Catholic editor who rapped Berlusconi resigns, but Church may have last laugh

September 3, 2009

giornaleIn the latest — but most likely not final — round in an incredible case of Italian journalistic pugilism, the editor of a Catholic newspaper sparring publicly for a week with the daily owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has resigned.  Dino Boffo’s resignation as head of Avvenire, the daily of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, ended an Italian telenovela that had riveted the media for seven consecutive days and even saw indirect involvement by Pope Benedict.

(Photo: Il Giornale fronts charges against Boffo, 3 Sept 2009/Stefano Rellandini)

In his three-and-a half page letter of resignation (here in Italian), which he said was irrevocable, Boffo  said the tussle with the editor Vittorio Feltri of the Milan daily Il Giornale had made his life unbearable. For his good, that of his family and that of the Church, he could not longer stay “at the centre of a storm of gigantic proportions that has invaded newspapers, television, radio, the internet and shows no signs of ending.”

Boffo said his only mistake was not taking his initial judicial problem seriously enough. As noted in my blog post here last Tuesday, Il Giornale editor Vittorio Feltri wrote last week that Boffo accepted a plea bargain in 2002 over a case in which a woman accused him of harassment. Il Giornale claimed that Boffo was having a homosexual relationship with her husband. It said Boffo should not have written editorials criticising Berlusconi’s sexual escapades when he was not exactly an an innocent altar boy himself.

But in his resignation letter, Boffo said “the sexual scandal initially used against me was a colossal, fictional set-up which was diabolically engineered.” Boffo says the woman was harassed by someone else using his cell phone. “The Church has better things to do than strenuously defend one person, even if unfairly targeted,” he stated in his resignation letter.

italy-duoWhat’s interesting is that Il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo and regularly attacks Berlusconi opponents as if it were an official party organ, kept up its attack on Boffo — often with front-page banner headlines — for seven consecutive days. This despite the fact that the entire Church hierarchy closed ranks to support him and Berlusconi “disassociated” himself from his own family paper. The support for Boffo included an indirect intervention by the pope in the form of a letter of support to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who as president of the Italian Bishops Conference is ultimately Boffo’s boss.

(Photo: Cardinal Bagnasco and PM Berlusconi, 3 Sept 2009/Max Rossi)

On the surface, Boffo’s resignation could appear to be a defeat for the Italian Church. But most likely it will be the Church which has the last laugh.

Like any Italian government head, Berlusconi needs the enormously powerful Church — whose influence spreads like tentacles throughout the country — more than the Church needs the government. An antagonistic relationship with the Church has never helped any Italian government. Even a Socialist-turned Fascist like Benito Mussolini knew he had to keep peace with the Church. It was Mussolini who approved the so-called Lateran Pacts in 1929 that set up Vatican City as a sovereign state after the papacy lost its vast land holdings in Italian unification in the 19th century. And in 1984, it was not a Christian Democrat but a Socialist — Bettino Craxi — who signed a concordat between the Vatican and Italy updating those Lateran Pacts.

vatican-by-nightThe wound in Church-State relations caused by Feltri’s attack on Boffo was very deep. The Vatican took it as a slap in the face, and the Vatican famously has a very long memory. Notwithstanding the smiles between Church and government officials at diplomatic receptions and on national holidays, it will probably take many months of work to repair the damage.

(Photo: St. Peter’s Basilica, 3 Nov 2008/Tom Heneghan)

The chill left by the Feltri-Boffo war will probably not go away for some time. Eventually, it won’t be much of a surprise if the Church seeks a quid pro quo with the government in exchange for a warming in relations. This could come in the form of Church demands for a greater say in future legislation, such laws on bioethical issues or homosexual rights.

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