VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Italy’s Catholic Church used to support Silvio Berlusconi as a bulwark against leftist governments and fears they might legalize gay marriage and euthanasia.
There will be no blessing this time.
“Like a bolt out of the blue, the dinosaur returns and throws the whole country into chaos”.
This was not a headline from an anti-Berlusconi paper but from an editorial in Famiglia Cristiana, an influential Catholic magazine with one of Italy’s largest weekly circulations, reacting to the possibility of his political rebirth.
Berlusconi is teasing voters over whether he will, or will not, be a candidate for prime minister in an Italian election early next year. Famiglia Cristiana accused the 76-year-old of selling Italians a mirage.
“This is pure populism, the Pied Piper has returned to enchant people with his alluring promises. But this is clear folly, which nullifies the sacrifices made by families and blocks the virtuous path of reforms, even if they are unpopular,” it said.
The former prime minister’s adversaries accuse him of wanting to return to front-line politics to protect his business interests and regain partial and temporary immunity in trials for corruption and paying for sex with a minor.
On Monday, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, made it clear where he stood on the issue.
“I am shocked by the irresponsibility of people who want to look after their own affairs while the house is still on fire,” Bagnasco said.
The Church stood by Berlusconi nearly to the end of his last government, which collapsed in November 2011. Mario Monti then stepped in at the head of technocrat government to lead Italy away from the risk of a Greek-style economic crisis.
Despite an array of political and sexual scandals - including reports of wild “bunga bunga” parties with young women - Berlusconi was backed by the Church because he was considered the lesser of two evils.
“The Church’s alliance with Berlusconi was based on their joint fear of the left. Berlusconi guaranteed that as along as he was in government, he would not budge on issues the Church considered non-negotiable,” said Catholic author Andrea Tornielli.
“The Church held its nose but knew it could rest easy on issues such as gay marriage, euthanasia and bio-ethical questions like in-vitro fertilization,” Tornielli, who also runs the influential website Vatican Insider, told Reuters.
Now, the Vatican has made it clear it considers Berlusconi a political relic and has expressed alarm at his populist outbursts such as saying Germany was the root of Italy’s economic problems.
“I think the risks of propaganda of this kind are clear because it does not correspond to reality ... some of his stands have been incoherent,” said Gian Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano.
Monti goes to mass every Sunday with his wife of 40 years, and he has impressed the Vatican with his calmness and what the Church sees as a genuine desire to fix the country’s economic problems and avoid social unrest of the kind seen in Greece.
“The Church would be very happy if Monti succeeds himself as prime minister or at least if he has a role in the next government,” Tornielli said.
Pier Luigi Bersani, the centre-left leader and former communist, is likely to be the next prime minister if Monti does not run and was an anti-cleric in his youth.
But in a recent debate, Bersani said one of his heroes was Pope John XXIII, the pontiff who introduced reforms into the Church 50 years ago and was regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest progressives.
Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Robert Woodward