The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: February 13, 2004
Outspoken priest is cheerleader for Italy's prime minister
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In Italy, Fr. Gianni Baget Bozzo needs no introduction. He may be the best-known and most controversial priest in the country, and certainly the most likely to pop up on Italian equivalents of Meet the Press.
For those outside the country, however, one way to understand this 78-year-old priest-politician is as an Italian Catholic analogue of Pat Robertson, the American preacher-cum-presidential candidate who does not hesitate to apply theological, even apocalyptic, language to current events.
When Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of his entry into politics with a 100-minute oration before a massive Rome rally, he read aloud, in its entirety, a laudatory essay by Baget Bozzo. The priest from Genoa boldly defined Berlusconis launch of his Forza Italia party in 1994 as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and Berlusconi himself as a spiritual event.
In a Feb. 2 interview with NCR, Baget Bozzo added that he believes Berlusconi was called by God to lay waste to the threat of communism in Italy.
Berlusconi, a real estate and media tycoon said to be Italys richest man, first captured the prime ministers job in 1994, but his government collapsed after a few months. He won again in 2001, leading a coalition that includes his center-right Forza Italia party, the conservative National Alliance (heir to the old Fascist party), and the Northern League, a regional movement with a strong anti-immigrant stance.
Because he tends to speak in hyperbole, its often hard to know just how to take Baget Bozzo.
Veteran Italian church-watcher Alberto Melloni told NCR Feb. 3 that Baget Bozzos antics are more funny than serious, and that he has always been attracted by this narcissistic role of spiritual adviser of political leaders -- no matter who they are or what they specifically think.
During the 1960s, Baget Bozzo was a key aide to Genoas archconservative Cardinal Giuseppe Siri. In the 1980s, Baget Bozzo was an intimate of former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who, despite his party affiliation, was actually a conservative. In between, however, Baget Bozzo flirted with the left, becoming a columnist for the left-wing Roman daily La Repubblica.
Others say Baget Bozzo is more significant.
Don Gianni is more than a court jester for Berlusconi, said James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome. Hes an intellectual, hes a priest and he was Craxis eminence grise, a good complement to Berlusconis own business, secular and down-to-earth image.
As a priest who wears his Roman collar to every Forza Italia rally, Baget Bozzo is more than an Italian political curiosity. His role illustrates one of the unresolved tensions of Pope John Paul IIs papacy, which is how much political activity by a priest is too much. The fact that the drama plays out on the Roman stage amplifies its significance, since the leaders of local churches all over the Catholic world are formed here -- and if something is OK in Rome, its likely to get a clean bill of health elsewhere.
In recent days, rumors had swirled that Baget Bozzo, who still lives in Genoa, would be reined in by his new archbishop, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Yet Baget Bozzo told NCR Feb. 2 that a meeting with Bertone earlier that day went perfectly, meaning that no instructions were given to distance himself from Berlusconi or the party.
At most, sources suggested, Bertone might write a letter to Baget Bozzo counseling him to avoid unworthy acts of a partisan nature.
Some may be tempted to conclude that differing standards exist for priest-politicians in the Catholic church based on whether they tilt left or right. Examples of tougher reactions to liberals: Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan was compelled to leave the U.S. Congress in 1981; three Nicaraguan priests were suspended in 1984 for refusing to leave the Sandinista government; and in 2002, Peruvian Fr. Salvador Espinoza was suspended after being elected as a regional governor.
One obvious difference is that those priests actually held political office, whereas Baget Bozzo is an informal counselor and advocate. In fairness, too, Baget Bozzo has done time in the ecclesiastical penalty box. He was suspended from 1985 to 1994, after having run for the European Parliament as a member of Craxis Socialist Party.
Since his alliance with Berlusconi, however, no such measures have been decreed.
As far as political spin goes, Karl Rove and James Carville have nothing on this loquacious priest.
The government of Berlusconi is the best government for the Catholic church in the Republican epoch, Baget Bozzo told NCR Feb. 2, referring to the era that began with the unification of Italy in 1870 and the collapse of the Papal States.
Its a bold claim, given that the old Christian Democratic party that came to power in 1948 was more or less officially aligned with the Catholic church. Yet, Baget Bozzo insisted, the Christian Democrats brought abortion and divorce to Italy.
Baget Bozzo ticked off financial aid to families, support for private schools, and opposition to civil registration for same-sex couples as examples of Berlusconi's pro-church agenda.
What about the U.S.-led war in Iraq, where the pope and the Italian church were solidly against the war while Berlusconi backed it?
That was a matter of Vatican diplomacy, not church doctrine, Baget Bozzo said.
He described Berlusconis election as a victory for the Catholic people over the Catholic culture of Italy. By culture, Baget Bozzo meant a cluster of Catholic associations and publications -- including peace groups, labor unions, and periodicals such as Famiglia Cristiana and Jesus published by the Pauline religious community -- traditionally associated with center-left causes.
Berlusconi himself has an ambiguous connection with the church, since he is divorced and civilly remarried without an annulment. Yet Baget Bozzo defended him as a believer, although non-practicing, and someone who has a great love for the faith.
Does that mean Berlusconi takes his cues from the hierarchy?
As a believer, his first loyalty is to Jesus Christ, Baget Bozzo said. But hes much more sensitive to the connection between the faith and the policies of his government than the Christian Democrats.
However, many Italians believe that Berlusconis agenda, from laws governing TV ownership to grants of immunity from criminal prosecution for top government officials, seems to be motivated by rather naked self-interest.
Berlusconi is an excellent moral example, because he represents the Italy that works, Baget Bozzo said. Hes a self-made man. His wealth means that hes independent, not a toy of the economic and political forces that for so long dominated politics here.
Does Baget Bozzo ever worry that hes too political?
Im giving a voice to the millions of Catholics in this country who have been inspired to support Berlusconi, he said. No bishop, no priest had the courage to do this. Actually, very few of them even knew Berlusconi, because theyre almost all on the left -- the Paulines, Civiltà Cattolica, all of them.
Berlusconi has made his political career as an anti-communist, and Baget Bozzo said he picked up where the church left off.
Had the church been more saintly, there would have been no need of Berlusconi, he said. But there has been great doctrinal confusion, and a destabilization of theology. The pro-communist current, with its love of worldly power, is very strong.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004
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