It is all too easy to forget — paradoxically, when you're standing in St Peter's Square — that the Pope is a global moral authority. No one knows this better than Benedict XVI himself. And no one recognises the full worth of this better than Berlusconi. When stories about his private life reached their peak, Berlusconi chose to attack the Church, albeit indirectly through Vittorio Feltri, the editor-in-chief of Il Giornale, which is owned by the PM's family. In the row, Feltri accused Dino Boffo, the editor of the Catholic paper Avvenire, of being a homosexual who made harassing phone calls to his lover's fiancé (he used much cruder language). Boffo protested his innocence, but resigned. Berlusconi's offensive against the Church caused much amazement. To take on the Church to which the great majority of Italians at least nominally belong, not to mention a billion other Catholics worldwide, wasn't a particularly savvy move, one commentator told me.
Has Berlusconi lost his legendary survival instinct? Most Italians don't think so. They say many things about their Prime Minister, the most common and also the most revealing being that he is un giocatore, a player. Sitting on a terrace on an estate on the outskirts of Rome, a grande dame of Italian society told me about her first encounter with the most powerful man in Italy, then known only as Silvio: "Well, this was years ago at the beach, when we were young. He proposed a deal: I was to give him the phone number of my beautiful cousin, and he was going to pay me with an ice cream. Of course, I never saw the ice cream." Her last encounter with him wasn't much more fortunate. Berlusconi didn't show up at a dinner she had organised in honour of the distinguished former leader of a friendly country. When she didn't receive an apology, she inquired the next day, only to find out that the Prime Minister had been seen at a different party, surrounded not by heads of state but Russian girls. The no-show was part of a pattern of dereliction of his official duties.
Un giocatore means not just a player, but a gambler. Some Italians say this of Berlusconi with anger, others with envy and even a kind of respect. Berlusconi seems capable of having his cake and eating it, with gusto. What does that mean for his politics? He is not losing his game with the Church, quite the contrary: with this opponent he is able to keep his cards dangerously close to his chest. Will this develop into a full-scale church-state Kulturkampf, such as Italy (like France, Germany and other continental countries) had in the 19th century? Not unless the Vatican decides to drop Berlusconi in favour of a new Catholic party led by Rocco Buttiglione, who is close to the Pope.
Of course, Berlusconi's aides calculate that, in the long run, the Vatican will judge him by his legislation on ethical issues such as euthanasia rather than by his private affairs. At the top of the autumn agenda is a bill closing loopholes in "right to die" legislation which at present allows patients to refuse treatment. However, his mudslinging may turn out to be a particularly clever strategy in which the Church is pushed into a no-win situation. Either it gets involved, and risks being encumbered with petty arguments, or it remains apart and not only absorbs further attacks by Berlusconi but also criticism, from closer quarters, of silence unbecoming. Meanwhile, Berlusconi can continue as usual, and keep the real scandals — the political ones — hidden in his closet.