(Saint Peter's Basilica seen from a hill in the north of Rome July 26, 2011/Alessandro Bianchi)

Italy’s powerful Catholic Church issued a blistering attack on the ruling political class on Monday, saying the country needed to “purify the air” contaminated by licentious behaviour that had sullied its name around the world. A speech by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco to fellow bishops did not specifically name Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi but he left little doubt he was referring to the sex and corruption scandals that dog Berlusconi and his centre-right government.

“It is mortifying to witness behaviour that not only goes counter to public decorum but is intrinsically sad and hollow,” said the head of the Italian Bishops Conference.

Bagnasco said Italians had been left in a state of “dumbfounded astonishment” by a ruling political class that was enmeshed in scandal and preoccupied with self-preservation while the country suffered from an economic crisis. “The image is one of a country that is estranged, without impulse, as if everyone is waiting for the inevitable,” he said.

Until now the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church have been hesitant in their criticism of the centre-right, fearing that a leftist government could back measures it opposes, such as gay marriage and embryonic stem-stell research.