The Vatican:how to solve a problem like Berlusconi di M.Franco in The Guardian 29.08.2011
The Vatican: how to solve a problem like Berlusconi It may want to distance itself from the controversial leader, but the Vatican's lack of alternative and inner splits will make it hard Silvio Berlusconi attends the mass for the beatification of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in May, 2011. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters Silently and cautiously, the Vatican is trying to distance itself from Silvio Berlusconi. It won't be easy. For more than 15 years, the current Italian prime minister was an inevitable partner of the Catholic church: the leader of a strong parliamentary majority, and a public defender of moral values, although his private behaviour has been, to put it fairly, a contradictory one. But now that the economic crisis is biting Italian society, the Holy See is trying to look elsewhere to find new politicians – and to show that its ties with Berlusconi are not as strong as many observers have supposed. But why did the Vatican support, or anyway fail to oppose Berlusconi in the past? There are a number of political and historic reasons. First of all: the "Cavaliere", as he is nicknamed, did not owe anything to the Vatican. In 1994, he won his first elections despite the Vatican and Italian bishops, who supported the Popular party. The Catholic church undervalued his strength, and then assumed that he was just a meteor on the Italian horizon. And eventually tried, with quite a controversial result, to "convert" him. Berlusconi was about to become the new hinge of the political system, in a country emancipated from the ghosts of the cold war – and from the Vatican's electoral influence. Secularised voters no longer felt they had to reward Christian Democrats to avoid the victory of communism. But they didn't shift to the left: they turned right, towards Berlusconi, surprising the Italian bishops as well. They confirmed an unwritten principle: the ideological adversary of Christian Democracy was the left but the real competitor was a "silent majority" of conservative voters, now keen to express freely their true preferences. Since then, the problem for the Vatican has been to find a new pro-church coalition at least to resist a secular transformation of the country, as happened in José Zapatero's Spain. Berlusconi posed as a defender of Christian values. His private behaviour was definitely considered by the Holy See as a bagatelle, compared with the attitude of the left, which was viewed as a hyper-secularised adversary. True or not, this perception allowed Berlusconi to define himself as the "Christian leader" of Italy and of moderate voters. That explains why, when later scandals emerged about his alleged relations with young women and suspected prostitutes, the Vatican was surprisingly silent. Italian bishops spoke out, using cautious words to criticise Berlusconi's way of life. The assumption – and for some Catholic circles the alibi – was that there was and is no political alternative to his coalition. Quite true: in the last few years, the weakness of the Italian left has been the major ally to the "Cavaliere". But now his star is burning out. In May he lost regional elections. And the economic crisis, poorly undervalued and dismissed by his government for a long time, shatters his credibility and, worse, risks to tear Italian society apart. That's why Italian bishops are trying to distance themselves from him, although not from the centre-right majority. They still expect a transition to a post-Berlusconi era; and a new political class due to emerge from a "Catholic civil society" of sorts. But the Cavaliere is a master of survival. Although his decline is obvious and palpable, he will fight. He knows that anyone betting on his political end, including portions of the Catholic church, has no alternative solution at hand. Berlusconi shaped not only his coalition, but the whole Italian political system. Today's Vatican is, if not an associate to his power network, an institution unready to offer a new model for Italy's recovery; and, furthermore, internally split. So far the Catholic church has proved to be part of the Italian crisis. Its valuable and strong defence of national unity and its tireless calls to restore moral values don't suffice to reverse this impression. So, the search for new political leaders is destined to expose the Catholic hierarchy to growing inner tensions. Getting rid of Berlusconi will not be easy even for the Vatican.