(secularism), against Enlightenment values
and secular humanism. Its object is to restore a regime of moral values
predicated on the authority and the primacy of the Italian nation’s Catholic
The principal Italian culture warriors have, for the most part, come out
of the Communist Party or extreme left movements and, after various
ideological and political metamorphoses, landed in the orbit of the
center-right coalition of Silvio Berlusconi that has governed Italy since
2001. Calling themselves "religious atheists" and "secular
anti-secularists," these Italian neo-conservatives are proponents of more
religion in public life, and thus have allied themselves with traditionalist
and fundamentalist Catholics in a campaign to re-Christianize the Italian
The neocons admire President Bush, approve of the American war in Iraq,
and incite Europeans to react and prevent the Islamic "invasion" of the
Continent. They believe that Italians, and Europeans generally, are menaced
by the disease of relativism and nihilism, which weakens their moral fiber
even as an Islamist holy war emanating from Muslim immigrant communities
menaces European civilization from within. And they denounce any who do not
share their conception of Christianity and politics as cowards, false
liberals, false Christians, false Catholics, "clerical secularists,"
relativists, nihilists, and enemies of Italian and European identity.
Their Joan of Arc is author Oriana Fallaci, who defines herself as a
"Christian atheist" and admires John Paul II and Benedict XVI—though she
reproaches them for being too soft on Islam. Launching her own holy war,
Fallaci accuses Europeans of having surrendered to a supposed Muslim
takeover of their continent, which she has christened "Eurabia."
Perhaps the most prominent of the neocons is Marcello Pera, president of
the national senate (the second highest office in the Italian state) and a
member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. A philosopher of science by
training, Pera has called for the creation of a "non-confessional Christian
civil religion" to restore Italian moral values and safeguard the West in a
"war of civilizations" against Islam. With Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—before
his elevation to the papacy—Pera co-authored Europa senza radici (Europe
without Roots), a book arguing for a restoration of a European Christian
This spring, the neocons made their first big public splash by turning a
national referendum on assisted fertility into a battle in their new culture
war. The referendum, which took place June 12-13, was designed to repeal a
law that drastically limits the methods of artificial procreation, prohibits
research on embryonic stem cells, and confers on the embryo the rights of a
Drafted and passed by the Berlusconi administration in 2004, Law 40 was
described by the New York Times on June 11 as "the most restrictive
on medically assisted fertility in Europe." But as far as the neocons were
concerned, those who supported repeal of the law—including numerous
physicians and scientists of international standing such as Nobel laureate
Rita Levi Montalcini—were as bad or worse than Nazis.
If the clash between opponents and supporters of the referendum rivaled
1974 and 1981 referenda on divorce and abortion in bitterness, it was in no
small measure because Benedict XVI played a key role in inflaming
spirits—above all by supporting a call by the Conference of Italian Bishops
for voters to defeat the referendum by not showing up at the polls. (In
Italy, a referendum is valid only if voter turnout is at least 50 percent
plus one of the electorate.)
Benedict had been enlisted by the neocons as their spiritual guide while
still a cardinal, and at the opening of the Conclave he warmed their hearts
by declaring, "We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does
not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one’s
own ego and one’s own desires….Christians were tossed on the waves of
Marxism, liberalism, and even libertinism; of radical individualism,
atheism, and vague mysticism."
The daily Il Foglio, which has served as the neocons’ house organ,
published the full text of the Cardinal’s remarks on the front page. (For
the day, the editor changed the name on the masthead to Il Soglio—"The
Once Benedict entered the fertility fray, the neocons embraced the
boycott idea as aggressively as they defended the legitimacy of the church’s
intervention—which many commentators, Catholic and secular alike, considered
out of line or at least inopportune.
For example, in a June 9 column, Marco Politi of the major daily La
Repubblica called the intervention "ecclesiastical invasiveness without
precedent" that "sets back relations between State and Church 50 years."
Citing "a troubling militarization of the ecclesiastical structure," Politi
denounced the bishops’ campaign as "a technical stratagem, a sly move, as
many Catholics, too, acknowledge: a maneuver contrived to prevent
transparency on which questions the electorate—which is predominantly
Catholic, given that we are in Italy—manifests its consensus and which not."
For the most part, the members of the governing center-right coalition,
including both Pera and the president of the Chamber of Deputies, publicly
encouraged the electorate not to vote, while members of the center-left
opposition declared themselves in favor of repeal or revision of Law 40. But
in places the battle lines cut across the partisan divide.
Cabinet member Stefania Prestigiacomo of Forza Italia campaigned for
repeal while opposition leader Francesco Rutelli aligned himself with the
abstentionists. Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, head of the post-neofascist
party Alleanza Nazionale, voiced approval of three of the referendum’s four
repeal questions and criticized the church’s intervention, telling Tracy
Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times, "We live in a secular
state….Telling people not to vote is not the way to educate public opinion,
nor does it teach people to assume their responsibility."
For his part, Berlusconi chose not to take a position, while his wife
declared herself against Law 40. President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio
Ciampi did not take a public position on the law, but did go to the polls.
In the weeks before the vote—and especially after the intervention by the
bishops and the pope—the press, radio, and especially television (largely
controlled by the center-right coalition or owned by the Berlusconi family)
became battlefields, while the streets were flooded with posters with
apocalyptic slogans that presented the referendum as a decisive battle
between Good and Evil.
Catholic newspapers such as L’Avvenire and pro-government
newspapers such as Il Giornale were arrayed in defense of Law 40 and
likewise defended the legitimacy of the Vatican’s intervention, while the
opposite stance was taken by secularist journals of opinion and opposition
newspapers. The major national newspapers, including Il Corriere della
Sera, La Repubblica, Il Sole 24 Ore, and La Stampa,
opened their pages to the debate and were unanimous in urging Italians not
to stay away from the polls.
On the eve of the referendum, Il Sole 24 Ore, the principal
Italian daily business newspaper, wrote, "If an auspice may be expressed
(and we augur that it comes also from the highest office of the State), it
is that people go and vote with absolute respect for those who prefer
legitimately to abstain."
The referendum results certainly looked like a victory for boycott
proponents: The turnout was 25.9 percent. "Score one for the Vatican,"
pronounced the Economist. "Italians obey their church’s orders and
stay away." The International Herald Tribune judged that the
"stunning success" of the boycott campaign "demonstrated that however empty
Italy’s churches might be, the church has a considerable influence on moral
But as some of the foreign press noted as well, it was hard to tell
whether the 74 percent of the electorate who stayed away from the polls were
following Vatican orders or simply continuing a habit of political apathy.
For this was the fourth national referendum in a row since 1999 to fail to
achieve the necessary turnout. That apathy mattered more than Vatican
persuasion was suggested by an AP-Ipsos poll which found that, as ABC News
reported June 13, "nearly two-thirds of Italians think religious
leaders should not try to influence government decisions."
The Vatican showed moderation in victory, so much so that the Vicar of
Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, stated that the Church did not intend to use
the victory to seek repeal of the law on abortion, too. Vatican sources,
wrote John Thavis in the June 17 "Vatican Letter" column for the Catholic
News Service, "privately cautioned against triumphalism. They recognized
that voter inertia may have been as big a factor as the Church’s public
But invigorated by the new pope’s interventions and feeling the momentum
of victory, the neocons intensified their crusade against relativism and
laicismo, proposing even to do away with the separation of church and
state. "A devastating defeat for clerical secularism and the ministers of
the cult of relativism," exclaimed Il Foglio the day after the vote.
"The culture war continues."
Opinion on the other side was angry and even apocalyptic.
"The failure of this referendum has produced three casualties: the
secularism of the State, the autonomy of politics, and the referendum as an
institution," Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party, told the
Neapolitan daily Il Mattino.
For La Repubblica, the result of the referendum was "the shipwreck
of a secular Italy that aimed to change an ideological law." The church,
according to the newspaper, had exploited the growing detachment of Italians
from the state and political parties, seeking to exercise "a sort of
protectorate of values, the exercise of a power no longer temporal but
Even Il Secolo D’Italia, the newspaper of Alleanza Nazionale
(whose abstentionist majority nearly revolted against Fini’s leadership),
criticized the church’s intervention: "To embody and implement anew
traditional values cannot mean to give life to a sort of Christian
fundamentalism and a negation of lay and liberal values that have steadily
developed….[T]he great discriminator between our type of society and others,
such as Islamic society, is precisely the concept of the lay State that
respects religious identity, not [the concept of] religion that becomes the
The referendum’s failure drew fresh attention to the "culture war,
Italian style," especially among those who, whether personally religious or
non-religious, oppose the mixing of religion and politics that is central
feature of neocon ideology. In La Repubblica on 17 June, editorial