When top Catholic bishop speaks, Italy listens

January 23, 2008

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 26 March 2007/Max RossiWhen the head of the Catholic bishops’ conference in most countries speaks, he expects the specialist Church media to report on him and considers himself lucky if he makes it into the religion pages of the mainstream press. When the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) speaks, Italian media sit up and listen.

So when Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (left) delivered his opening address to a regular meeting of the CEI’s permanent council last Monday, his speech (here in Italian) was all over the television and radio that night and in all mainstream newspapers the next morning.

Bagnasco, following up on recent economic surveys, opinion polls and media stories, said Italy was effectively in a state of malaise, if not outright decline. He said Italy appeared like a “frayed” country and at times seemed as torn apart as “confetti.” He cited a recent report by the social research organisation Censis that said Italy was suffering from “deep inertia” and seemed “incapable of building a common future”. A “dangerous lack of confidence” was widespread, he said.

Newspapers used the word “attack” to describe Bagnasco’s ctiticism of Italy’s current social and political situation. Most linked it to the fact that Pope Benedict had to scrap a visit to Rome’s La Sapienza University last week because of planned protests.
Anti-pope protest banners at La Sapienza University, 15 Jan. 2008/Dario Pignatelli When the Vatican cancelled the visit, it said the reason was because the respectful climate it wanted at the university no longer existed. The interior ministry said security was not a problem, but Bagnasco said the visit was cancelled after “suggestions by Italian authorities”. The prime minister’s office denied that this was the case.

Last Sunday, a huge crowd, many of them students, turned out in St Peter’s Square to show their support for the Pope.

Bagnasco can speak more freely about the Italian political and social situation than Pope Benedict, but it is understood that he is reflecting the Vatican’s position. Italy’s powerful Catholic Church, with the backing of the Vatican, has been at odds with the the centre-left government over a number of issues, including a major clash last year over plans to give non-married heterosexual and homosexual couples more rights.

Ironically, a day after Bagnasco delivered his speech, Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government itself started unravelling. Clemente Mastella, the justice minister who leads a small Catholic party, withdrew its support for the coalition. Mastella had earlier resigned as minister after he and wife became caught up in a corruption scandal in southern Italy. He says his family has done nothing wrong.

Italian PM Prodi speaks at the lower house of parliament in Rome, 22 Jan. 2008/Max RossiMastella said one of straws that broke the camel’s back for him was his frustration, as a Catholic and a citizen, that the Pope could not even deliver an address at the main university in the Italian capital.

At the time of writing, the Italian government, a coalition that ranges from Catholics to hard-line communists, has asked for two confidence votes in parliament, on Wednesday and Thursday. If Prodi’s government does collapse and if the centre-right opposition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi eventually returns to power in one form or another, one man who probably won’t be crying is Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco.

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