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Pope receives ex-communist Italian leader

NCR Staff

In a move that may betoken healing of old wounds between the Vatican and Italy’s communists, John Paul II was to receive Massimo D’Alema, the Italian prime minister and leader of a party of “reformed communists,” in an official state visit Jan. 8.

John Paul agreed to meet D’Alema despite strong criticism of the new prime minister in the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

D’Alema, his wife and two sons, accompanied by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, were to meet John Paul in the papal library, where the pontiff typically receives heads of state. D’Alema was the fifth Italian prime minister to make an official visit to John Paul.

The Vatican and Italy’s communists traditionally have been bitter political foes. Since World War II, Italy’s communist party was the strongest in Western Europe, but it never led one of the country’s 56 postwar governments because of staunch opposition from the Vatican and the leading Catholic party, the Christian Democrats.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it was still known as the Holy Office, famously put matters this way in the 1950s: “You can say whatever you like about the divinity of Christ, but in the remotest village in Sicily, you vote communist and your excommunication will arrive the next day.”

The relationship began to change under John XXIII and Paul VI, whose “Ostpolitik,” a policy of peaceful coexistence, was ostensibly directed at the communist regimes in Eastern Europe but also produced a softening of anti-communist rhetoric in Italy. Conservatives complained the policy cost the Christian Democrats votes since it appeared to give Italian Catholics permission to support leftists.

Under John Paul, there was an initial return to a tough anti-communist stance, but that too evolved with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the visit of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to the Vatican in 1989.

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Italian Communist Party splintered. The largest wing moved toward the center, renaming itself the Democratic Party of the Left, while the old guard formed the Communist Refounding Party. D’Alema became the leader of the centrist party. For the past two and one-half years D’Alema was a key supporter of the government of Romano Prodi, a Christian Democrat and practicing Catholic.

When Prodi’s government collapsed in late October, D’Alema put together a coalition that relied in part on a Catholic party, the Democratic Union of the Republic. D’Alema pledged to continue privatizing state industries and to maintain the fiscal conservatism that had allowed Italy to participate in the launch of the euro on Jan. 4. In a further repudiation of his Marxist past, D’Alema told Italian radio Nov. 30 that it irritated him to be called a “former communist.”

None of that was enough to satisfy the editors of L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, who derided D’Alema as an “apparatchik of the former Communist Party” in the wake of his election. The paper lamented that D’Alema came to power 50 years after the 1948 elections, which represented a “hard-won victory of liberty and democracy over communism.”

John Paul, however, distanced himself from this criticism, calling D’Alema a “very serious man” in an interview with an Italian newspaper.

For his part, D’Alema has made several conciliatory moves toward the church. He named six Christian Democrats to cabinet posts. In a term laden with significance for Europeans, D’Alema addressed the pope as “Holy Father” in a letter praising his recent statements on human rights.

Italian politicians usually refer to the pope as “Signor Papa,” literally “Mr. Pope,” expressing the pontiff’s status as a head of state rather than a religious leader. French diplomats likewise call the pope the “Sovereign Pontiff.” D’Alema’s choice of words was treated in the Italian press as a gesture of respect for John Paul.

The 40-minute meeting between the pope and D’Alema on Jan. 8 would be “a fruitful visit for the church and the Italian state,” said Dominican Fr. Georges Cottier, the theologian of the papal household, in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa before the event.

Cardinal Pio Laghi, head of the Congregation for Catholic Education and an avowed anti-Marxist himself, also spoke positively of the visit. He told the newspaper Liberazione that in view of the coming Jubilee marking the new millennium, he expects relations between the Vatican and the Italian government will be “as tight as possible.”

Other Vatican spokespersons played down the significance of the event, pointing out that D’Alema is the 10th former communist to become a European head of state and visit the Vatican since 1989. He is the first Italian ex-communist to do so, however.

La Stampa suggested that D’Alema was motivated not simply by a desire to heal a historic wound but also to ensure the stability of his government by shoring up Catholic support. Italy’s parliamentary system is notoriously fluid; Prodi’s government at two and one-half years was the second-longest in the postwar period.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999