The Church, Obama, and Berlusconi. Confusion in Power
Among the Italian bishops and clergy, those who shout the loudest against the government and its leader are winning. The cardinal secretary of state is trying to restore order, but even the Catholic newspaper “Avvenire” has ended up in the commotion. It’s much the same in the United States, with the Vatican and bishops divided
by Sandro Magister
ROME, August 31, 2009 – For a few months, two political leaders of the highest order have been under critical observation by the Church hierarchy in two key countries for worldwide Catholicism: Barack Obama in the United States, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
In both cases, the Holy See and the respective national episcopacies are not taking the same approach. The Vatican authorities appear more inclined to a peaceful and conciliatory relationship, while the national episcopacies appear more critical and combative.
And in both cases, two Church newspapers are also participating in the conflict: “L’Osservatore Romano,” an organ of the Vatican, and “Avvenire,” the newspaper owned by the Italian bishops’ conference.
1. THE OBAMA CASE
With Barack Obama, the stance of the Holy See diverges so much from that of a significant portion of the American bishops that it has repeatedly induced some of these to lodge lively protests against the Vatican authorities themselves.
Some of the American bishops, for example, were scandalized by the editorial with which “L’Osservatore Romano” commented, on April 30, 2009, on the first hundred days of the new president.
Not only did the newspaper of the Holy See express a mostly positive view of the start of the Obama presidency, but it even saw in this a “rebalancing in favor of motherhood,” exactly the area in which the bishops’ criticisms were, and are, the most biting.
Another element of conflict was the decision of the University of Notre Dame – the most famous Catholic university in the United States – to award Obama an honorary degree on May 17. About eighty of the bishops, one third of the United States episcopacy, contested the appropriateness of granting the honor to a political leader whose positions on bioethics were manifestly contrary to Church teaching.
The critics of the Obama presidency include figures of great stature in the American hierarchy: from Cardinal Francis George, president of the episcopal conference, to Denver archbishop Charles Chaput. As archbishop of Chicago, George shares a home town with Obama and is successor to Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop and cardinal who died in 1992 and whom the current president of the Unites States often recalls with great warmth and emotion, as teacher of a Christianity not of conflict, but of dialogue.
Before and after the honorary degree from Notre Dame, various American bishops expressed their disappointment at having seen their criticisms virtually ignored by the Vatican.
That isn’t all. They were even more irritated by the fact that the Vatican did not stop at overlooking the bishops’ criticisms, but even heaped enthusiastic praise on Obama as if he were a new Constantine, head of a modern empire generous toward the Church.
This impression was given by an article by a former theologian of the pontifical household, Swiss theologian and cardinal Georges Cottier, published in advance of Obama’s visit to Benedict XVI in a magazine connected to the diplomatic circles of the Vatican curia, “30 Days.”
The most critical American bishops were somewhat appeased by Benedict XVI, who, during the audience with the president of the United States on July 10, put the focus on “the defense and promotion of life and the right to abide by one’s conscience,” and gave him as a gift the documents of the Church on this subject.
But again in the past few weeks, the conflict between the bishops and Obama seems far from dying down. Another matter of dispute has surfaced in the proposal for health care reform, which the bishops fear would include public funding for abortion.
And the controversy sparked by the degree from Notre Dame remains a heated one within the same hierarchy. “America,” the “liberal” magazine of the New York Jesuits, has published two contrasting commentaries in its new August issue: the first, extremely critical of Obama and of the bishops who support him, by Bishop John M. D’Arcy of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, where the university is located; the second by bishop emeritus of San Francisco John R. Quinn, a leading proponent of progressive Catholicism, supporter of a “policy of cordiality” with the Obama administration.
The heart of the controversy came to light again at the end of August, on the occasion of the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, a Catholic who – as he himself wrote in a letter to Benedict XVI made public in recent days – fought his entire life for help for the poor, the care of the sick, the welcoming of migrants, the abolition of the death penalty.
“Had this deeply talented man found the means to include the protection of the infant in the womb among the good causes he promoted, had he been able to witness boldly to a consistent ethic of life, I believe the Catholic community’s mourning and prayers would have been even fuller, more whole-hearted,” commented a priest and theologian of Boston, Robert Imbelli.
Fr. Imbelli is is also a commentator for “L’Osservatore Romano,” and has written similar things in it about Obama. If it were up to him, the critical American bishops would have had no reason to protest against the Vatican newspaper.
2. THE BERLUSCONI CASE
With Italian head of state Silvio Berlusconi, for the past few months there have been two main causes of friction with the Church.
The first is immigration. The Berlusconi government applies very strict rules in deciding admission and keeping out clandestine immigrants. And this provokes critical reactions from many Church organizations, for which “welcome” is the first precept, if not the only one.
The official stance of the episcopal conference, according to which welcome must instead be accompanied and balanced always by legality and security, is therefore accused – by the Catholic clergy and laity most involved in social assistance, and by some of the bishops themselves – of being excessively moderate, or worse, subservient to the Berlusconi government. The same thing happens in the newspaper owned by the bishops, “Avvenire.”
But if one compares “Avvenire” with “L’Osservatore Romano,” the latter appears by far more respectful of the government’s decisions on immigration. Giovanni Maria Vian, the history professor who directs the Vatican newspaper, in an interview with “Corriere della Sera” last August 31 said that some of the articles in “Avvenire” have been so “exaggerated and imprudent” in criticizing the government that they have caused concern at the Vatican. He denounced two of these in particular: an editorial comparing the shipwreck of African migrants in the Mediterranean with the extermination of Jews to the indifference of all; and another article contesting the statement of the Italian foreign minister that Italy is the European country that has helped the most immigrants at sea.
Even at the Vatican itself, there is no lack of voices of disagreement. On the contrary. Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the pontifical council for migrants, is extremely critical of the stance of the Italian government, and is the favorite of the opposition newspapers, in spite of the fact that the secretary of state has made it known more than once that he speaks in a personal capacity, and represents only himself.
Another loose cannon against the government’s immigration policy in the curia is Cardinal Renato Martino. But he was recently replaced as president of the pontifical council for migrants by Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, who comes from the world of diplomacy and is prudence personified.
In short, “relations between the two shores of the Tiber are excellent,” Professor Vian said in the same interview, meaning by the two shores the Italian government and the Holy See.
In confirmation of this, the director of “L’Osservatore Romano” cited and defended his newspaper’s total silence on the second element of the current clash between Berlusconi and the Church.
This second element concerns prime minister’s private life, in particular the escapades that he summed up like this: “In Italy there are so many pretty girls, and I’m not a saint.”
The campaign of accusations against Berlusconi’s private life was ignited in mid-June by his second wife – from whom he is separating – and above all by “la Repubblica,” the leading newspaper of the Italian left, which, paradoxically, has always preached liberation from the bonds of Catholic morality.
Since then, this curiosity about Berlusconi’s sex life continually occupies the pages of many newspapers, not only in Italy, but also around the world. Not, however, those of “L’Osservatore Romano.” Not even one line. And “for excellent reasons,” Vian says, refusing to get the pope’s newspaper mixed up with a journalism “that seems to have become the continuation of the political struggle by other means.”
At first, it was also this way in “Avvenire,” the newspaper of the Italian bishops. Silence. Or at the most, a highly restrained wish that the prime minister eliminate “shadows” and “situations uncomfortable for all.”
But in the meantime, among the bishops, clergy, and laity, the impulse to raise a vigorous protest against Berlusconi on account of some of his behaviors contrary to Catholic morality was getting stronger and stronger. And it erupted most of all in “Avvenire.”
At the end of June, twice in a row, the newspaper published a pair of opinions side by side: in the first case, by two editorialists for the newspaper, Marina Corradi and Piero Chinellato; in the second case, by two outside commentators, Antonio Airò and Professor Pietro De Marco. The match ended at 3 to 1. Only Chinellato sided with the public denunciation “ad personam.” The others, with different arguments, maintained that one should hate the sin but not the sinner, and that a politician must be judged for what he does politically: for employment, the family, education, immigration, etc.; not for his private life, which belongs to the “internal forum.”
And what about the publisher of “Avvenire,” the episcopal conference? On July 6, the feast of Saint Maria Goretti, a young martyr who died in defense of her virginity, the secretary of the CEI, Mariano Crociata, lashed out against “the display of a gleeful and irresponsible libertinism,” which all of the media interpreted – without any denial – as alluding to Berlusconi.
This homily was like the breaking of a dam. What a variety of bishops, priests, and laity had already been doing on their own account – criticizing the prime minister’s sex life – also had to be done from that point on by the director of “Avvenire,” Dino Boffo, in responding to the increasing pressure from readers, some of them highly placed.
Boffo would say something, and immediately someone else would tell him that he had to say more. A perfect specimen of this relentless pressure was the letter from a priest in Milan, published on August 12 with the umpteenth response from Boffo.
This performance – unintentionally staged by “Avvenire” – of an episcopal conference devoid of an authoritative and energetic guide, in which control belongs to the one who shouts the loudest against the government despite the fact that it is so attentive to the Church’s interests in the life and family, has met with remedial efforts from Vatican secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, who arranged a meeting with prime minister Berlusconi in Aquila on August 28, on the occasion of the feast of “Forgiveness” instituted by Pope Celestine V.
Ahead of the meeting, Cardinal Bertone gave an extensive interview to “L’Osservatore Romano,” in which he was very reassuring in discussing relations between the Church and the Italian government.
On the same day, in “la Repubblica,” the editorialist-theologian Vito Mancuso accused the secretary of state of wanting to dine at the table of Herod, instead of denouncing his misconduct. But “L’Osservatore Romano” immediately responded that the Church does not accept “partisan involvement in contingent political matters,” because its concern is for “the individual care of consciences,” and not the public condemnation of the sinner.
At the last moment, the meeting between Berlusconi and Cardinal Bertone was scrapped by an unexpected attack against the director of “Avvenire,” Boffo, by “il Giornale,” the newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother.
This was the full-page headline in the August 28 issue of “il Giornale,” directed by Vittorio Feltri: “Sexual incident of ‘Avvenire’ director. The supermoralist charged with harassment. Dino Boffo, at the helm of the newspaper of the Italian bishops and involved in the fiery press campaign against the transgressions of the prime minister, intimidated the wife of the man with whom he had a relationship.”
In the following days, the attack was revealed to be of dubious foundation. Boffo declared his innocence. The current president of the CEI, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, defended him completely. And so did his predecessor, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who had asked for Boffo as director of “Avvenire” and had confirmed his trust in him even after, in 2002, accusations against him began to circulate. The accusations have been made on anonymous fliers, distributed any time there was a desire to attack, through Boffo, the presidency of the CEI, for example during the dispute over the appointment of the rector of the Catholic University of Milan, when Ruini’s man, Lorenzo Ornaghi, faced stiff opposition from then-secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former president of the Italian Republic Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, former prime minister Emilio Colombo, and the director of the university at the time, Carlo Balestrero, all members of the Istituto Giuseppe Toniolo that oversees the university and of which Boffo is also a member.
Recently, these anonymous fliers have come back into circulation, for the added purpose of changing the direction of the newspapers and television and radio stations of the Italian Church, all of which are currently concentrated in Boffo’s hands. Making himself a spokesman of these demands, on August 31 the bishop of Mazara del Vallo, Domenico Mogavero, former undersecretary of the CEI and now president of the legal affairs council, said that “for the good of the Church and of his newspaper,” Boffo “might consider whether it is not fitting for him to resign.”
The attack against Boffo in “il Giornale” – against the interest of its own publisher, Berlusconi, in a peaceful relationship with the Church – brought only a brief quote from Cardinal Bagnasco in “L’Osservatore Romano.”
As for the confusion being seen in the Italian Church, Cardinal Bertone will now be tempted to take back in hand the letter that he wrote on March 25 of 2007 to Cardinal Bagnasco, on the occasion of his appointment to as president of the CEI, in which he asserted “the respectful guidance of the Holy See, as well as my own [. . .] concerning relations with political institutions.”
Written when the extraordinary leadership of Cardinal Ruini was still at its peak, that letter was interpreted by the CEI as a slap in the face. And it was marked return to sender.
Now it has become strangely relevant again.