Timid church remains largely silent on Berlusconi's adventures


ROME LETTER:The Italian bishops seem reluctant to comment on Silvio Berlusconi and the call-girl scandal, writes PADDY AGNEW

“I WANT to thank you for all that you do to combat and to reject the current culture, a mass culture that is both profoundly egotistical and disturbingly banal, and which dominates the hearts and minds of so many young people.

“But I am very disappointed by your attitude to that matter which for some weeks now has been filling certain newspapers, namely the private life of the prime minister.

“What squalor, what a disgusting spectacle, what rubbish! His wife was right when she said, ‘Help him, he is sick’.

“And now he does not even deny the squalor, rather he points to it as some sort of performance capability, some sort of virtue. He says, ‘I’m not a saint and Italians want me just the way I am’. But what lies!”

The writer is Don Angelo Gornati, a Catholic priest who works in the archdiocese of Milan.

His open letter, published this week in L’Avvenire, the daily run by the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, is focused on the most delicate question of the Italian summer – namely, the alleged involvement of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in a massive call-girl scandal.

Don Gornati, however, does not limit his critical observations to the prime minister.

He asks a much more difficult question – how and why has the Italian Catholic hierarchy been so circumspect in its timid criticism of the prime minister?

“Why hasn’t there been one clear statement on all that squalor?

“Why are the bishops not as precise and clear on this as on so many other moral issues? Meanwhile, he boasts about it all!

“What a suffering and a disappointment to see you so servile, so reluctant to condemn such a squalid morality.”

Don Gornati describes the bishops’ attitude as not so much one of prudence as convenience.

Like every other Catholic, he knows only too well that for the last 15 years, the Italian church has, at least tacitly, supported Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, based on a logic which suggests that in the end, anything is better than the descendants of the communist, the centre-left.

Given the absurd squabbling, ideological backwardness and endemic corruption of elements in the utterly incompetent, rattle- bag centre-left, this often seemed like a sensible choice.

Can Catholics, though, to use a famous phrase coined by the late journalist Indro Montanelli, still “hold their noses and vote” for Berlusconi?

“The problem is not about sexual morality. The risk is that young people take on board a role model according to which the best way to get ahead in this world is to sleep with the prime minister,” comments Don Bortolo Uberti, another Milan-based priest (La Repubblica, July 29th).

“The church embraces sinners, but I do not get the impression that the prime minister has either admitted his errors or made amends. On the contrary, he boasts about it, he jokes about it.”

Genoa-based priest Don Paolo Farinella, who has already called on the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, to take a harder line with the prime minister, still believes that the Italian hierarchy has not spoken out clearly enough on the matter.

He argues that Berlusconi has committed “perjury” by “lying to the entire country” when he went on television (in April) to deny any improper or immoral behaviour.

“If the bishops really want to be clear, then they should go on TV to say that he is unworthy to govern.

“A prime minister who consorts with call-girls and at the same time claims to follow Christian morality is simply not acceptable”, adds Don Farinella (La Repubblica, July 29th).

It is tempting to believe that there is a growing grass roots groundswell within the Italian Catholic Church which has had “enough” of Berlusconi.

In recent weeks, both L’Avvenire and the religious weekly Famiglia Cristiana have featured readers’ letters expressing total disapproval of the prime minister’s alleged behaviour. Yet, Berlusconi remains a “winner”, someone capable of winning general elections if not necessarily governing well after.

At the June European elections, despite much negative publicity, he still pulled the biggest vote, a massive 35 per cent.

That consideration alone no doubt prompts “prudence” from the hierarchy which, of course, would also be bitterly criticised for “interfering” just as soon as they pointed a finger at him.

However, when it suits, the hierarchy can be spectacularly “interventionist”.

Take the case last February of Eluana Englaro (37), the Italian woman in a coma since being brain-damaged in a 1992 car accident, who was “allowed to die” in a clinic in Udine.

Throughout a tormented public debate, the Catholic Church repeatedly made itself heard, with Cardinal Bagnasco calling the treatment of Eluana “murder”.

Berlusconi also got involved in that debate, promoting a government decree that would have obliged Eluana’s medical team to resume feeding her, which President Giorgio Napolitano refused to sign.

The prime minister furthermore said that Eluana had not died “a natural death”, rather “she was killed”.

Even Pope Benedict got in on the act, making two heartfelt appeals at the very moment that Eluana’s feeding tubes had been disconnected.

He called for respect “for the dignity of human life even when the person is weak and suffering” as well as prayers for the sick, “especially for the most seriously sick and those who are totally in the hands of others”.

Speaking out in defence of Christian values did not seem so difficult then, either for the Italian hierarchy or the pope himself, did it?