Summer 2005, Vol. 8, No. 2

Table of Contents
Fall 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Was New Orleans Asking For It?

The God Squadron

Culture War, Italian Style

Establishment In the Balance

Covering Homosexuality in the Schools

Presbyterians Divest the Jews

Cruisin' For a Scientological Bruisin'



Culture War, Italian Style
by Emilio Gentile

Since the end of World War II, Italy has suffered from a crisis of national identity. Most recently, some leading Italian intellectuals and politicians have sought to cure it by starting una guerra culturale—a culture war. Nor is it only the term that they’ve borrowed from the United States.

Like its model, this "culture war, Italian style" consists of a crusade against relativism and laicismo (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 identity.

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 nation.

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 identity.

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 human being.

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 Papal Throne.")

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 issues."

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 pronouncements."

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 cultural."

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 State."

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 writer Francesco Merlo identified a "volcanic eruption of conformism dressed up as God’s word," denouncing "neo-Christianist bigoted atheists" who celebrated the referendum’s failure as a "presumed ‘revolt of the people’ against secularization."

Enzo Bianchi, a Catholic intellectual, wrote in La Stampa on 23 July that the believers who adhere to the movement of the "religious atheists" are a threat to Christianity itself, because they want to reduce Christianity to a "civil religion capable of furnishing a soul to society, a political cohesion and identity….Faith is thereby made worldly and the Church is politicized," constrained "to take on the logic of a lobby and of a pressure group" while repudiating "the path of dialogue."

No one can foresee how the culture war will be affected by the outcome of the referendum, but it is probable that it will intensify and take on a more specifically Italian character.

The Vatican is unlikely to ignore next year’s national elections, given the unsettled state of Italian politics. The governing center-right coalition is in crisis, with Berlusconi’s allies questioning his leadership as they jockey to succeed him. Moderate Catholics of the center-right and center-left are maneuvering to reconstitute a large center party. And parliament must also elect a successor to Ciampi as president of the Republic.

During the first visit by the new pope to the Quirinal Palace on 24 June, Ciampi defended the secularity of the Italian state, recalling that the "necessary distinction between each person’s religious creed and the life of the community regulated by the laws of the Republic has consolidated, over decades, a profound concord between church and state."

Pope Bendict replied by declaring that the Church recognizes as "legitimate" only "a healthy secularity of the State" and predicted that Italy might "not only not repudiate the Christian heritage that was part of its history" but on the contrary help all of Europe "to rediscover those Christian roots that permitted [Europe] to be great in the past and that can still today furnish those ethical benchmarks that find their ultimate foundation in religion."

Religion is a principal player in Italy’s new culture war, as it is in America’s, but politics, with the logic of power, seems to be the prime mover guiding the current strategy of the neo-conservatives—and of the leaders of the Catholic church. To be sure, it is far from clear that the Italian people as a whole have much interest in rediscovering their Christian roots. But if the neocons and the Vatican have their way next year, religion—or at least "Christian identity"—will become a factor in shaping Italian electoral politics for years to come.



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