The Struggle for Italy’s Soul

An alliance exists between Catholics and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that the country’s secularists seek to topple.

This year marks the 140th anniversary of the takeover of Rome by the troops of the fledgling Kingdom of Italy, which put an end to the temporal power of the Pope. The Italian Radical Party, delighted at the chance to celebrate a remembrance of the demise of the Papal States, commemorated the “deliverance” of Italy from “clerical power” with a doubledecker bus tour of “secularist” city landmarks that, together with famous historical places like Porta Pia (the site of the 1870 breach in the ancient walls of Rome), pointedly included a spot critical to the 1970s battle for the legalization of divorce.

This absurd bus tour was indicative of how the current battle among political rivals in Rome is fought: as a veritable struggle for Italy’s soul, centering on issues that define life itself, in the context of what the internationally well-connected radicals consider to be the unfinished job of the country’s— and the world’s—liberation from the influence of the Catholic Church.

How well this effort is faring can be gauged by the fact that earlier this year the presidency of Lazio, the region of Rome, was nearly won by Radical Party leader Emma Bonino, the most prominent activist for anti-Catholic stances on everything from abortion to euthanasia (and, incidentally, a long-standing associate of George Soros, who has sown so much mischief in American politics).

How has Italy, the quintessential Catholic country, come to reach such a marked degree of secularization? Here, as elsewhere, through methods for taking over the culture, such as those devised by Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party, who popularized the strategy of casting Socialist ideas as a new expression of Catholic doctrine. “Democratic Catholicism does what Socialism could not do,” wrote Gramsci in 1918.

Fifty years of “progressive” cultural hegemony later, Catholics showed how far adrift they had moved by voting, in crucial referendums in 1975 and 1981, to confirm laws that had legalized divorce and abortion. Thus modernized, young couples began refusing parenthood, soon achieving the world’s lowest fertility rates and increasingly dispensing with marriage altogether. As Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the archbishop emeritus of Bologna (a city known in those years as Italy’s Communist showcase), once famously quipped that it used to be normal in Italy for one couple to have a brood of four children or more, whereas now it is common for one child to have four or more parents.

In the past few years, however, orthodox Catholicism, obedient to the bishops, has made a spectacular comeback, jolted awake by factors common to all European Union countries: force-fed multiculturalism, mass immigration from Islamic countries, the intrusion of EU lawmakers into the ethical precincts of individual consciences, and Pope John Paul II’s unheeded call for the Christian roots of Europe to be mentioned in a prospective European Constitution.

In Italy, all this and more came to a head in 2006 when voters decided by a slim margin to embark on a second experiment with a “Catholic”-Communist coalition government under Romano Prodi, formerly president of the European Union Commission (1999-2004), with ties to liberal Catholic circles. Prodi’s administration immediately set to work on a whirlwind of unpopular decisions that ranged, in home policy, from allowing an ex-terrorist to be named secretary of the Chamber of Deputies to doubling the amount of marijuana that people are allowed to have on them for personal use (40 doses) without being described as “pushers.”

In foreign policy, Italy found itself propelled into new, privileged relationships with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian radicals, while its support was withdrawn—without any change in national legislation—from an EU-level ethics document that opposed funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Most abrasive of all to many Catholics, and even to several prominent conservative unbelievers, was the government’s often dismissive att itude toward the Vatican, such as when Prime Minister Prodi responded to a question about the security of the Pope during a planned visit to Turkey with the rude reply, “How should I know? That’s up to the [Swiss] guards.”

The upshot was that, a mere two years later, an overwhelming majority of voters bid a relieved good-bye to Prodi, and eliminated not only from government, but from Parliament itself, all the radical left-wing parties, including—for the fi rst time since the founding of the Italian Republic in 1948—the ones that went by the name of Communist. Even more significantly, the 2008 elections also cut down to size the heavyweight “Democratic Party of the Left”—born of what had once been the Italian Communist Party (the biggest Communist party in the entire Western hemisphere), allied to the heirs of what had once been the left-wing of the Christian-Democrats.

This extraordinary outcome, together with the success of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party/Northern League coalition, seems to represent the defense of traditional society, as well as of Catholic principles rooted in natural law, which, whatever his personal sins and shortcomings, Berlusconi always consistently defended as prime minister.

The election also consolidated a cultural alliance between conservative Catholics and non-believers, or agnostics, sarcastically termed “worshiping atheists” by a dismayed anti-clerical elite. In a decidedly unexpected cultural shift, people such as Senator Marcello Pera (and, earlier on, the late famed journalist Oriana Fallaci) have come to recognize the Christian underpinnings of Western civilization, proclaiming themselves proud of their Catholic heritage and delighted at the elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the throne of Peter, as the man most likely to defend tradition, and hence Western civilization.


This new climate of opinion became universally visible on at least three major occasions, all having to do with “non-negotiable” issues within the compass of natural law.

The first was when, in 2004, Catholics quietly resisted a massive campaign to abrogate a law, approved by the Berlusconi administration, which restricted medically assisted procreation to stable, heterosexual, living couples, and only if they were afflicted by infertility.

This law also prohibited many other things, including surrogate motherhood and the cloning, destruction, freezing, or hybridization of human embryos, as well as their production for experimental purposes.

Despite a publicity campaign that employed celebrities from all areas of life and enjoyed the support of almost all the country’s political parties, as well as many politicians who had voted in favor of the 2004 law, Catholics and a number of high-profi le unbelievers responded to a call by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, on behalf of the Italian bishops, to oppose a national referendum that would have abrogated the legislation. Against all predictions, and notwithstanding the message conveyed by Catholics like Romano Prodi (“I’m an adult Catholic and I’m going to vote”), participation in the referendum failed by the widest margin in history, leaving commentators and pundits speechless and bewildered at having to factor in this renewed vitality of the Catholic Church.

A second occasion for a Catholic comeback in Italy took place in 2007, when the people heeded a call by the bishops’ conference to defend the traditional family structure. This was threatened by a bill of law presented by the incumbent Prodi administration that would have expanded the definition of “family” to include couples of whichever sex. Mothers, fathers, young couples, grandparents, aunts, and uncles turned out, many wheeling baby carriages through the streets and subways of Rome, to participate in a massive demonstration in St. John Lateran’s Square, estimated to have included well over a million people. Dubbed “Family Day,” the event effectively compelled the government to put the proposal on hold indefi nitely, and went on to inspire a similar eff ort in Spain the following December.

The government silently retaliated by excluding the Family Day organizers from all further consultations on prospective legislation. But a year later the Catholic-Communist government was toppled and an overwhelming majority swept the People of Freedom/Northern League coalition back into office, as the only viable alternative.

In no situation, however, was the struggle for Italy’s soul as evident as in the case of Eluana Englaro, the third major event that rallied people to the defense of Catholic principles.

A 37-year-old woman diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state ever since a car accident in 1992, Eluana had been in the care of the Sisters of Mercy in Lecco, a town close to the Swiss border, for more than 14 years when, in 2008, the courts fi nally overturned six prior rulings to allow the removal of her feeding tube.

It had been Eluana’s own father, supported by the Radical Party, who waged a long legal batt le to obtain what he called her “freedom” to die, and opinion polls at the time showed that the vast majority of the people in Italy bought the idea that depriving Eluana of “artificial” nourishment meant “freeing” her from a condition that she would have rather died than submit to, had she been able to speak for herself.

With the mainstream media and assorted celebrities supporting the gospel of radical political correctness in every possible venue, it was left to the bishops’ daily newspaper, Avvenire, with the support of opinion paper Il Foglio, to counter, blow by blow, the manipulated and partial truths that the radicals worked to propogate, particularly with regard to Eluana’s condition, which was painted as terrible even when she was under the care of the Sisters of Mercy. Pictures and videos of Eluana— which could have either validated or disproved the many accounts of her reacting to voices, turning toward the light, swallowing, coughing, and even smiling—were always strictly forbidden. (“Haven’t you ever wondered why they never allowed anyone to see Eluana?” asked one of the sisters, in a rare public appearance that was posted on YouTube.)

Despite the apparently widespread support for Mr. Englaro’s position, the Berlusconi administration took steps to counter the court ruling. Minister of Health Maurizio Sacconi issued a directive declaring it illegal for hospitals to stop feeding and hydrating patients in a vegetative state and warning, on the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, that government funding could be revoked if hospitals didn’t comply. Nonetheless, a clinic in Mr. Englaro’s hometown in Northern Italy agreed to host the procedure and a team of volunteers, including nurses and one doctor, was set up to carry out the “interruption of the artifi cial life support.”

A last-ditch effort to save Eluana’s life was made by Berlusconi himself, who set to work on an executive order (permissible under Italian law in case of urgency) stipulating that nutrition and hydration could not be denied to anyone, whatever their degree of disability. His effort was preempted, however, by President Giorgio Napolitano (a member of the former Italian Communist— now Democratic—Party), who in an unprecedented move stopped Berlusconi short, saying that he had no intention of signing such an order, because a “single case” was not enough to qualify the situation as “urgent,” he said.

Undeterred, the government began a race against time to ram the law through the Italian Parliament, even summoning it on a Sunday. But Eluana died, of hunger and thirst, before this itinerary could be completed. That she had become a pawn in the age-old struggle against the power and influence of the Catholic Church was borne out by a book, prefaced by Eluana’s father, which compared her case to “Porta Pia,” the symbol of the end of the temporal power of the Catholic Church and (in the words of Marco Pannella, the aging but still formidable founder of the Radical Party) “an event that marked for all of Europe the beginning of a new freedom of conscience, of thinking, and of religion.”

By the time of Eluana’s death in February 2009, the information campaign waged by Avvenire had borne fruit: popular sentiment had morphed and was now on the side of life, as attested by an uncharacteristically disconcerted Marco Pannella, who in Eluana’s final days suggested Mr. Englaro call everything off because the people of Italy weren’t on his side; the battle was liable to backfire, prompting a law carrying a proviso that food and water never be suspended.

Sure enough, a month after Eluana’s death the Italian Senate passed a bill of law that, carefully avoiding terms like “living will” or “biological testament,” did att ribute a legal value to “advance declarations on medical treatment” but specifi cally denied any right to ever refuse nourishment, whatever the degree of disability incurred. Subsequently approved of in May 2009 by the Committee on Social Affairs of the House of Representatives, the bill was expected to go to a final vote the following month. Astoundingly, however, that never happened. Speaker of the House Gianfranco Fini never tabled the vote, and has since also broken ranks with the government on a number of other issues, including bioethics and gay marriage, proclaiming that “legislators should not let themselves be influenced by religious precepts.”


Propagandists for euthanasia have used the year-and-a-half respite since the bill passed the Senate to recover lost ground and try to convince people, and particularly young people, that the concept of human dignity is a facet of biological “freedom.” As time has passed, the memory of the ambulance speeding Eluana to the clinic where she was to meet her death has faded.

Meanwhile, her father has been reaping honors and awards, holding forth at political rallies, schools, and universities and on state-owned television. To the National Union of Italian Reporters who honored him as “the intelligent source that all reporters would love to have,” Mr. Englaro commented quite frankly that “if the media mechanism hadn’t taken over at a certain point, I wouldn’t have made it.” No doubt Antonio Gramsci would be nodding in approval at that comment.


Last summer, the embattled Italian government saw a need to renew its commitment to upholding natural law in a written “Bioethical Agenda” signed by the Ministers of Health and of Welfare after various challenges brought by lawsuits and radical campaigns had piled up. The 2004 law on medically assisted procreation, after surviving the failed referendum, was dismantled by the courts.

It landed before the Italian Supreme Court three times, with more attempts looming ahead. In one of these cases, in 2009, the constitutional judges struck down a law banning the creation of more than three embryos per artificial insemination and requiring all embryos be implanted without first checking for diseases. Added to this, the Supreme Court prescribed the inclusion of the prospective mother’s health among the defining factors for all reproductive decisions. In October of this year, a judge in Florence referred another lawsuit to the Supreme Court, allowing the case of a couple who wish to attempt donor insemination in Italy, after six expensive attempts in Switzerland and the Czech Republic failed. Their lawyers argued that forbidding donor insemination violates the principle of equality and non-discrimination, and contradicts a ruling by the European Human Rights Court on a similar case in Austria.

Several controversies over natural law have also pitted the EU governing bodies against the Italian government. The first to make world-wide headlines was the rejection by the European Commission’s Civil Rights Committee of prominent Catholic Rocco Buttiglione, nominated in 2004 by the Berlusconi government to fill one of the two seats on the committee then allotted to Italy. Buttiglione was to have become the EU Justice Commissar, whose jurisdiction included civil liberties, but the committee that vetted him, brushing aside his assurances that his Roman Catholic convictions would not dictate his administration, made him out to be a religious fanatic, accusing him of misogyny for saying that there must be a way for women to develop their professional talents without having to forgo motherhood.

Another issue that pitted the EU against Italy was the November 2009 ruling by the European Human Rights Court that banned crucifixes on schoolroom walls. This sparked a popular rebellion throughout the country and swept away any residual doubts as to the anti-Christian bias present in EU bodies. The Italian government has appealed the decision, and was supported at a hearing last June by six Eastern European countries (Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Lithuania, Romania, and, most notably, Russia), as well as Monaco and San Marino and the island countries of Malta and Cyprus. The final verdict is not due out until some time after January 2011.

A recent victory over the anti-life bent of EU bodies came in October of this year, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council, an influential advisory body to EU member states, managed to reverse what was to be an anti-conscience referendum targeting pro-life medical professionals. What passed instead, against all odds, was a strong resolution protecting rights of conscience in no uncertain terms. Italy was in the forefront of this battle in defense of conscience rights, not only because Italian Member of Parliament Luca Volonté was a leader in the discussion, but also because the government had filed a report against the restrictions on conscience in June and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini made a point of reminding the Council about this report before the vote.

Only days after this reversal, the EU Commission in Brussels expressed “doubts” about the tax-exempt status of the non-profit activities of the Catholic Church in Italy. The issue had surfaced in 2006, but the Commission had decided to close the case in February 2009. Now it has re-opened it on the grounds that the exemption may represent unfair state aid capable of distorting the free market. The government has two months to present a defense.

The European Commission has no bureaucratic link with the Council of Europe, but the people who inhabit the political spheres of Brussels and Strasbourg do tend to belong to a like-minded elite, which makes one wonder whether the proximity in time between the Council of Europe reversal on conscience protection and the European Commission decision to examine the Church’s tax status is a total coincidence.

Polls say the Berlusconi government still has the support of a solid majority of the voters, but reports of the prime minister’s philandering and charges of corruption leveled against Berlusconi and his associates could lead to a “no confidence vote” in parliament. Usually this would mean a new election, but under Italian law President Napolitano doesn’t necessarily have to call one. He has the right, if he so pleases, to put someone other than the head of the majority party in charge of forming a new government. This could mean a swerve once again to the secularist left, whether the majority of the people like it or not.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Alessandra Nucci 29 Articles
Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.