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VATICAN LETTER Jan-28-2011 (930 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

'Bunga bunga': Vatican tiptoes around latest Berlusconi scandal

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi looks on during a news conference at Chigi Palace in Rome Jan. 26. (CNS/Reuters)

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The uproar over the latest sex scandal involving Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has found Vatican and other church leaders mostly keeping mum, hesitant to be perceived as meddling in politics.

Although clear moral issues are involved -- Berlusconi is being investigated on accusations of having relations with an underage Moroccan and paying other women to engage in sex parties -- the Vatican's media have yet to report on the saga, which has been front-page news in Italy for weeks.

Italian bishops have limited themselves to oblique references to morality in civil life, choosing not to mention Berlusconi's name.

The episode illustrates the limitations on the church's role in a country that, despite its overwhelmingly Catholic population, has a long history of resentment over clerical interference in politics.

"Toward the Holy See, (Italian) political power has a mixed attitude: reverence for its huge moral influence, and indifference or even impatience when it tries to enter the political arena," said Massimo Franco, who covers the church and politics for the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Franco told Catholic News Service that one reason the Vatican has been cautious is that it doesn't see any real alternative to Berlusconi, at least not yet.

"It considers the Italian center-left too liberal and hostile. But that creates a slippery situation: moral divergences and political alliances are more and more at odds," he said.

The Berlusconi scandal centers on his relationship with a young Moroccan known as "Ruby," who at the age of 17 attended parties at the premier's residence and, in exchange, reportedly received gifts, including jewels and large amounts of money. According to Italian press reports, she and other girls told investigators that Berlusconi hosted what he called "bunga bunga" parties that involved stripteases and sexual acts.

Berlusconi has defended his pleasure-seeking lifestyle but denied paying for sex. He has portrayed himself as the victim of politically motivated prosecutors, who are investigating him for allegedly using his office to cover up the scandal.

Reactions to the revelations have threatened Berlusconi's hold on power, and Italian and other media have tried their best to drag Pope Benedict XVI into the fray. When the pope, addressing Rome policemen in mid-January, made a bland comment on the need for morality in civil society, one headline the next day read: "Ruby: The condemnation of the Vatican."

In fact, the pope and his aides have been careful to avoid any hint of taking sides. The head of the Italian bishops' conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, tried to walk a middle line, referring to reports of "behavior contrary to public decorum," but also questioning why these reports have received so much attention from investigating magistrates.

Anyone expecting the church's "excommunication" of the prime minister has been disappointed, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale commented.

The church's low-profile approach may reflect the fact that when the Vatican or the bishops take too specific aim at political figures, there's often a public backlash.

"The church is not looking for sinners to hang from poles or to burn in the public square. It is seeking the salvation of souls, the good of individuals and the good of all," Father Piero Gheddo, an Italian missionary and commentator, told the newspaper Il Foglio.

"The church evaluates politicians on the facts, not so much on their private life," he said.

In short, the prevailing attitude among Italian church leaders is that a politician's personal moral failings are best addressed in the confessional, not in the pulpit.

The problem posed by Berlusconi is that he claims to work in the church's best interests -- which may be true on certain issues like aid to private schools, but not when the premier, now twice-divorced, shows up for the church's annual "Family Day" celebration of traditional values.

After meeting Pope Benedict in 2008, Berlusconi proclaimed their common views on "the sacred nature of the human person and the family" -- and gave the pope a jewel-studded crucifix.

The German pope has tended to de-emphasize the church hierarchy as a political player in Italy. In a major address to Italian Catholics in 2006, he said it was the responsibility of Catholic laypeople -- and not the church as an institution -- to bring the Gospel to political life, operating "as citizens under their own responsibility."

There are historical reasons why such a strategy makes sense in Italy, where the church's temporal and political power of past centuries is still a source of resentment. In March, Italy is celebrating 150 years as a unified nation, and for the church it's a reminder of a painful transition that included the loss of the Papal States.

After decades of revolts that were resisted by popes, the first Italian Parliament proclaimed an Italian kingdom in 1861 and declared Rome to be its capital. Pope Pius IX told Catholics not to support this effort, under threat of excommunication. Rome was defended by the papal army for years, but was captured in 1870. Pope Pius declared himself a prisoner in the Vatican -- a situation that was repaired only in 1929, when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made a treaty that regulated the church's position and its much-reduced territories in Italy.

Italians often point to those events to explain persistent anti-clericalism and antipathy toward the church as a political actor.

The upcoming 150th anniversary celebrations will give Vatican and Italian church leaders a chance to revisit that chapter of history, and perhaps draw some lessons in church-state relations. If the past is any guide, "Rubygate" and "bunga bunga" will not be part of that reflection.


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