Four days after the Italian elections, the pope will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In his speech, he will almost certainly raise a global range of concerns, as specific as the war in Iraq and as broad as the protection of life “from conception until natural death.” As he has done in the past on such occasions, Benedict will argue not on the basis of Catholic teaching but on the ethical principles of “natural law,” common to all humanity.

It is in those same terms that the pope and his followers must learn to address Italy and its neighbors, since the church’s traditional heartland is shrinking. By replacing confessional parties with issue-driven coalitions, Catholicism may yet restore itself as a potent political force in secular Europe.

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