Berlusconi, Italy and the Church

‘Italy is a microcosm of Europe: if democracy and the rule of law die there, the writing is on the wall for the rest of us’

Is it any of our business what Silvio Berlusconi, the priapic Prime Minister of Italy, gets up to in bed? His daughter Marina, who runs part of his media empire, thinks not: “Journalists are free, Berlusconi is also. Berlusconi, like everyone else, is free to have a private life.” The Berlusconi clan is not alone in using fair means and foul to silence those who try to investigate or criticise. This is also the aim, as Nick Cohen argues, of an unholy alliance of judges, politicians and celebrities in Britain. 

Yet, as Mara Delius reports from Rome, Italians are paying a high price for preserving the privacy of their libertine leader, who is increasingly shunned by his EU colleagues. After a joint press conference at which Berlusconi boasted that he had never needed to pay for his sexual conquests, his Spanish counterpart José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero could scarcely conceal his disgust. No statesman would willingly risk sharing a platform with a figure who complains about press intrusion while washing his dirty linen in public.

What is this preoccupation with the privacy of celebrity really about? In a word: faith. Not long ago, the nation now personified by this ageing Lothario was the most Catholic in the world. Italians still worshipped the God brought to them by Saints Peter and Paul, both of whom they first martyred and then commemorated with the greatest basilicas in Christendom. The public and the private spheres both had their poets — Dante and Boccaccio respectively — and the contradictions between the two made for lively satire. The private life of Italian church and society was laid bare, yet it preserved an equilibrium because it was based on the assumption that God was both all-knowing and all-forgiving. But the decline of traditional Italian society, chronicled in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, began a process in which the Catholic faith was partially eclipsed, first by the cult of the Duce and now by the cult of celebrity.

A decade ago the present speaker of the Italian parliament, Gianfranco Fini, declared that Benito Mussolini was “the greatest statesman of the 20th century”. Since then, Fini has recanted, but his senior partner in the present regime, Berlusconi, makes even more extravagant claims for himself: “I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150-year history!” Astonishingly, his poll ratings, at the time of writing, still hover around 50 per cent. Contempt still seems balanced by a sneaking admiration for his sexual braggadocio. To be fair, such admiration is not unique to Italy: witness Disraeli’s (probably apocryphal) comment on the septuagenarian Lord Palmerston’s affairs: “If he could prove evidence of his potency in his electoral address he’d sweep the country.” But Palmerston was a doughty defender of English liberties, while Berlusconi has squandered every opportunity to liberate his people. After a century in which its ancient civilisation has been hollowed out, Italy is nothing but a republic without virtue, living under the heel of a clapped-out Casanova.

Why should we care about the degradation of Italy, a land that Prince Metternich, in conversation with Palmerston, dismissed as “a geographical expression”, and which today seems heading for demographic and cultural extinction too? Because Italy is a microcosm of Europe: if democracy and the rule of law die there, the writing is on the wall for the rest of us. 

It may seem paradoxical to suggest that the Church might be the saviour of Italy, but that was its role during the Cold War, when John Paul II inspired first Poland and then Eastern Europe to resist communism. Nobody knows this better than Pope Benedict XVI, who grew up in an anti-Nazi family under the Third Reich and was John Paul’s closest adviser throughout his pontificate. It would cost Benedict dear to break with a prime minister who makes much of his pro-life credentials. But he might recall one of his greatest predecessors, Gregory VII. Nearly 1,000 years ago, in the name of the libertas ecclesiae (liberty of the Church), Gregory broke with the Emperor Henry IV and began what the great medievalist Karl Leyser called “the first European revolution”. Gregory’s last words were: “I have loved justice and hated iniquity: therefore I die in exile.” There are worse epitaphs for a Pope.

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