Sign in | Log in

Another Side of Italy's "Malessere"

Another Side of Italy's "Malessere"

George De Stefano (January 6, 2008)

Italy's problems are getting a lot of media attention these days but there's one aspect the New York Times and other papers have overlooked -- the outsized presence of the Vatican in Italian politics and society.



 By George De Stefano

Italy certainly is under media scrutiny these days. The much-discussed New York Times article by correspondent Ian Fisher (“In a Funk, Italy Sings an Aria of Disappointment”) described a “malessere” compounded of economic and political stagnation, social immobility and cultural decline.

But the New York Times isn’t the only English-language newspaper to highlight Italy’s ills. Two major British papers that I regularly read, The Guardian and The Independent, have Rome-based correspondents who keep their readers abreast of ogni cosa male in the Belpaese.   

As America Oggi editor Stefano Vaccara reported here at i-Italy, the Wall Street Journal fears that something far worse than political and economic dysfunction may be stirring in Italy: Revolution! According to the paper, which was recently acquired by right-wing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, frustrated Italian youths, lacking prospects and stuck living at home with Mamma and Papa, might turn to radical leftist ideologies and revolutionary violence.  Bamboccioni/e at the barricades? It’s a far-fetched notion, but if it keeps Wall Street Journal editors up at night, I’m all for it.

Two popular political satirists, Beppe Grillo and Sabina Guzzanti, have directed their ferocious wit and moral outrage at Italy’s political establishment. Guzzanti’s acclaimed documentary film Viva Zapatero! (2005) takes the politically-motivated cancellation of “RAIot,” her outspoken public TV show, as the launching point for a scathing and often hilarious denunciation of censorship and political authoritarianism.

Beppe Grillo rages against Italian politicians – “our employees” as he calls them-- and the political party system, directing much of his ire at members of parliament who remain in office despite having been convicted for misdemeanors or more serious crimes. (In November 2007, Grillo noted that the number of convicted legislators had declined from 24 to 17.) These politicians continue to collect fat salaries, which, as reported in La Casta (The Caste), the best-selling 2007 book by journalists Sergio Rizzo and Gianantonio Stella, top those of politicos in all other European nations.

Members of parliament are paid three times as much as their French counterparts; their perks include chauffeured bullet-proof cars, bodyguards, discounted air travel, and even tennis coaching. And after only 30 months of service, they qualify to receive a generous pension when they turn 60.

Italian legislators also enjoy other privileges denied to ordinary Italians. Unmarried couples, whether gay or straight, have no legal rights in Italy, thanks to the pernicious influence of the Vatican and the politicians who toady to that antediluvian institution. But unmarried members of Italy’s parliament can extend health and other benefits to their partners.

“V-Day” Strikes a Chord

Last September, Grillo called for fed-up Italians to turn out for “V-Day” protests, the “V” standing not for victory but for that very popular Italian epithet, “Vaffanculo.”  Thousands of Italians showed up, in Bologna, Rome and elsewhere throughout the country, not only to say “fuck off” to Italy’s political caste but also to sign Grillo’s petition calling for electoral law reform. Grillo proposes a law which would prevent any citizen found guilty by a court of law from sitting in the parliament, bar members of parliament from being elected more than twice, and require that candidates for parliament be directly elected by voters rather than being selected by party leaders, as is currently the case. According to news reports, more than 300,000 Italians signed Grillo’s petition.

Grillo’s targets predictably have bristled at his attacks. Some have called him a demagogue, even a Mussolini in the making. Mauro Mazza, the director of the public TV channel RAI 2, went so far as to suggest that Grillo’s rhetoric might incite assassinations of politicians. Less heatedly, Premier Romano Prodi, who Grillo calls “Valium” for his soporific speaking style, said, “You can't run a country as if it was a comedy show. Democracy is operated by political parties.”  

But Grillo’s crusade has struck a chord with Italians, and apparently with many more than those who signed the petitions circulated at the V-Day rallies. After V-Day, opinion pollster Renato Mannheimer reported an amazing finding: fully 50 per cent of Italians either definitely would, or would consider voting for Grillo if he were to run for office.

Beppe Grillo, a burly, bearded, Falstaffian character who studied to be an accountant before turning to comedy, was popular with disaffected Italians long before V-Day. Like Sabina Guzzanti, he was banned from television, in 1986, after making a rude joke about former Socialist premier Bettino Craxi. As The Independent’s  Peter Popham noted, Grillo, denied small-screen exposure, “has built a huge following with stage shows; and indignation against the corruption and hypocrisy of Italian politics and business have been at the heart of his act for two decades.”

But now that Grillo has himself entered the political realm, as an activist if not yet a candidate, his ideas and proposals increasingly will be under critical scrutiny.  

Valerio Volpi, a political scientist at the University of Bari, and I have engaged in an e-mail dialogue about Italian politics since I read his excellent analysis of the political role of the Vatican at the leftist website Counterpunch. (More on that later.) Volpi says he appreciates Grillo’s activism and agrees with much of his analysis.

“But I don't agree with everything he says,” Volpi told me. “For example, I would not limit the right to run for Parliament to no more than two terms of office, and I believe parties are an important feature of a political system. But it is very true that those who have been convicted should not sit in Parliament.”

But here Volpi makes a distinction: “It’s one thing to be convicted because you called somebody [in the government] an asshole, or because you resisted police assaults during a demonstration; a very different matter is being convicted for very serious crimes, such as mafia, embezzlement, and other corruption.”

Volpi cites two senators, both from ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, who have been convicted for serious offenses yet still remain in Parliament: Cesare Previti,  convicted of bribing judges in Rome, and Marcello Dell’Utri, a Sicilian who received a nine-year sentence for Mafia association. 

Then there’s Berlusconi himself, who, as Volpi says, “has always been able to get away with it not because he was innocent, but thanks to the laws passed by his majority or to statute-barred crimes. And, of course, we should not forget [former premier and current Senator for Life Giulio] Andreotti, whose connections to the Mafia were also statute-barred.”

Grillo, according to Volpi, does not make these kinds of critical distinctions when he rails against convicted legislators.

Genuflecting Before the Vatican

As I mentioned earlier, I started corresponding with Valerio Volpi after reading his Counterpunch article, “The Catholic Church, Incorporated.” In Ian Fisher’s New York Times article, the Church gets only a brief mention, as a once dominant cultural force now reduced to a special interests lobby. But Volpi demonstrates how the Roman Catholic Church is as much a part of Italy’s dysfunction as its political system.

“Just like a corporation, it wields enormous political and economic power and lobbies Parliament to get economic favors, such as tax breaks or state funds,” Volpi writes.

He excoriates the politicians who carry the Vatican’s water, those of both the center-right and center-left coalitions who “are always ready to genuflect before the Vatican's high or low hierarchies.” He singles out Deputy Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, who attended the sanctification of Escrivà de Balaguer, founder of the ultra-conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and “a collaborator of Spanish Fascist dictator Francisco Franco and an admirer of [the late Chilean dictator Augusto]Pinochet,” as well as current culture minister and former mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli.

Rutelli, who began his political career in the anti-clerical, pro-choice and pro-gay rights Radical Party, is now, says Volpi, “one of Italy's chief theo-cons, one of the most stalwart supporters of U.S. militarism, and Catholic Church diktats on abortion, gay rights, euthanasia and so forth and so on.”

“Thanks to such subservience on the part of Italy's top politicians,” Volpi says, “the Catholic Church enjoys economic privileges which sound outrageous for all those Italians who regularly pay their taxes, and see them going not to healthcare, education, or the environment, but, rather, into the coffers of an entity representing a minority of the Italian people.”

Volpi, in an e-mail to me after the publication of his article, observed that although only about 30 percent of Italians regularly attend Mass, “the Vatican and the Catholic Church still have a strong grip on part of the Italian society thanks to their propaganda.  A minority, but still a large enough number of votes to determine the fate of a single politician, a party, or even a coalition.”

Secularism Under Attack

The problem, Volpi says, is not that Rutelli and others publicly profess their Catholicism. “Former President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who is profoundly Catholic and has never hidden his religious beliefs, has stated, ‘the State is secular because it is everybody's home, and nobody can set their own seals or put up their insignia on it. It is the home of those who believe, those who believe differently, and those who believe in nothing. The important thing is that state laws are complied with’.”

“Therefore, you can be a true Catholic and still believe that the state Constitution and laws are the main benchmarks; and you can be a false, self-serving Catholic, like Rutelli, ready to kneel before the clergy, whatever it says in defiance of Republican laws and the Constitution.”

Right now one official is proving Volpi’s assertion that members of both political coalitions aid and abet the Vatican’s interference in government. Senator Paola Binetti of the Democrats, the largest party in the center-left coalition, has announced her support for a bill proposed by Forza Italia and championed by the Vatican that would curtail abortion rights. Senator Binetti is a celibate member of Opus Dei, the Catholic cult favored by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and she mortifies her flesh by wearing a cilice, a spiked belt fastened around the thigh.

 Bondage fetishist Binetti almost caused the government to fall in December 2007 when she opposed Prodi in a confidence vote over a clause added to a bill providing that discrimination based on sexual preference could carry a prison sentence. Prodi won by only two votes.

                          “Libera Chiesa in Libero Stato” – “a free Church in a free State,” the principle espoused by Count Cavour, modern Italy’s first prime minister, and enshrined in the Constitution, establishes a separation between the Italian nation and the Catholic Church. It is, says Valerio Volpi, “a principle completely forgotten in today's Italy.”















DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
Questo lavoro non può essere riprodotto, in tutto o in parte, senza permesso scritto.